As violence escalates, some question removal of Portland’s police unit

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) – Elmer Yarborough received a terrifying call from her sister: She cried when she told her that two of her nephews may have been shot in broad daylight as they left a bar in Portland, Oregon.

He drove there as fast as he could. An officer told him that one of his nephews was heading to the hospital and the other, Tyrell Penney, had not survived.

“My sister, Tyrell’s mom, was on the phone; I just said, ‘He’s gone.’ And I just heard the most horrible scream you can imagine, ”Yarborough said.

When Penney was assassinated last summer, riots rocked liberal Portland as protesters took to the streets every night to demand racial justice and underfund the police. At the same time, one of America’s whitest major cities was experiencing its deadliest year in more than a quarter century, a trend seen across the country, with shootings overwhelmingly affecting the black community.

Responding to calls for change in the police, the mayor and city council cut several police programs from the budget, including one that Yarborough believes could have saved his nephew. A specialized unit focused on curbing gun violence, which had long faced criticism for disproportionately targeting people of color, disbanded a month before Penney, a 27-year-old black man visiting Sacramento, California, was killed on the 25th. of July.

Yarborough and some other families wonder if ending the unit is partly to blame for the dramatic spike in shootings in Portland, but officials and experts attribute the rise in gun violence in cities across the country to the hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment, economic anxiety and mental health stress.

“Without a doubt, I think there is a possibility that my nephew would still be alive if (the Gun Violence Reduction Team) did not disband,” said Yarborough, a crisis response volunteer with the police from the United States. Portland responding to the shootings to support the families of the victims. .

“I can’t say for sure if I would, but what I’m going to tell you is that if it hadn’t been my nephew who was saved, he probably could have saved someone else’s life,” he said.

More people were shot and killed in Portland last year (40) than the total homicides from the previous year. The number of shootings, 900, was almost two and a half times higher than the previous year. The rebound has continued this year, with more than 150 shootings, including 45 people injured and 12 killed so far.

Police had warned of the possible repercussions of ending the unit, pointing to warning stories in other cities that had made a similar decision.

Portland police quoted former Salinas, California Police Chief Kelly McMillin: “I don’t want to be too dramatic, but if you lose the unit that focuses on getting firearms out of the hands of violent criminals, people will die. . It really is that simple. “

Stockton, California, began disbanding and withdrawing funds from police units dedicated to gun violence in 2010. In 2011 and 2012, the city’s homicide rates reached record levels. After the city restored the units, homicides dropped significantly, according to data reported by the police.

While policing has been refocused in Portland, experts and officials say those changes are unlikely to have caused spikes in gun violence.

“I think if (the Gun Violence Reduction Team) were (around) today, we would still see a substantial, if not identical, increase in shootings in Portland,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in January. “This is clearly part of a larger national trend.”

Wheeler, who is also a police commissioner, announced the disbanding of the unit last June and reassigned his 34 officers to patrol. He described it as an opportunity to reinvent policing and redirected $ 7 million in police funds to communities of color.

The push was led by Jo Ann Hardesty, the first black woman elected to the City Council. He cited a 2018 audit that showed that nearly 60% of the people detained by the gun violence team were black, although they represent less than 6% of the city’s population.

Nearly half of the 55 total homicide victims in 2020 were people of color, many of them from Portland’s historically black neighborhoods, according to city statistics.

So far this year, there have been 17 homicides, a concerning number considering there was only one homicide in the same period in 2020.

Among the people of color shot to death last year were a 23-year-old Iraqi refugee stopping to pick up an Uber ticket; an 18-year-old recently graduated from high school; and a 53-year-old woman caught in gang crossfire and killed in front of her husband.

The violence has left community leaders and members struggling to find solutions. Some people say the loss of the unit’s experienced detectives has hit the city, while others push for new approaches.

Last month, police launched a squad of 15 officers and six detectives that focused on gun violence investigations. Officials say it’s only part of the solution, as leaders partner with community groups, work to increase transparency, and use proactive approaches that don’t rely on a stop-and-register tactic.

That’s little consolation for Penney’s three children, visiting friends in Portland or his family, who moved to California as a child to avoid the exact reason he died: gun violence.

Penney’s uncle Yarborough was a gang member in the 1990s and had been arrested by officers from the Portland gun violence team. Despite that, he described the unit as “the CIA” of the police department and said that they often stopped shooting before they occurred due to their deep knowledge of the community.

“They built relationships with gang members and they knew who the perpetrators were,” Yarborough said. “They … were able to come together to stop it, or at least refer affected people to programs to help change their lives.”


Cline is a member of the staff of The Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on uncovered topics.


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