Three Fatal Shootings Last Weekend Leave the City Shaken—and Put Portland on Pace to Eclipse Its Homicide Record

“This was probably one of the most deadly and challenging weekends our city has experienced,” the police chief said. “It’s also one of the most heartbreaking. People are dead.”

A memorial to June Knightly in Normandale Park. (Sam Gehrke)

The city of Portland is reeling after a trio of shootings last weekend left three dead and at least eight others injured.

During a sobering press conference Feb. 22, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called for a “cease-fire.”

“This was a deadly, difficult and disturbing weekend for our city,” Wheeler said. “[I] want to convey my steadfast and my urgent determination to find those who are responsible and bring them to justice, to end the cycle of violence.…We are not going to stop until peace returns to Portland.”

Here’s what we know about the three incidents that took place:

1. On Feb. 19, 43-year-old Benjamin Smith opened fire into a group of protesters, killing 60-year-old June Knightly and striking four others, according to prosecutors. On Tuesday, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office charged Smith with one count of first-degree murder with a firearm, four counts of attempted murder and four counts of assault. The victims were participating in an organized demonstration held in remembrance of Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police SWAT team earlier this month.

According to charging documents, Smith confronted the protesters, began yelling at them and demanded that they leave the park area. In return, the demonstrators asked him to leave, and Smith demanded that they “make” him do so, prosecutors allege. He then pulled out a handgun and opened fire until someone else shot him in the hip area, charging documents say.

As of Tuesday, Smith is in critical condition at the hospital, according to police. Of the four surviving victims, one remains hospitalized in critical condition after being struck in the neck, leaving them paralyzed from the neck down, according to prosecutors. Another who was struck in the abdomen is still hospitalized, and the two others have been released from the hospital.

2. That same day, Portland police shot and killed an individual during a “shelter in place” incident that resulted from a disturbance call. The bureau has not released details about the exact circumstances of the shooting, nor has it identified the victim. PPB named two officers who were involved: acting Sgt. Zachary Kenney, a 17-year veteran of the bureau, and Officer Reynaldo Guevara, who joined PPB in January 2020. It is unclear whether one or both officers fired and which fired the fatal shot.

3. Then, on Feb. 20, an unnamed suspect shot and killed a woman in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood. The woman was in a vehicle, along with a man and two children: a 1-year-old who was shot in the leg, and a 5-year-old who was shot in the arm. The man and children were transported to the hospital. Police have not yet released the identities of the victims or the suspect.

The Normandale shooting, in which an armed man fired into a group of protesters, occurs at a moment when the city is increasingly polarized about such topics as police reform and houselessness. That tension was exacerbated when police erroneously identified Smith as a homeowner, though they later walked back that statement.

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty mourned Knightly and described Smith as a person with “white supremacist sympathies.”

“There is a history and pattern of threats of violence against activists, including myself,” Hardesty said. “As a community this is deeply wounding and distressing. June was part of a group of unarmed women peacekeepers who supported racial justice demonstrations and engaged in compassionate work with the homeless.”

The police chief expressed sorrow.

“This was probably one of the most deadly and challenging weekends our city has experienced,” Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said. “It’s also one of the most heartbreaking. People are dead. People are injured, lives [were] destroyed over senseless violence.”

“Little kids injured by gunfire is especially heartbreaking,” Lovell added.

Wheeler said the bureau’s new Focused Intervention Team, which began operations at the start of the year, is “actively investigating” the shootings. But officials also warned that this year’s gun violence trend—15 gun homicides and 211 shootings in less than two months—is already on pace to eclipse the homicide rate in 2021, which broke the previous record from 1987.

“We are in unprecedented territory again this year,” Portland FBI Special Agent Kieran Ramsey said at the press conference. “Whereas last year, law enforcement, especially the Portland Police Bureau, continued to sound the alarm of record-breaking violence on the streets of Portland, this year we are already on pace to easily surpass that level.”

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said Tuesday that his office had issued 16 gun violence-related cases so far in 2022. But he also cautioned that prosecution alone cannot solve what the mayor described as an “epidemic” of gun violence in the city.

“We cannot prosecute our way out of this crisis alone,” Schmidt said in a statement to WW. “The criminal justice system is one tool of many to address violence in our community. If you pick up a gun and decide to shoot someone, you will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. But a lot happens before a person decides to pick up that gun. We must take a systemwide ‘yes, and’ approach, investing in and empowering organizations by and for impacted communities that prevent and interrupt harm before yet another life is taken.”

U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Scott Asphaug said during Tuesday’s press conference that the “isolating nature” of the coronavirus pandemic may be one of the underlying factors behind the shootings.

“Can we prosecute our way out of it? The answer, of course, is no,” Asphaug said. “But the reality is, if you pull a trigger and you kill somebody, either Mr. Schmidt’s office or my office are gonna come look for you.”

Near the end of Tuesday’s press conference, the mayor also acknowledged that societal issues play a role: “If we as a society can work with young men in particular, but not exclusively, to understand that, if you have a conflict with somebody, there are other ways to resolve it than by picking up a gun.”

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