In an interview with The Oregonian this week, mayoral challenger Sarah Iannarone, who has overtaken incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler in recent voter polls, made an observation about the city's Office of Youth Violence Prevention, saying it "is pretty cop-centric and cop-heavy."
Among other things, the Office of Violence Prevention (the city is in the process of dropping the word "Youth" from the name) sends workers to visit with shooting victims and their families to deter retaliatory shootings and violence.
The office employs contractors, some formerly gang-affiliated, to do that work. It took exception to Iannarone's comments in a statement.
"The OVP honors the trust it has developed with its partners and various organizations throughout the community," the office, led by Nike Green, said. "The work conducted through the office is high-risk.
"Therefore, it is critical that individuals understand that OVP's employees, partners, and contractors operate independently from any city of Portland bureau, including the Portland Police Bureau. The office proactively and collaboratively works to reduce and eliminate the need for law enforcement through community building, prevention, and intervention strategies. Independence is essential to OVP's goals and to the safety of OVP's employees, partners, and contractors.
"The OVP invites community members, local leaders, and those who aspire to be elected officials to contact the office to learn more about its work and services. It is only through collective understanding that we can ensure the safety of OVP's team and address root causes of violence."
The alarm expressed by the office comes from a simple fear: If people think OVP contractors are cops or informants, they could get hurt. That's a particular concern this year, as gun violence has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wheeler's spokesman, Jim Middaugh, says the mayor's office cannot comment on Iannarone's remarks.
"We are prohibited by law from responding to questions about comments candidates for elected office make about OVP," Middaugh said. "What we can say is the Office of Violence Prevention posted information on its website in response to concerns raised by community members and to ensure its partners and the community have accurate information about the office and its work."
Iannarone said she never intended to put anybody in danger.
"I take seriously any assertion that what I said could endanger anyone," Iannarone said. "As mayor, I will work to ensure the independence of OYVP from PPB, and from politicking. I will also work to adequately resource the dedicated outreach contractors and community partners because they know best how to serve impacted communities."
She also provided context for her remarks. "OYVP uses law enforcement tools, is housed in North Precinct, and maintains a strong working relationship with the Portland Police Bureau, facts of which the broader community is already aware," Iannarone said. "Gun violence disproportionately impacts the Black community, but police violence and overpolicing also negatively impact Black Portlanders. I agree that OYVP does great work, and I want it to continue and expand, in addition to new strategies to reduce gun violence."
Iannarone released a gun violence prevention plan this week. It can be found here.