‘Dangerous times’: Portland, Oregon records record homicides

Updated on Monday October 18, 2021 | 9:39 p.m.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – It was almost the last call on a Friday when Jacob Eli Knight Vasquez went out for a drink in front of the tavern where he worked in northwest Portland – an area with a thriving dining scene, where city dwellers enjoy casual dining, international cuisines and cozy cafes.

The 34-year-old had been at the pizzeria for a short time when gunshots rang out. Vasquez was hit by a stray bullet and died at the scene.

His murder in late September was one of 67 homicides this year in Portland – a city that has already surpassed and is on the verge of breaking its previous record of 66 murders, set in 1987.

In a metropolis ravaged by gang violence, fear and frustration have taken hold in Portland as stories like Vasquez’s have made some wary of going out at night. Unlike in previous years, more passers-by, neighbors and friends are caught in the crossfire – from mourners at vigils and sitting in cars to children playing in a park.

“People should be wary because these are dangerous times,” said Lionel Irving Jr., a longtime Portland resident and gang outreach worker.

The Portland Police Department is struggling to keep pace with a severe staff shortage and budget cuts. Now, the liberal Pacific Northwest city is implementing new solutions to improve safety, including adding traffic barrels to prevent shootouts and suspending minor traffic stops so officers can focus on immediate threats.

But critics say Oregon’s largest city, home to more than 650,000 residents, is falling apart.

“Please untangle the hands of our law enforcement officers,” Vasquez’s brother-in-law Don Osborn said outside the business where Vasquez was killed. “I believe that if the right tools were in place for our law enforcement officers, this wouldn’t even have happened. “

So far this year, Portland has had about 1,000 shootings, 314 people have been shot and wounded, and guns have accounted for three-quarters of homicides.

Police say many shootings are linked to gangs, fights and retaliatory killings, but they also affect passers-by.

Nine-year-old Hadar Kedem recently spoke to city leaders about a dangerously close call when she was caught in gunfire earlier this year.

Hadar was playing with his father, brother and dog in a park in northeast Portland when a group of people wearing ski masks started shooting. Hadar and his family dived for cover behind a metal equipment bin. A bullet landed a few yards from the fourth grade.

“I know that not only do I want change, but everyone wants change,” Hadar said at a city council meeting last month. “I want to feel safe. “

Nationally, homicides increased nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, according to FBI data. However, in Portland, deadly violence is increasing at a faster rate than almost any major city, with an 83% increase in homicides in 2020.

Portland saw more homicides in 2021 than some major cities, including San Francisco, and it had twice as many murders as its larger Pacific Northwest neighbor, Seattle. Other hard-hit western cities include metro Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has a population of around 679,000 and recorded a record 97 homicides this year.

Portland Police have struggled to quell the violence, with an office of 128 officers below the authorized strength. Since August 2020, around 200 agents have left the department. Many, in their exit interviews, cited low morale, lack of support from city officials, and exhaustion from months of racial justice protests, which often resulted in plumes of tear gas and confrontations, but have largely died out since last summer.

“We operate on smoke. We have no way to thoroughly and properly investigate all of these shootings, ”said Daryl Turner, executive director of the Portland Police Union.

Turner says the city will need to hire 840 officers over the next five years to implement proper community policing and keep Portland safe.

Besides staff, Turner said the increase in violence is directly linked to budget cuts.

Amid booming calls for police funding, city leaders slashed the police budget by $ 27 million last year – $ 11 million due to the budget crisis caused by the pandemic – a a decision which Turner said claimed lives.

Authorities also disbanded a specialized unit focused on combating gun violence, which had long been criticized for disproportionately targeting people of color.

Insufficient manpower and funds forced the authorities to implement non-traditional ideas in an attempt to curb gun violence.

Earlier this month, additional barrels of traffic were installed in a southeastern Portland neighborhood that has been plagued by shootings – some of which were linked to high-speed drivers. City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said the hope is that traffic changes will slow activity in gun violence hotspots and make it more difficult “to both commit a crime and draw”.

“This is a bridge situation where the government has to dig deep, think creatively,” Hardesty said. “From police to community organizations to infrastructure design, we all have a role to play in this emergency. “

Additionally, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced in June that officers are no longer required to stop drivers for low-intensity traffic violations.

Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell said it was in response to data showing a disproportionate impact on black drivers, but also because the city did not have enough officers.

But experts, police and residents say a transfer of resources and more barrels of traffic is not enough to counter the most violent year in the city’s modern history.

“The past year has changed everything I’ve ever witnessed,” said Irving, the outreach worker and a former gang member. He said he did not see gun violence slowing down without more agents on the streets and a specialized gun violence unit, as well as investments in community organizations.

In addition, four cultural institutions in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown district recently sent a letter to authorities, demanding immediate action to ensure the safety of visitors, staff and volunteers.

Growing violence and calls for cities to do more have forced some regions to shift from funding police services to restoring their funding.

In major cities across the country, portions of police budgets are being restored. From Los Angeles to New York, some law enforcement agencies that have suffered massive budget cuts, amid nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd last year, have called on local leaders to restore funds or implement new programs or units.

In Portland, there is money available for public safety in the form of a general fund surplus balance of $ 60 million.

The city council can use half of the money, which came from business taxes last year and was much more than expected, as it wishes. Whether a significant portion will go to the police station remains to be seen.

“We have to realize that everyone has a role, from community members to the police department,” Irving said. “No single entity is going to solve gun violence.”


Sara Cline is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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