Memo discussing Portland’s previous response to gun violence and how the City might approach this issue moving forward
Date: January 20, 2021
From: Derek Bradley, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s Policy Director
RE: Gun Violence in Portland
In preparation for tomorrow’s Work Session on upcoming Council priorities I wanted to share this memo discussing Portland’s previous response to gun violence and how the City might approach this issue moving forward. The hurt and suffering caused by the increase in shootings across the city is real and demands a response from the City Council. Commissioner Hardesty is thankful for the conversation Mayor Wheeler is leading on this topic and the work he and his office are pursuing to address this problem. As the Mayor eloquently put it at the beginning of last week’s Martin Luther King Day Proclamation hearing “it’s up to all of us to dispel fiction with fact… we must be purposeful as we work towards creating lasting change.” An approach like the one the Mayor outlined to address the problem of gun violence is the type of policy making Commissioner Hardesty is supportive of and she looks forward to working with the Mayor on this problem.
With the increase of gun violence in Portland some have begun calling for the reinstitution of the Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT). However, the data does not support that the GVRT has helped reduce shootings or that it’s defunding added to the rise in shootings in Portland. In fact, the data refutes such claims. But what the data does show is that the GVRT had a disproportionate impact on Black Portlanders. I have prepared this memo to share some of the data driven reasons why Commissioner Hardesty is opposed to the re-creation of the GVRT and to help provide some background information to the City’s new Commissioners. Commissioner Hardesty is committed to working with Mayor Wheeler and the rest of Council to find new and innovative ways to address this increase in gun violence.
It is indisputable that Portland has seen an alarming increase in gun violence in recent months. However, this trend has occurred across the nation, regardless of whether a city has done away with a gun violence specialty unit. Looking only at Portland the data does not support that the city’s increase in gun violence was tied to defunding of the GVRT. The city defunded the task force in July 2020, but June 2020 saw a doubling of shootings from June 2019. Additionally, three of the five months from January 2020-May 2020 exceeded or tied the highest level of monthly shootings that occurred throughout all of 2019. This occurred after the GVRT had been in place for over a year and before the discussion of defunding the specialty unit had gained traction within City Hall. This trend was even acknowledged by the Portland Police Bureau in early April 2020.
Unfortunately, the level of data available starting in January 2019 around shootings is not available from prior to then, but the data that is available further calls into question the impact that the GVRT has had on shootings and gun homicides. 2018 saw 21 homicides involving shootings. 2019 saw an increase in homicide shootings to 27 despite this being the first full year that the GVRT was operating. The questionable impact of programs like the GVRT does not stop with the City of Portland. Programs of a similar design have largely failed to deliver long term reductions in gun violence across the country.
What is clear, however, is that Portland’s GVRT has had a disproportionate impact on Black Portlanders. In 2019 the GVRT made over 1,600 stops, over half of them were Black people. This despite the fact that Black Portlanders make up only about 6% of the City’s population and were less likely to be found to have contraband than white Portlanders who were stopped.
There have been numerous attempts across the country to find police alternatives to address gun violence. Many of them, however, have not resulted in data supported outcomes. One possible exception to this trend is Richmond, California’s Operation Peacemaker Fellowship Program. While it may or may not be a model that fits the needs of Portland it is the type of mentality, and data supported results, that Commissioner Hardesty is hoping will drive the City Council’s discussion about how to address this increase in gun violence. One approach that Commissioner Hardesty is excited about is finding ways for the Office of Violence Prevention to work hand in hand with the Office of Community and Civic Life to address this problem and making sure that work is properly resourced. I hope you and your offices find this memo useful in your deliberations about how to address this increase in shootings and that we can use fact to dispel fiction and work towards creating a lasting safer Portland for everyone.
 Champe Barton & Brian Freskos & Daniel Nass, A Historic Surge in Gun Violence Compounds the Traumas of 2020, The Trace, Dec 21 2020, https://www.thetrace.org/2020/12/shootings-data-philadelphia-cleveland-chicago-gun-violence/
 Jonathan Levinson, Portland Shootings Increase Despite Stay At Home Order, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Apr 9 2020, https://www.opb.org/news/article/portland-shootings-increase-despite-stay-at-home-order/
 Portland Police Bureau, Shooting Incident Statistics Walkthrough & Overview Guide, https://www.portlandoregon.gov/police/article/780082
 Maxine Bernstein, 33 homicides in Portland in 2018 involved victims ranging in age from 18 to 89, The Oregonian, Jan 1 2019, https://www.oregonlive.com/crime/2019/01/32-homicides-in-portland-in-2018-involved-victims-ranging-in-age-from-18-to-89.html
 Maxine Bernstein, 36 homicides in Portland in 2019 involved victims ranging in age from 18 to 65, The Oregonian, Jan 2 2020, https://www.oregonlive.com/crime/2020/01/35-homicides-in-portland-in-2019-involved-victims-ranging-in-age-from-18-to-65.html
 Jonathan Levinson, Gun Violence Reduction Programs Struggle With Long-Term Success, Oregon Public Broadcasting, May 6 2020, https://www.opb.org/news/article/gun-violence-reduction-programs-struggle-long-term-success
 Maxine Bernstein, In 2019, the Portland police Gun Violence team made 1,600 stops. More than half were Black people., The Oregonian, Nov 19 2020, https://www.oregonlive.com/crime/2020/11/in-2019-the-portland-police-gun-violence-team-made-1600-stops-more-than-half-were-black-people.html#:~:text=More%20than%20half%20were%20Black%20people.,-Updated%20Nov%2019&text=Black%20people%20made%20up%2052,if%20the%20driver%20was%20Black.
 Ellicott Matthay et al., Firearm and Nonfirearm Violence After Operation Peacemaker Fellowship in Richmond, California, 1996-2016, American Journal of Public Health, Sep 19 2019, available at: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305288?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub++0pubmed&