Illustration by Jeff Sheridan

PORTLAND MIGHT NOT be losing the fight against gangs, but it's nowhere close to victory.

And this month—with 2013's gunshots still reverberating—a frustrated group of local justice officials thinks it's time for an approach that other cities have already been employing for years.

For the first time, Multnomah County plans to pay for a full assessment of the region's gang landscape, parsing law enforcement data, carrying out community surveys, and, ideally, developing a more-effective strategy for stemming the tide of violence that's emerged in the last three years.

That effort, the most comprehensive in Portland's decades-old struggle with street gangs, might be long overdue.

"There's a lot of energy in our community around this issue," Christina McMahan, who oversees juvenile probation in the county, said at a recent meeting of the region's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. "But sometimes, literally, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. We don't know how all the pieces of the puzzle come together."

So officials decided recently to adopt a national strategy developed by Chicago researchers in the early 1990s and touted today by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

The strategy calls for many of the same tactics Portland's already employing—things like recruiting community groups, using gang outreach workers, and creating specialty law enforcement units. But the region's never undertaken a study that delves so deeply into the issue, something experts call a crucial first step.

"Unless communities explore and clearly understand the nature and scope of their gang problems based on multiple sources of information, they cannot begin to respond effectively or efficiently," reads an OJJDP guide. "An assessment is the most important step in the design and implementation of the community's plan."

That rings true here, where workers on the frontlines of the region's anti-gang fight sometimes describe inefficiencies and confusion.

"We're all serving the same clients," says Antoinette Edwards, director of the Portland Office of Youth Violence Prevention. "Sometimes six people are touching the same person. It could be more effective."

The OJJDP strategy has been used throughout the country, and is highlighted by the Oregon Youth Development Council as "proven to be effective in combating and reducing the presence of gang activity."

That's a welcome prospect for Portland. Following years of relative calm, gang activity in the city started to swell in 2010. In 2012, Portland cops dealt with 118 attacks, the most officers remembered seeing in nearly two decades. While that number fell in 2013, last year—particularly the tail end—actually saw more actual gunshot and stabbing victims.

And Portland's not the whole picture. More and more, gang violence is following the area's affordable housing past 82nd Avenue and even into Gresham, gradually departing historic trouble spots in North and Northeast Portland.

At the same time, the alliances formed to battle the problem have shown occasional strain. As the Mercury reported last month ["Unhappy Ending," News, Dec 18, 2013], there is dissension in the city's Gang Violence Task Force about the best way to stop the violence, with some community and clergy members saying the group is spinning its wheels.

Under this new approach, the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice plans to lay out what McMahan called "substantial" resources to pay a consultant to lead the charge on an assessment. An exact price wasn't available as of press time.

McMahan says the study should be complete in June, in time to implement its findings by summer—traditionally a prime time for violence. The study also will free up the county to apply for federal grants, some of which require an assessment, officials say.

But leaders hope it will do much more.

Edwards says the study is an opportunity to get much-needed community input on the thorny problem of gangs. "Are we really reaching out to the people we're trying to serve?" she asks. "A community voice has been left out."

And Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill says the county's latest tack is particularly important today, as gangs increasingly differ—both in terms of activity and geography—from those that emerged here in the 1990s.

"It's certainly time, under today's challenges" for an assessment, he says. "We want to understand better what our needs are."