Before the Storm 

Gang Activity Is Down. Cops Are Worried

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FOR THOSE WARRING against Portland's decades-old legacy of gang violence, 2013 has been, so far, something of a luxury.

The Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) Gang Violence Response Team had opened just 29 investigations as of May 15, compared to 52 during the same period in 2012. That pace, if continued throughout the year, would result in 77 gang-related stabbings and shootings and assaults in 2013, well under last year's historically high 118 incidents.

And there's more hopeful news: Outreach workers say they're having increased success breaking the cycle of gang activity that can pass from generation to generation.

But for all that, the folks tackling Portland's gang problem are bracing for impact.

Police and social services workers say those responsible for past years' mayhem are coming out of prison in increasing numbers. They worry Portland's gang-affected neighborhoods will witness a flurry of violence as summer approaches.

"All of the intelligence is saying, 'Hey, a lot of guys are getting out,'" Lieutenant Art Nakamura, of the PPB's Gang Enforcement Team, told officials at a meeting of the Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council this month. "If we don't provide them services when they come out, we're going to see the spike we had last year again."

The past month has already been busy for the PPB's gang unit.

From May 9 to May 11, officers investigated six shootings they say were gang related. True to the increasingly eastward sprawl of the city's gang activity—gentrification has pushed some crime out of North and Northeast Portland—the incidents spanned swaths of the city's outer Southeast.

Most of the shootings involved bullets fired at homes and cars. One, near SE 82nd and Powell, resulted in two victims—neither with life-threatening injuries.

"It's absolutely the busiest weekend" of the year to date, Nakamura tells the Mercury. He also pointed to a mid-April weekend when gang officers registered four shootings, including an early-evening barrage at the bustling nexus of N Albina and Killingsworth.

The violence continued last weekend, when police say gang members had a gun battle outside Diamonds Gentlemen's Club at 3390 NE Sandy.

But while cops report violence is climbing, county parole and probation data shows releases of former gang members were relatively stable over the last year—and, in fact, down in the past six months.

According to the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, 48 gang-affiliated offenders came under supervision of county parole officers from April to September 2012. From October 2012 to April 2013, 43 gang members were added to the rolls.

Meanwhile, the people on the frontlines of violence intervention report positive signs. In the recent past, a violent gang member's arrest meant another member would step up to take his place, says Tom Peavey, a policy advisor with Portland's Office of Youth Violence Prevention. That's happening less these days.

"Obviously there's still concern," Peavey says, "but we're seeing something that's dynamically different at the same time."

Even so, social workers active in Oregon's prison system are worried.

"We're seeing an increase in young men who are gang-involved who are going to be coming out into the community this summer," says Felesia Otis, clinical director for the Community Partners Reinvestment Project (CPR) run by Volunteers of America Oregon. "The young men who had been involved a couple years ago when things got really hot are being released."

Established in 2007, the CPR works with offenders beginning six months before their scheduled release date, and up to a year after, helping them transition and, hopefully, change.

In the early years of the program, Otis says, it primarily dealt with drug offenders. Beginning in 2010, though, CPR has seen a steadily increasing ratio of gang members cycle through—nearly 30 percent of all participants the program assists (it works with about 60 people at any given time).

"I'm worried," Otis says. "On the one hand, I know the young men we work with want to be different. [But] everyone they know is gang-affected.

"We can't take them out of that."

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