Portland is on pace to surpass its all-time record for homicides this year as its police department is grappling with a surge in gang-related shootings amidst a staffing shortage and continued calls for defunding.
As of Thursday, there have been 37 homicides in Oregon’s largest city so far this year, more than six times the number recorded in the same period last year, according to The Associated Press. The city’s current annual record for homicides is 70, set in 1987.
"People are scared. They are angry. They are fed up," Portland Police Sgt. Ken Duilio told the news agency.
When Portland had a rampant gang problem 30 years ago, detectives were stunned if they found more than a few dozen bullet casings after a shooting. Now, police are recording multiple shootings a week with 50 to 70 shots fired, and in one case more than 150, as gang attacks and retaliatory shootings again spiral into a vicious cycle.
"This touches all of us," Portland Pastor Matt Hennessee, a longtime anti-gun violence activist whose 33-year-old stepson was shot and killed in a parking lot in May, told The Associated Press. "I have lived here for 32 years and I have always seen this city as a safe place. This is not the Portland that we know."
Police estimate half of Portland’s 470 shootings this year, which have injured more than 140 people, are gang-related.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler warned last month that perpetrators are being told by gangs to shoot someone within 30 days or be shot and that people are traveling from other states to engage in violence in the Rose City.
Portland’s pervasive gang violence in the 1990s -- when it was estimated that there were 2,500 people in up to 600 gangs in the area -- left a crimson stain on recent city history. But now, after the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Black Lives Matter protests demanding change following the murder of George Floyd and a diminishing police presence, community leaders say the problem has returned.
While the number of shootings is comparable to the ’90s, police and residents say the boldness of the shooters and number of shots fired surpass what they have seen before. Gangs are also no longer waiting for the typical "tit-for-tat" cycle in the targeting of a rival, but instead immediately shooting again at places such as vigils — injuring up to seven people at a single event, The Associated Press reports.
"You have multiple shooters -- that’s kind of a new phenomenon -- multiple guns and lots of shots being fired," said Duilio, who added more gunshots increases the odds of bystanders being hit, including most recently a newspaper carrier, Uber driver and city bus driver.
"There are a lot of bullets being fired in this area -- all over the place," Duilio added. "But the police bureau is underfunded, understaffed and under supported."
The rise in violence comes at a time when the Portland Police Bureau’s staffing is at its lowest in decades -- the department is more than 100 officers short of "authorized strength," as determined by the city.
In the past nine months, the department has experienced a rapid turnover with more than 120 officers having left the department, many citing low morale and burnout from nightly racial justice protests that would end in confrontation and plumes of tear gas.
Despite police pleas for more personnel, city leaders slashed $27 million from the police budget -- $11 million due to the pandemic-caused budget crisis and $15 million amid calls to defund the police -- vowing to devote money to community groups working to curb gun violence.
"Police can’t prevent shootings," said Portland activist Royal Harris. "That part of it, we as a community have to work together to prevent these things instead of looking at it as a police approach."
Officials also disbanded a specialized unit focused on curbing gun violence that had long faced criticism for disproportionately targeting people of color.
"You took away the gun violence reduction team. There is nobody in this city doing traffic stops of these armed, violent shooters traveling the city looking for their rivals to shoot and who are going to vigils and lighting up an entire crowd," said Duilio.
Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to the City Council and who pushed to cut the unit, maintains disbanding the team last summer was the right decision.
"The police have a role but their role is simply to solve crime -- their role is not to prevent crime, their role is not to intervene in other community activities," Hardesty told KOIN 6 last month. "A response to gun violence should not be a knee-jerk reaction."
However, as gun violence continued into 2021, leaders were forced to re-evaluate. More officers have been assigned to shootings, the police bureau has teamed up with the FBI to investigate crimes and the U.S. Attorney for Oregon has ramped up efforts to prosecute gun violence cases. But efforts to "refund" even a portion of the cuts have been controversial.
In addition, City Council voted to create a team of 12 officers and two sergeants to address gun violence, but with no additional funds.
Chief Chuck Lovell said the department is "so lean right now" that officials will likely have to pull officers from patrol, domestic violence or human trafficking investigations to support the new team.
Duilio said while funding organizations and social services is important, it is only a portion of the solution and should not compete with police funding.
"They both need to happen," Duilio said. "If you can get a 15-year-old and get him on the right track where he is not involved in shootings every other week, that is great. But to really quell this intense level of violence that we are seeing right now, it is going to take uniform police officers to stop those cars that are traveling from Point A to Point B for a shooting."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.