PORTLAND POLICE LAUNCHED an aggressive gang patrol last weekend after the city experienced seven shootings in one week. And while the crackdown will get some guns off the streets, long-term gang prevention will require more than just police action, say community activists.
Police view the citywide string of shootings as isolated gang-related incidents—not as the start of a gang war. "This is about people who are gang associates, they have guns, things happen," says Gang Enforcement Team leader Lieutenant Mike Leloff. The shootings reached a fever pitch last week when two teens tried to rob a Fred Meyer on SE 82nd and wound up shooting at police and security guards.
"We used to just be able to put [gang patrol officers] out in North and Northeast—now we have to be mobile," says Leloff, who adds that gang violence has been shifting around the city in part because of gentrification in North Portland.
"We could hear shouting and then later some pops, but because of the Fourth of July, we just assumed it was fireworks," says Matthew Holm, resident of a Northeast Portland condo building where two people were injured during a shooting on Tuesday, July 21. "The cops were there in seconds."
Portland police tried the same mobile gang response tactics back in January under the name Operation Cooldown, and also in 2007. Leloff says the strategy was very effective for reducing violence short term. But looking at the long term, gang activity has increased 12 percent statewide in just the past four years, according to the Oregon Department of Justice. Portland relies heavily on one-time funding for gang prevention programs. That creates only sporadic outreach to Portland's 500 known gang members.
"We need to find a system that keeps us married to gang problems. We have six or seven shootings, we have a press conference and suddenly the money appears," says Rob Richardson, program director for Emmanuel Community Services.
"I do think we're going to see more shootings before we start seeing less," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who rode along with the cops' Gang Enforcement Team on Saturday night, July 25. "But I was very impressed with the cooperation between law enforcement and the outreach folks. There has always been some distrust on one side or the other, I think, but a lot of that seems to have been overcome."
No further shootings were reported last weekend.