PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — It was nearly last call on a Friday when
Jacob Eli Knight Vasquez went to get a drink across the street from the
tavern where he worked in northwest Portland — an area with a thriving
dining scene, where citygoers enjoy laid-back eateries, international
cuisines and cozy cafés.
34-year-old had been at the pizza bar only a short time when shots rang
out. Vasquez was struck by a stray bullet and died at the scene.
killing in late September was one of the 67 homicides this year in
Portland — a city on pace to shatter its previous record of 66 slayings
and frustration with gang violence have settled over the metropolis, as
stories like Vasquez’s make some wary to go out at night. Unlike
previous years, more bystanders are being caught in the crossfire — from
people mourning at vigils and sitting in cars to children playing in a
should be leery because this is a dangerous time,” said Lionel Irving
Jr., a lifelong Portland resident and a gang outreach worker.
police department is struggling to keep up amid an acute staffing
shortage and budget cuts. Now, Oregon’s largest city is implementing
novel solutions aimed at improving safety, including adding traffic
barrels to prevent drive-by shootings and suspending minor traffic stops
so officers can focus on immediate threats.
But critics say the liberal Pacific Northwest city, home to more than 650,000 people, is flailing.
please untie the hands of our law enforcement officers,” Vasquez’s
brother-in-law, Don Osborn, said outside the business where Vasquez was
slain. “I believe if the proper tools were in place for our law
enforcement officers, this wouldn’t even have happened.”
far this year, Portland has had about 1,000 shootings, 314 people have
been injured by bullets, and firearms have accounted for three-quarters
of homicides. Police attribute much of the gunfire to gangs, fights and
retaliation killings, but they are also affecting bystanders.
Hadar Kedem recently told city leaders about a dangerously close call
when she was caught in gunfire earlier this year.
had been playing with her father, brother and dog at a northeast
Portland park when a group of people in ski masks started shooting.
Hadar and her family dove for cover behind a metal equipment bin. One
bullet landed within feet of the fourth-grader.
know that not only do I want change, but everyone wants change,” Hadar
said during a City Council meeting last month. “I want to feel safe.”
Nationally, homicides increased by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, based on FBI data.
However, in Portland, deadly violence is increasing at a faster rate
than nearly all major cities, with an 83% increase in homicides in 2020.
Portland has had more homicides in 2021 than some larger cities, including San Francisco, and twice as many slayings as its larger neighbor, Seattle.
Other hard-hit Western cities include the Albuquerque, New Mexico,
metro area, which has about 679,000 residents and has had a record 97
homicides this year.
police have struggled to quell the violence with a force 128 officers
below its authorized strength. Since August 2020, about 200 officers
have left the department. Many, in their exit interviews, cited
low morale, lack of support from city officials and burnout from months
of racial justice protests, which often ended in plumes of tear gas
before largely dying down since summer.
are running on fumes. There’s no way we can investigate thoroughly, and
correctly, all these shootings,” said Daryl Turner, executive director
of Portland’s police union.
Turner says the city needs to hire 840 officers over the next five years to implement proper community policing and keep Portland safe.
Besides staffing, Turner said the increase in violence is directly related to budget cuts.
booming calls to defund the police, city leaders slashed $27 million
from the police budget last year — $11 million due to the
pandemic-caused budget crisis — a decision that Turner says has cost
Officials also disbanded a specialized unit focused on curbing gun violence, which long faced criticism for disproportionately targeting people of color.
Insufficient manpower and funds have forced officials to implement nontraditional ideas in an attempt to hinder gun violence.
traffic barrels were installed this month in a southeast Portland
neighborhood plagued by shootings, some linked to high-speed drivers.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said they hope to slow activity at gun violence hot spots and make it harder to “both commit a crime and get away with it.”
is an all-hands-on deck situation where government needs to dig deep,
think creatively,” Hardesty said. “From police to community-based
organizations to infrastructure design — we all have a role to play in
addition, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced in June that officers
are no longer being directed to stop drivers for low-level traffic
and Police Chief Chuck Lovell said this was in response to data showing
a disproportionate impact on Black drivers, but also because the city
doesn’t have enough officers.
experts, police and residents say these measures aren’t nearly enough
to counter the most violent year in the city’s modern history.
past year has shattered anything that I’ve ever witnessed,” said
Irving, the outreach worker and a former gang member. He said he does
believe gun violence will slow without more officers on the streeta and a
specialized gun violence unit, along with investments in
Four cultural institutions in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown neighborhood recently sent a letter to officials, demanding immediate action to keep visitors, staff and volunteers safe.
increasing violence and pleas for cities to do more have compelled some
areas to switch from defunding police departments to restoring funding.
around the U.S., portions of police budgets are also being restored.
From Los Angeles to New York, some law enforcement departments that
underwent massive budget cuts, amid nationwide protests over the murder
of George Floyd last year, have had local leaders restore funds or
implement new programs or units.
In Portland, there’s money available for public safety in the form of a $60 million general fund excess balance.
City Council can use half the money, which came from business taxes
last year and was far more than anticipated, however it wants. Whether a
significant portion will go to the police bureau has not yet been
have to realize that everybody has a role, from community members to the
police department,” Irving said. “No one entity is going to solve gun
Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America
Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national
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