COPS SAY Portland's gang epidemic is the worst it's been in modern times, and that they've got the numbers to back it up.
According to the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) official statistics, May set a new record for monthly gang attacks—25. As of June 19, police had logged 76 gang-related violent crimes in 2015, putting the city on track to have its bloodiest gang year in more than a decade.
"We're seeing numbers we're all worried about," Lieutenant Mike Krantz, who runs the bureau's Gang Enforcement Team, told the city's Community Peace Collaborative on Friday, June 19.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the narrative—complete with convenient historical charts police pass out every couple of weeks—is red meat to Portland media outlets, and pops up every year. The coverage is no longer reserved for the hectic summer months. In early March, KPTV was already decrying hundreds of shots as "gang members sprayed bullets into cars, windows, and homes."
More recently, national outlets have looked into high-profile shootings here. "Is Portland's gang problem getting worse?" Vice asked in March. (The Mercury, too, has covered the cops' reports of gang-related assaults in recent years.)
This furor is potent. Mayor Charlie Hales is spending $2 million in the next year to give Portland teens free access to community centers, in hopes it will steer them away from trouble. The police bureau actually floated the idea of shrinking its Gang Enforcement Team in this year's budget discussions, but instead recently shifted six officers to the unit.
But while there's no question that the city's seen alarming violence recently—including shots fired at crowded events like NE Alberta's Last Thursday street fair or the waterfront Cinco de Mayo festival—there's also skepticism that the statistics are all easily explained as the work of criminal gangs.
The word "gang" is "a catch-all for any shooting where you think the suspect is black," says Jo Ann Hardesty, president of the city's NAACP chapter. "What you're saying is every black kid who dresses weird is in a gang."
The incidents that police are reporting as gang attacks can be murky. They're allowed to be. While Portland police have strict rules for designating someone a "gang affiliate"—complete with a three-tiered appeals process—the process for labeling violence "gang-related" is far more subjective.
Take, for instance, an incident on June 10, when cops say a black man in his 30s shot at a home in North Portland. A police press release said officers didn't know who the suspect was, or why he'd opened fire—yet cops considered it the 72nd gang–related attack of 2015.
Hours later, someone fired a shot into Magoo's Bar and Grill on NE 42nd. Police had no information on a suspect, they said. It could have been related to the earlier incident, or it might have been something else. It became gang-related attack number 73.
Similar reports pop up all the time. When a 16-year-old Vancouver, Washington resident was arrested for shooting three people at Last Thursday on May 28, he told police he knew gang members, but wasn't in a gang. The young man, Turon Walker, had been forthright with police, according to court documents—admitting to the shooting and writing a letter of apology to victims. Cops decided he was lying about his gang involvement, though, and added the shooting to their list.
Police admit this system is imperfect, but stand by these designations. Krantz, the gang unit lieutenant, says his officers can spot a gang attack even if they have no idea who fired shots, or why.
"It's not really that hard for us to nail down, being the experts in the gang enforcement world," Krantz says. "We've never claimed that everything we go to has to be purely, 'you're doing this for the gang.' It is a gang-related violence incident."
But plenty of people question the accuracy of that metric.
"The PPB is too fast and loose with their gang numbers," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, "in part to put community members in the position of not wanting to criticize the cops because they're afraid of the violence in the community."
It's not just frequent police critics like Handelman and Hardesty raising questions.
When officials released a lengthy study into Multnomah County's gang activity in early 2014, the report noted, "law enforcement agencies in Multnomah County do not have an accurate method of identifying gang-involved people." The report listed 133 gang sets police believe operate in the county, but that list included groups like "Juggalos."
Meanwhile, city officials have distanced themselves from the "gang" label to discuss violence playing out in Portland (and increasingly Gresham).
"We don't use the term," says Dana Haynes, spokesman for the mayor's office. "We use 'youth violence' or 'gun violence.'"
Even the city's Gang Violence Task Force—made up of community members, social services, outreach workers, police, and local officials—changed its name last year to the Community Peace Collaborative (the group still frequently uses "gang members" as shorthand for people carrying out gun violence).
And despite Krantz's confidence in his numbers, the police bureau has mulled changing up how it describes these shootings.
"I think maybe there's a thought to move the terminology to something different," says PPB spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson, a former member of the gang unit. "We're having that conversation, too, and talking about that."
There are risks, Simpson says, in the public losing interest in shootings if there's a notion that "that's just a gang thing." But he says changing to a wider descriptor like "gun violence" could have the opposite effect—sending a message random crime is occurring at a time when "shots fired" calls are actually down overall.
Hardesty just wants accuracy.
"If a shooting takes place, say a shooting took place," she says. "Once you have actually investigated and you have been able to prove that there are gang ties, then you can come back and talk about it."