In a roll call room in North Precinct, the city’s new police chief told the members of the Gun Violence Reduction Team that their days were numbered.
The 39-member team likely would be disbanded by July 1.
That was eight days ago and Chuck Lovell had been chief for less than 48 hours.
“It was hard because they’re some of the most dedicated officers we have,” Lovell told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a recent interview.
He noted how they’re often paged in the middle of the night to respond to a shooting scene. “It’s very hard to see them feel like their work isn’t appreciated,” he said.
Lovell, former Chief Jami Resch and Assistant Chief Andy Shearer all told the team members that they were sorry.
But the controversial team has become a symbol of disparate treatment of people of color by Portland police and its renaming – it used to be known as the Gang Enforcement Team — has done little to quiet a drumbeat of criticism.
While it garners praise in some community circles for building relationships with young people and getting guns off the street, the team also has drawn denunciation for perpetuating gang labels, targeting a disproportionate number of black people in traffic stops and not solving many gun crimes.
The Portland City Council, led by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty who has long called to eliminate the team, is expected Wednesday to take money out of the city budget for the specialty team — $5.7 million from the Police Bureau’s overall spending request of $248 million.
Hardesty, backed by Mayor Ted Wheeler, gained momentum to cut the team as people locally and nationally have mobilized by the thousands in nightly rallies to protest George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
Hardesty speaks for people like Laurie Palmer, a Portland mother whose son was shot in 2015. Her son recently got out of prison for a gun offense.
Palmer said the team’s officers have engaged in “continuous harassment’’ of young men and their families for suspected gang ties.
“If black kids had on a red shirt, were driving a nice car, they’d pull them over,’’ Palmer said. “JoAnn is from our community. If she says they need to go, they need to go – not just because she’s black, but because she knows how they treat us. She’s breaking down that system and we need to let her do that.”
Others like Kimberley Dixon, whose son Andreas Dixon Jones was killed in 2013 in Gresham, worry about the loss of the team’s role as a community liaison.
“If we’re going to remove the expertise, what would they replace it with?’’ Dixon asked.
She has worked with team members to try to stem the violence, leading a group in Portland called Enough is Enough to support families that have lost loved ones to violence and speaking out against the deadly shootings.
Joe McFerrin II, chief executive officer of Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, acknowledged that the team’s existence is a “hot-button issue.”
His center runs the alternative Rosemary Anderson High School in North Portland and he employs 11 gang outreach workers who often go out to neighborhoods where shootings have occurred to calm disputes.
While he has no doubt that African Americans have been “over policed” and emphasized that he’s not for or against the Gun Violence Reduction Team, its officers have “had some positive impacts,” he said.
That has come largely with trust built over time between the team’s officers and the outreach workers, McFerrin said.
Without the team, McFerrin said he’s worried outreach workers on the streets might get hassled by patrol officers who likely won’t know them.
“That’s a huge concern,’’ he said. “Whereas when you had the GVRT officers, they knew who they are. They wouldn’t be looked at as being suspicious, and we all know what comes with all that.’’
Police commanders have yet to provide many details on how the Police Bureau will investigate shootings going forward.
They have said only that the officers from the 34-member Gun Violence Reduction Team would be divided among the bureau’s three precincts to return to patrol work and its detectives probably will go downtown to the detective floor at police headquarters.
The current version of the team dates to October 2018 when the bureau revamped its Gang Enforcement Team.
Since then, the Gun Violence Reduction Team has been sent to every shooting call in the city. So far this year, there have been 245 shootings reported. Last year at this point, there were 184 shootings. Police have so far recovered 72 guns directly related to shootings – half of those by team members.
The team has one lieutenant, five sergeants, nine detectives and 19 officers. Four officers on the team are trained to analyze bullet shell casings recovered from scenes, entering their images into a national database.
It’s modeled after an Oakland police practice of identifying people or groups at highest risk of being involved in a shooting, coordinating with outreach workers to offer them help and arresting those doing the shootings.
But the team is tied to the legacy of its precursor and a 20-year-old system of designating people as gang members or gang associates, discontinued in October 2017.
An Oregonian/OregonLive investigation the year before found that of the 359 “criminal gang affiliates” flagged in Portland’s database, 81% were part of a racial or ethnic minority. The review found that police labeled someone a “criminal gang affiliate” more than 100 times each year without a conviction or arrest.
In 2018, the city auditor found that the bureau still kept an informal list of active gang members despite purging its longtime directory. The auditor also found that the Gang Enforcement Team lacked records to explain why its officers pulled over so many African American people and if their tactics worked.
African Americans made up 56% of all traffic and pedestrian stops by the former Gang Enforcement Team in 2017 and 61% of all the team’s stops in 2016, according to a city audit last year.
Currently, the Gun Violence Reduction Team’s solve rate is 28.5%, according to the team’s Lt. Jason Pearce.
That’s partly because witnesses to shootings often are reluctant to talk to officers, and it takes time and trust to gain information to figure out who’s responsible, police said.
The team has worked to get a sea of illegal guns off the street and do the painstaking detective work of tracking if they’ve been used in a crime, he said.
Police officials believe if they don’t intervene and identify a shooter immediately, the violence often leads to retaliatory shootings.
No one knows what the true impact will be without the team. Officers fear fewer shootings will be solved. Advocates for its elimination point to the downward trend in violent crime in the city.
Sgt. Ken Duilio, who has been with Portland police for 23 years and on the team for 10 years over both its iterations, wonders who will take DNA swabs of seized guns, who will test-fire recovered guns, who will enter the ballistic evidence into the national database, who will take time to process the crime scenes and follow-up with witnesses.
“The move comes with no real forethought and planning on how to respond and investigate shootings without the team,’’ Duilio said.
“Officers will still have a job. But it’s going to affect the people on the other end of the violence,’’ he said. “This is years of honing, refining our skills to get better and improve. They’re just going to take that all away.’’
The team members also wonder what will happen to the people they try to help.
During a City Council session in February, Assistant Chief Shearer said 51% of shootings in the city that cause injuries involve black men as either the victim or suspect.
“There is no group more directly and disproportionately impacted by gun violence in Portland than African American men,’’ Shearer said then.
So far this year, police statistics indicate that black people made up about 59% of those wounded in shootings through June 10 in Portland, Latinos 21%, whites 14% and Native Americans 2.4%. Of those who were wounded and didn’t appear to be the intended target of a shooting, 60% were black, 30% white, 5% Latino and 2.5% Asian.
In another statistic that comes up in racial profiling discussions, black Portlanders experienced 26% of all use of force by Portland police in the first three months this year, although they make up less than 6% of the population.
Leaders in the African American community and civil rights activists say the data bears scrutiny and point to the need for a dramatic cultural shift within the Police Bureau. But not all change advocates think the Gun Violence Reduction Team should go away.
Antoinette Edwards, the retired director of the city’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention, recalls trying to help Patrick Kimmons before he was shot and killed by patrol officers in downtown Portland in 2018 while running with a gun after firing it at two other people in a parking lot.
Edwards said she remembers telling Officer Jason Hubert, of the Gun Violence Reduction Team, later that morning that she wished he had been in the lot that night. Hubert, who has spent 20 of his 23 years with the bureau on the gang and gun teams, knew Kimmons well.
“They make the cases personal,” Edwards said. “It’s not just going out and picking up bullets,’’ she said. “These are officers that know young people in the community.’’
Hubert had tried to support Kimmons, 27, who was African American, connecting him with social services and job prospects through the multi-agency Gang Impacted Family Team. Kimmons had called Hubert three days before he was killed, asking him for his help to find a job. Hubert and Edwards had identified some prospects.
Kimmons’ mother still talks to Hubert and some of the other veteran team members that her family has gotten to know over the years, even though she demonstrates against police for what she believes was unjustified use of deadly force in her son’s shooting. A grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing by the officers involved.
Hubert said he will “keep those relationships as best as I can’’ now that the team is ending but doesn’t know when he’ll have time “if I’m in a patrol car taking calls.”
“We were more than putting handcuffs on people,’’ Hubert said. “We were building bonds and connecting people to resources if they needed them.’’
Royal Harris has spent years working to bring peace to the city’s streets and said he can name friends, neighbors and loved ones gunned down in the city dating back to 1986. His younger brother, Durieul Harris II, 30, was shot and killed outside the Northeast Portland nightclub Fontaine Bleau in 2013 after an argument.
Harris said he understands the push to oust the Gun Violence Reduction Team – “the outcry and the national and local fervor for why,” he said. “But I don’t see the logic.”
He said he favors de-militarizing police and strengthening police oversight to rid the bureau of bad officers.
“There’s an institutional knowledge that comes from the collective group of working together. That once you disband them, you lose,’’ Harris said. “Now you’ll get someone who’s trying to put together pieces of a puzzle, a case, that’s more complex.’’
— Maxine Bernstein
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