Turn on the TV news and you'd have reason to believe Portland’s gang violence is out of control.
Terse warnings from police and fallout from three recent high-profile shootings have prompted alarming reports in the media of a recent surge in gang activity.
“Gang violence rises sharply in first half of 2014,” KGW-TV declared June 6. On July 9, KOIN-TV reported gang-related violent crime is the highest it has been in 13 years. And as The Oregonian put it in a headline that same day, “Portland’s gang enforcement team struggling to respond to increased violence.”
The claims stem from Portland police statistics that show an increase in what cops define as “gang-related violent crimes”—75 so far this year compared to 53 for the same period in 2013.
Portland police have followed these reports with concerns they lack the resources to fight the problem of gangs. And elected officials haven’t challenged that narrative.
Amid the rhetoric and media heat, however, documents show the story is far more complicated:
- The biggest-ever report on gang activity in Multnomah County, released in late June, found no evidence that gang violence is growing worse. Just the opposite: All the indicators used by law enforcement to track gang violence show steep decreases over the past 10 years.
- The report found police have no comprehensive way to measure the number of gang members in Multnomah County or the violence they cause.
- The Police Bureau—while decrying the increase in gang violence—didn’t ask for increased funding this year to combat the problem. Instead, budget documents show, police brass sought more money to enforce traffic laws, to hire an equity manager, and to cover higher compensation costs for command staff.
To be sure, even one shooting is one too many. So is one gang. And nobody would deny that parts of Portland and Multnomah County endure more violence and need immediate attention.
"This is real," says Deanna Wesson-Mitchell, police liaison for Mayor Charlie Hales. "It's scary when you go to sleep at night wondering if a bullet is going to come through your window."
But when pressed, City Hall officials, while concerned by the recent shootings, remain unconvinced the problem is as serious as police claim.
“I don’t know whether we have a reason to believe that’s a big trend or just a blip,” says City Commissioner Steve Novick. “The broader question is, have we adjusted the police force to the changing reality of crime? That’s not really a discussion we’ve had.”
Violent gangs have worried police and threatened neighborhoods since the 1980s, when the Bloods and Crips first showed up in Portland. But the most recent attention to gangs came in June, as the City Council put the finishing touches on Portland’s $515 million general fund budget.
That budget didn’t restore positions to the Police Bureau that were cut a year earlier. Hales did away with positions for 50 sworn officers, the biggest staffing cut in the bureau’s recent history.
In the middle of this year’s budget debate, the Police Bureau released numbers showing gang-related Measure 11 crimes had spiked by 48 percent since 2013.
The bureau’s announcement gained greater currency June 30, a Monday, when Andrew Leon Coggins Jr., 24, was shot dead near McCoy Park in North Portland’s Portsmouth neighborhood. Police say he was the victim of a gang-related drive-by shooting.
Then, early on the morning of July 5, 26-year-old Hahrahcio Roy Branch was shot and killed in the parking lot of Soobies Bar & Grill at Southeast 122nd Avenue and Oak Street. Four other people were injured.
Three days later, a 5-year-old boy was shot in the left leg while playing outside an apartment complex in Southeast Portland’s Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood. Police suspect it was a gang shooting gone awry.
Portland police saw their 24-member gang unit lose two officers in budget cuts handed down by City Hall last year.
The Police Bureau’s gang enforcement supervisor, Sgt. Don Livingston, told The Oregonian on July 9 he didn’t have enough officers to put gang members in jail.
“When we don’t have adequate officers working the street, we end up solving less cases,” Livingston said.
The sudden explosion of violence might have distracted the news media from the landmark report on gang activity.
The 1,045-page report by the Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council is the first of its kind in Oregon. The council, a collection of 10 agencies, cost $50,225 and took six months to complete.
Its conclusions created a dissonance with the rising media noise around the recent shootings.
The report says Multnomah County law enforcement agencies lack a reliable way to measure the scope of gang activity.
“[P]ublic safety agencies have lacked a centralized method for identifying and tracking gang-related events and individuals,” the report says, detailing its key findings.
“Questions that currently remain unanswered include how many gang-involved individuals are active in Multnomah County, how many gangs consist primarily of youth versus adults, what crimes are being committed by gangs, and when and where gang crimes are being committed.”
What’s more, the public safety council’s report says that every standard indicator of gang activity has gone down dramatically in the past decade. (See chart at left.)
The report notes that these crimes have moved east in recent years, away from North and Northeast Portland toward Gresham. As a result, some specific areas have seen increases in gang activity—such as the Rockwood area of Gresham—but overall the problem is far less serious than it once was.
(Unlike most other media, Oregon Public Broadcasting stood out by highlighting the study's key findings about trends in gang activity.)
“It’s important to point out that we’re down hugely on gang shootings,” says Lane Borg, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defenders. “When you look at it 10 years ago compared to now, it’s really significantly down.”
Borg says the report’s message—while commissioned and produced by a council made up in part by police agencies—is inconvenient for law enforcement.
“I don’t know that we can say we have solved the problem,” Borg says. “If you want to keep focus on something, the last thing you need is a report that says things are getting better.”
Livingston, of the Portland Police Bureau’s gang enforcement team, says he’s well aware that statistics show crime is down overall. But he says his agency's statistics better reflect reality.
“Countywide, things are getting better, but in this world, it’s getting worse,” Livingston says.
Portland’s gang unit in 2004 responded to 44 reports of violent crimes suspected of being gang-related, according to bureau statistics. By 2013, that number had nearly tripled to 118.
"We’re spending all our time responding to shootings primarily," Livingston says. "The difference between a homicide and an assault is usually just a few inches. Better aim, and someone is going to die."
But experts say they don’t trust those numbers in isolation when compared to broader trends. “I don’t put a lot of stock in police gang statistics,” says Clay Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University-Vancouver and author of a similar gang assessment report for Clark County law enforcement agencies in 2012.
Mosher says agencies label gang-related crime differently—and often liberally. “They have a lot of latitude in how they define things,” he said. “Most crimes committed by gang members are not committed for the gang. But they can get coded as a gang-related crime.”
Portland’s elected officials acknowledge that many crimes associated with gangs have been dropping, but they have been cautious when challenging the account of a worsening gang problem.
“It’s a little hard to celebrate going from, say, 100 people shot to 10 people shot,” says Hales spokesman Dana Haynes. “The families of those 10 people will hear you celebrating. This mayor is not satisfied with where the levels of gang violence are. Yay, they’re down. Boo, they’re not down enough.”
“This time of year, we talk a lot about gangs and shootings,” adds City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversaw the Police Bureau in 2009 and 2010. “I would argue that there’s a lot of other crimes being committed against children and spouses that go on year-round.”
Novick, a frequent critic of the Police Bureau, says there has not been a serious debate about how to change police operations.
“I don’t hear a coherent response to the question, ‘How do you adjust the police force in an era when there’s less crime?’” Novick says. “There’s times when talking to the Police Bureau is like talking to the Pentagon after the Cold War ended.”
City Hall’s decision to trim police staffing has not left Portland Police Chief Mike Reese without options: He has the authority to shift positions to the gang unit. He hasn’t done so.
“The discussion is ongoing,” says Portland police spokesman Sgt. Peter Simpson. “Moving two bodies over temporarily often means leaving something else empty that needs attention also.”
In February, the Police Bureau's budget documents cited the need for restoring officers to the gang unit. But when it came to seeking more money, Reese instead chose to ask the City Council for $287,671 for four more traffic-safety officers on the night shift, $152,208 for an equity program manager, and $68,783 to cover compensation increases for commanding officers as called for in their latest bargaining agreement. (The cost to restore the two gang enforcement officers: $150,662.)
Reese was out of town and unavailable for comment on the budget decisions and the public safety council's report on gang violence, which was posted on the Web on June 30. Simpson says "the bureau has not been presented with the report yet, so it would be inappropriate to address any issues related with it at this time."
Simpson says Reese is committed to fighting gangs. He says the extra traffic cops would help save lives, and the other requests reflected either City Hall priorities or contractual obligations. (City Council did fund the equity officer.)
As for staffing, Simpson says top brass has been "brainstorming and discussing the issues and resources surrounding gang crime and how the bureau responds."
After that, he says, the bureau can "develop a thoughtful, sustainable plan. Not just throw resources at it."
Interns Erin Carey, Sami Edge and Samantha Matsumoto contributed to this story.