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Gun Violence in Portland

 

 In 2019, there were 426 reported incidents of gunfire in Portland, Oregon. 110 people were struck by gunfire during this time period as well, which means on average, every three days, an individual in the City of Portland is struck by gunfire.

The Portland Police Bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT) combines police investigations, technology and relationships with the community to respond to and help prevent further violence.   

 Link: Gun Violence Reduction Team City Council Presentation

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Transcript:

Announcer:
Welcome to Talking Beat the podcast for the Portland Police Bureau. We're focusing on thoughtful conversations that we hope will inform and provide you with a small glimpse of work performed by Portland police officers as well as issues affecting public safety in our city. Here's what's on today's show.

AC Shearer:
We want to be in a position where we have built relationships and have the trust of community members so they know that our goal is not just to arrest people, incarcerate them, and put them in prison for that will not stop this problem. What will stop the problem is a combination of all these different factors working together in unison under a common goal. We want to get to a place where we can disrupt this cycle of violence and reach people before they make that decision and pull the trigger that changes their life and someone else's life.

Host:
On today's podcast, we have Assistant Chief, Andy Shearer. Andy oversees the bureau's investigations branch, which includes detectives, family services, the transit police, property evidence, and the Tactical Operations Division. What we're focusing on today is gun violence and specifically the gun violence reduction team or GVRT as we call them. We're also talking to Sergeant Ken Dulio and Officer Jason Hubert. Thank you all for being here today. Let's start with the boss. Andy, tell me about the shootings in the city. How many are we talking about?

AC Shearer:
Well, shootings in the city of Portland, I mean in perspective, we fall right between New York City and Austin, Texas. In terms of violent crime. I think we're 21st in the nation in terms of violent crimes, we're relatively low as far as major size cities go, but that being said, we have big city problems here. In 2019, there were 426 reported incidents of gunfire right here in Portland. 110 people were struck by gunfire during this year as well, which means on average little over every three days, somebody's actually getting struck by gunfire here in the city of Portland.

Host:
I think people will be surprised at that number. It's a very large number. Where are they occurring and who's impacted?

AC Shearer:
I think you might be surprised that they're actually occurring in all corners of the city, both sides of the river, North Portland, East Portland, downtown. They're not confined to just one geographic area. You know, there's 426 reported incidents of gunfire in the city and 110 people got struck. Of those 110 people, 88 of them survived their injuries. But there's of course, the lasting physical trauma and emotional trauma that they and their loved ones are going to have to live with for the rest of their lives. But I think what's almost as disturbing as those numbers is the number of people ... we have 272 people that we know of that were intended victims that were shot at that didn't get struck. That's 272 people that narrowly missed losing their lives to gunfire.

AC Shearer:
And we know of another 140 unintended victims. So those are people that might not even have been to the person that was shooting the gun. They were just down range from that gunfire and were fortunate enough to be missed. So of the people that are directly impacted by gun violence, we know that about 95% of those are male. 76% of the people that are directly impacted by homicides and injury shootings are adults. Very few of them are under 18. This is going to probably be surprising to a lot of people, the average age of a person impacted by homicide, whether it's being a victim or a suspect, is 35 years old. And the average age of somebody impacted by an injury shooting is 31 years old. The vast majority of people impacted by gun violence have had prior criminal justice system involvement.

AC Shearer:
When it comes to homicides, the suspects and victims are, we say people that are impacted by homicides directly, are about 48% Caucasian, 38% African American. And when it comes to injury shootings where people didn't actually die, the people directly impacted are about 51% African American, 39% Caucasian. We know here in Portland that the African American population makes up about 5.7% of the overall population. The disparity that exists in how much they are directly impacted by gun violence here in the city of Portland is, I mean frankly staggering. And there is no group more directly and disproportionately affected by gun violence here in Portland than African American males.

Host:
Those numbers are staggering. So let's talk about the response. I know the Police Bureau did some reallocation and made some changes to the gun violence reduction team. Tell me a little bit about what happened in 2018.

AC Shearer:
Well, in 2018 after review of shootings that had been occurring in the city, we realized that there had been a steady escalation in the number of shootings between 2013 and 2018. So we wanted to be more deliberate and focus specific resources on combating gun violence overall. We used to have what we refer to as the gang enforcement team and their job was to focus on essentially gang members involved in criminal activity. It wasn't necessarily shootings, but if you're a gang member involved in criminal activity, that was their focus. What we did is we took the gang enforcement team ... the members of the gang enforcement team, we added detectives to the team. We added several officers and made the very deliberate decision that the gun violence reduction team was going to be focused on gun violence in the city of Portland, regardless of what the cause was or what the root ... the reasons were for that violence were.

Host:
What are the advantages of doing that with? What was the advantages of bringing that whole team together like that?

AC Shearer:
The advantage of bringing all the team together like that was now we could get a clear picture of what truly was happening here in the city of Portland. Because prior to that, the data collection was not as specific as it probably should have been. So now if there is a shooting incident anywhere in the city of Portland, the gun violence reduction team tracks all of that. It doesn't matter whether it's a suicide, whether it's a robbery, whether it's a homicide, whether it's domestic violence, whether there's a group dynamic involved. It doesn't matter what the reason was for the violence, but the gun violence reduction team is going to put hands on that incident and then look into every single one of them.

Host:
Okay, so there's a 911 call about a shooting. Tell me, talk me through what happens then.

AC Shearer:
Typically, when there's a shooting incident that occurs, somebody calls 911, whether it's a neighbor or passer-by, somebody hears shots. So your uniform precinct personnel are typically the first ones on scene. And they try to secure the scene and make it safe, render immediate aid to anybody who might be injured. And shortly thereafter a GVRT is notified. Sometimes we have GVRT members working that actually come right to the scene without even being notified. But other times, depending on the hours of the day, they might get paged out to respond. When GVRT responds to the scene, they take over responsibility for that entire investigation. They canvas the neighborhoods, they look for witnesses, they try to recover any security video footage that people might have that might have captured the incident. They're very deliberate about collecting up all the forensic evidence that's there at the scene. I think people are familiar with shell casings, so all the shell casings are recovered there.

AC Shearer:
There's a national database that's run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. So through our partnership with them and the US attorney's office and others, we've been able to acquire cutting edge technology right here in the city of Portland that those members of GVRT utilize to process that evidence that we recovered at the scenes. And through that evidence that we recover, we're oftentimes able to generate leads that might not previously have existed. And something else we're able to do is to tie shootings together. And what we've found on numerous occasions is that some of these guns that are using gun violence here in the city of Portland are used many, many times, which is telling us that there's people in the city that are serial shooters. That there's a relatively small number of folks that are probably responsible for the bulk of the amount of shootings that happen right here in the city.

AC Shearer:
Depending on the motive behind the shooting that occurs has a lot to do with who we assign to the case. We have a domestic violence reduction unit here in the city of Portland, so if we know this is a domestic violence related shooting, we have the detectives that are assigned to the domestic violence unit investigate that. If it is a homicide, of course we've got homicide detectives that investigate that, but the reality is that the bulk of these shootings, way over 200 shootings each year, fall to the gun violence reduction team. The shootings fall into a category where we can't clearly define what the motive was initially a lot of times, and so GVRT is the responsible unit for investigating almost all the shootings in the city of Portland.

Host:
Tell me about those investigations. What are some of the challenges?

AC Shearer:
Well, there's a lot of challenges with the shooting cases because they're time consuming and labor intensive, but part of the reason for that is a lot of times the witnesses refuse to share what they know. Which creates obviously, added difficulty and delay in solving these cases. So it's really as oftentimes the victims themselves, even those who are gravely injured, refuse to share info about the crime even when they might be able to name the person who tried to take their life. It's understandable in some cases, we don't blame the victim for their reservations, but the people that engage in gun violence and shoot indiscriminately, they might retaliate against victims if they learn the victim talked to the police. They intimidate witnesses and victims and create fear that those who talk might be killed or their friends or even family members might be targeted for violence.

AC Shearer:
And frankly sometimes the victims or even those close to them, would rather go out and seek vengeance in the form of retaliatory shooting to even the score. And that is extremely troubling to us because it further exacerbates the problem and the cycle of additional shootings and follow on retaliatory shootings go on and on. And right here in Portland we've experienced this and sometimes these retaliatory shootings can continue for years and years and involve generations of people. Shooting investigations are, like I said, time consuming and they're different than a lot of other investigations. Now we have ... there's been a lot of talk recently about traffic fatalities here in the city of Portland and those are tragic. They affect every corner of this community. And it is absolutely something that we should not tolerate here in the city of Portland. But something that's a little different between gun violence and people that die in traffic collisions is a lot of times that we know this and the data tells us this, that gun violence begets more gun violence.

AC Shearer:
If you're harmed by a gun, you're much more likely to be harmed again or to harm somebody else. Where in traffic fatalities, it's tragic, but what you don't have is the friends and family of the victim potentially going out the following weekend with their cars to try to run into other people, to even the score. And that's exactly what happens with gun violence. It's a continuation of the cycle and that's why it's so critical that we break it. I don't want to make it seem like, I'm somehow saying one type of investigation is any more or less important than the other, because that's not the case at all. I'm just trying to paint the picture that these are different types of investigations that involve different investigative techniques and take different amount of resources to solve the crimes.

Host:
So, I guess how do we stop the violence? It's understandable. There's a lot of fear in the community, especially among people who might think another shooting may happen to them again or to their family. What other things do we do besides respond and investigate? How do we break the cycle?

AC Shearer:
That's a great question and there have been strategies that have been implemented in other cities around the country that have showed significant measures of success. And the bottom line is it's a combination of law enforcement, community, and social services all working together under the common goal of breaking the cycle of violence. When someone engages in in discriminant gunfire and pulls a trigger and shoots someone else, I mean, I look at that as a tragedy. It's a tragedy for the person that gets shot and it's a tragedy for the person that pulled that trigger because now their life is going to be changed forever. They will get caught, they will get prosecuted, they will probably get incarcerated. They're going to be away from their family for years, potentially. And it's not a win for anybody in the community to see that happen. We want to get to a place where we can disrupt this cycle of violence and reach people before they make that decision and pull the trigger that changes their life and someone else's life.

Host:
So that's where I want to bring in. Ken and Jason, you guys have been very patient. Thank you. Ken, your guys are out there everyday doing the work. You were telling me before we started about how well your officers know some of the most prolific violent people in the community. Tell me about how the work of GVRT is different from a patrol officer.

Sgt. Dulio:
They know who they are, where they live, what cars they drive, who they associate with, who's really active right now, who might be carrying guns. And so that's something that your average patrol officer, can't do because the nature of their jobs differ. And so to go to a specialty unit like the gun violence reduction team, to be totally involved and it's honestly, it's like this total holistic approach to basically trying to solve a problem. And part of that might be, "Hey, we're going to arrest the shooter on attempt murder." But the other part might be like, "Hey, there's family members that are affected by this. Maybe he has a younger brother that's being influenced to get involved in the gang life." There's never ... if you said, "Hey, what are the two or three things that you need to do to reduce shootings?"

Sgt. Dulio:
I'm not even sure it's just down to two or three. It's a whole A to Z. With A might be, "Hey, we're doing the full on investigation. It's a good case. We are charging this guy with attempt murder." The Z might be all the way the other spectrum, "Hey Probation Officer So and so, if your guy's in violation, would you mind detaining them for 30 days, taking them off the street?" And you might say, well gosh, 30 days compared to maybe a conviction for attempt murder is a big difference. But if it interrupts that cycle of violence for even a short time, that could be effective. Because what happens is one shooting leads to the next shooting, leads to the next shooting. And usually pulls more people in, maybe they're the victims and their houses keeps getting shot up. And so how do you provide resources around that to get them out of that situation. Which would help reduce maybe them being victims in the future and provide safety, for that neighborhood by maybe removing that problem.

Sgt. Dulio:
And that takes people who have the ability to build these relationships and connect with people, and have worked in the unit a long time. Because it takes time to build a relationship, right? You got to develop trust and it takes repeated contacts and that's something that you couldn't do ... you could sort of in patrol if you worked at district for a long time, but you're so busy and you're taking all sorts of calls, this is just what we focus on.

Host:
I'm glad you mentioned the length of time some people have been in the unit because before we turned on the mics, Jason told me, he had been in the unit almost 20 years. So what keeps you there? And tell me about the work you do.

Ofc. Hubert:
I help the community out. I know a lot of the community members, I know a lot of the victims. I know a lot of suspects. Sometimes they're the same people. And I have relationships with them. My team is ... I am the crisis response team coordinator now, and I have faith based community members with me. I have volunteers that work for me about 20, 25 of them and we know the community and they know them also very well. We offer tons of resources to them. Bereavement, depression, resources like, unfortunately when the funerals happen, I've got pastors that stay up basically a 24, 48 hours out of the days to help out the community with whatever needs they need or want.

Host:
Tell me a little bit more about how you're called out. Are you caught out on every shooting or how does that work? Ofc. Hubert: It depends on the shootings. If there's a victim, then I will get called out and then I will respond. I will respond or I will also have two of my members respond, on the team. We'll go to the hospital or wherever they need us and we will connect with them. We'll ... whatever resources they need that at that moment we will offer that to them. And then what we also do, is we do follow up and so like we had a couple of shootings this weekend and after this I'm going to go and contact them and see what else that they need. We offered them resources that night and now I'm going to go and see what else that they need. For example, a shooting that happens and maybe the landlord or whatever predicament they're in, with their housing, wants them out of the house, we can offer them and guide them I guess to different housing.

Sgt. Dulio:
It wouldn't be uncommon to actually at the end of a traffic stop there'd be a handshake between one of my officers and the person pulled over, laughter, maybe a bro hug, you know with family members, associated to suspects, or victims around gang shootings. There is a lot of support and "Hey, we need, we need you guys the police to please get involved. Please help my son. Please help my grandson. Help get them out of this situation and please hold the person accountable who shot my nephew." Those sort of things. And so my real world experience was very different than what I would hear from the news or the media or just in the workplace about kind of the scrutiny on who we are and what we do.

Host:
Andy, you look like you want to say something.

AC Shearer:
We do that through our strong relationships with the people that we deal with everyday on the street from the law enforcement side. We do that with our strong relationships with the mayor's office, the youth violence prevention, with the outreach workers, with the street level outreach, with the gang impacted family team. We want to be in a position where we have built relationships and have the trust of community members, so they know that our goal is not just to arrest people, incarcerate them and put them in prison or that will not stop this problem. What will stop the problem is a combination of all these different factors working together in unison under a common goal. There is a time for arrests that does have a near term impact on reducing gun violence. If I take a gun away from you today and you spend the weekend in jail, you're not going to shoot anybody and nobody's going to shoot you.

AC Shearer:
And at that point we have options to maybe get you into some different programs, have the outreach folks get with you and try to steer you down a path where you're not going to react in a way that's going to cause you to pull the trigger and shoot somebody and change your life. That's a win for us. Once you've shot someone and killed someone, you have to be held accountable for that and we will do that. But that is the last thing we want to see happen. And the last thing that we want it to have to do, but the reality is, it is a multifaceted effort that can only be successful if community stands up and demands that we stop this gun violence. If we fully fund our social service providers and support them in a meaningful way so they can provide the services needed and we support our police department because they have a job to do to keep our streets safe.

Host:
I'm glad you brought up funding because there's a lot of cost related to this. In the toll of human life, and the trauma that we talked about, there's financial costs associated with shootings in the city. Talk to me about that a little bit.

AC Shearer:
The financial costs of shootings are frankly staggering. And I know there's one organization called the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform that has done cost of violence studies for numerous cities around the country, and it varies a little bit from city to city, but it's pretty consistent that a homicide of a single person costs that community economically about one and a half million dollars for one homicide. That's the initial police response. That's the medical response. That's the police investigation. That's hospital expenses, district attorneys, judges, incarceration, jail, all those combined for one homicide costs $1.4 million. And for an injury shooting where someone doesn't die, it's approximately $700,000. So when I talk about the 110 people that were struck by gunfire last year, 22 homicides at over a million dollars each and the 88 injuries that occurred, and I don't have a calculator in front of me, but we're talking tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that gun violence costs our communities. And so even reducing shootings, 5% or 10% can then free up resources that our community could use in better ways.

Host:
Yeah. Not to get into to dollars and cents here, but what you're saying is that we could use that money to actually provide resources to people who need it, to stop the cycle. It's kind of a catch 22. So of the work they're doing, what are some of the misconceptions, do you think that's out there about the work those officers are doing?

AC Shearer:
Well, I think there's a misconception that we have a unit that's out there conducting a high volume of stops, searching people, frisking people. That's not the case. I mean GVRT is a specialized investigative unit that does not conduct random patrol and nor does it conduct random enforcement. I mean its focus is very deliberately on the disruption and investigation of serious violent crimes where firearms are used. I mean take traffic stops for example. There's a lot of talk about traffic stops. The reality is in Portland vehicles are used in the majority of shootings. People involved are likely to either drive or be a passenger immediately before or immediately after a shooting. And so vehicle stops are one of the lawful tools that we use sometimes to try to intervene and prevent these shootings before they occur.

AC Shearer:
And if we conduct them properly and we follow ethical policing practices, can prevent some shootings and we know that they have done so right here in Portland. GVRT doesn't engage in zero tolerance sweeps or what's been referred to as just stop and frisk type policing that you've heard about in the news in other cities. And the reality also is not all contacts are enforcement based. Some of them occur specifically with the goal of creating dialogue, building relationships, and even providing space for intervention with the hopes of disrupting the cycle of violence.

Host:
So it's no secret that the Police Bureau is struggling with our staffing issues and a lot of people are weighing in about where we should deploy our resources. And some people think that maybe the gun violence reduction team isn't necessary. So tell me what it looks like. How do we respond if there isn't a GVRT?

AC Shearer:
If there was not a specialized unit that was focused on responding to all these shootings, we know that the amount of shootings and injuries and deaths would increase right here in the city of Portland. There's been cities in the recent past, two in California that I'm thinking of, that both had to reduce their staffing sizes and did away with their gun violence reduction units. Both agencies saw record numbers of homicides in the year immediately following that. And one of those cities even set a new record the second year after they did away with that team.

AC Shearer:
Both cities saw the need. They brought the teams back and they were able to reduce the number of shootings once they had these specialized units that focused very deliberately on the people that were the serial trigger pullers in their community. Or when these agencies restored their proactive units that focused on gun violence along with outreach workers, and community efforts, they experienced significant declines. The partnership between the community outreach and then data-driven, very deliberate law enforcement efforts are critical in addressing this. This type of gun violence.

Sgt. Dulio:
If you're injured, you might go to the ER and the ER doctor is going to try to take care of you, just sustain life and give you any initial treatment you need. You know, further follow up, you're going to go see a professional in that field, whatever it is. And that's kind of like the difference between patrol and a special unit. So if there's a shooting, patrol's going to go there and just do the basics of protect the public, save lives, secure the crime scene, those sorts of things. But patrol is really busy and they're understaffed and so they might go from that shooting to another call, to a different call, maybe another shooting later in the night. And they don't have the time or the resources, or the longterm built up, knowledge base, and experience to really provide the followup investigation that those shootings need.

Sgt. Dulio:
So in other words, patrol might be like the ER doctor and then your specialists would be like GVRT. And it's more than just going to those shootings and have an experience on processing crime scenes, canvassing, doing diagrams, doing the interviews, the photographs that need to be taken, detectives coming out there and developing probable cause to work that case in itself. But it's this long term approach of a lot of times knowing kind of who the people are, the relationships that have been built with people involved in gun violence, especially repeat shooters.

Host:
So now I'm going to ask you the opposite question, Andy. What would the ideal be? What is a perfect world?

AC Shearer:
I think what we should be striving for is an even stronger relationship with our mayor's office of Youth Violence Prevention and the social service network that they're connected with. I think in a perfect world, we're able to find folks that we know are at high risk of being impacted by gun violence. Those that have pulled a trigger and caused trauma or death, law enforcement has a job to do and we're going to have to find those people and hold them accountable to the criminal justice system. But those people that are at high risk that haven't quite crossed that line yet, I think there's room, or I know there's room for community and the social service providers to impact those people's lives in ways that's going to prevent them from making that bad decision or even potentially getting themselves killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Host:
Let's end with an appeal. What would you like to say to people listening?

AC Shearer:
My call to action for the people in the city of Portland is to not stand for gun violence. There's an economic cost that every single person in this city pays. There's a human toll that's almost immeasurable on the sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, children of people that are impacted by gun violence. My ask is for the community to stand together and demand that we stop this gun violence. If you have information about a shooting, you can go to CrimestoppersofOregon.com. You can leave an anonymous tip. There's reward money available. You can go to your local precinct. You can flag down an officer. Any way that you can think, if you want to share information, or you can call the mayor's office of youth violence prevention.

AC Shearer:
It doesn't have to just be about solving a crime. If you know somebody that you think is at risk for making a bad decision or is potentially putting themselves in a place where they're at risk of getting themselves shot, reach out to the mayor's office, the youth violence prevention. They take referrals, they can reach out to folks and provide them a variety of services that can help steer them away from this lifestyle that's, so dangerous and so destructive to our community. And I just want to leave you with this thought. As a progressive city, we must have a strategy that protects our most vulnerable and underserved populations and as your Police Bureau, we're doing everything we can to pull together a collaboration of both law enforcement, community, and social service partners to be able to effectively break the cycle of violence.

Host:
This has been a really great conversation. Thanks for talking with me today.

Announcer:
Thanks for listening to the Talking Beat. Do you have a question for us? You can call and leave us a message on our dedicated voicemail line at (971) 339-8868. Or send us an email to TalkingBeat@PortlandOregon.gov if you've enjoyed this episode, please share it with your friends. More episodes can be found at our website, PortlandOregon.gov/police/podcast.