Unhappy Ending 

Portland's Working Hard to Stop Gang Violence. But It's Increased.

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GANG VIOLENCE TASK FORCE meetings don't typically involve tears.

Depending on the cruel vacillations of Portland's gang attacks—so rare earlier this year before a rash of recent homicides—the semimonthly gatherings might see concerns vented or a bout of cheery kudos.

Never tears, though, and rarely conflict. Which is what made Pastor Dwight Minnieweather's speech on a recent Friday noteworthy.

"I have a son," Minnieweather said, standing up abruptly as the December 6 meeting of the task force wound down. "He's eight years old, and I don't want to see him shot or killed. Why are we talking about every other subject?"

The pastor, who leads local outreach organization Straightway Services, is a regular at the task force meetings. And he frequently brings along former gang members to listen to the discussions. He's got cachet in the group—along with a reputation for being able to secure hot dog buns for community functions.

But Minnieweather's frustration has some obvious roots. Portland has seen a relative explosion in gang violence over the last several years, and 2013 was bloodier than most.

After a vicious 2012—with 118 shootings, stabbings, and assaults, the highest since the heyday of street gangs in the mid-'90s—the focus this year has been on improving our numbers ["The Good Fight," Feature, Aug 15]. And they have improved, by some measures.

As of Thursday, December 12, the Portland Police Bureau had logged 101 gang attacks this year, compared to 112 at the same time in 2012, nearly a 10 percent reduction.

Except 2013 was actually more brutal than last year. As of December 6, 38 people had been shot, compared to 25 last year. There had been 11 stabbings, compared to 2012's five.

Minnieweather's eyes welled up as he continued.

"I'm outraged at black people killing black people," he told the room of law enforcement, social services workers, neighborhood organization representatives, and other clergy. "We just keep burying them and burying them and burying them."

It wasn't an exaggeration. While 2013 began relatively peacefully, colder weather has brought increasing violence. Through September, cops were investigating just one gang-related homicide. There have been four since, tying 2013's count with last year's.

"It was quiet as can be," says Lieutenant Art Nakamura, who heads up the police bureau's gang team. "Since May to now, it's been completely crazy."

There's a caveat to those murder numbers. While the bureau's homicide division classifies all of the deaths as gang related, Nakamura says that's a bit ambiguous. The five individuals allegedly had gang ties, but it's not always certain they were killed for gang-affiliated reasons.

But the figures also don't include the violence that's increasingly bleeding past Portland's borders. While gang sets in the '90s were concentrated in North and Northeast Portland, activity has increasingly moved east. Gresham, with far fewer resources than Portland police, has seen five gang-related killings this year. The violence played out mainly over the summer, and spurred the city to hire a gang outreach worker.

But Gresham, like Portland, hasn't responded to the violence by paying for more police work.

"There's only really six cops to do all the gang enforcement out here," says Gresham Police Sergeant Bill Smith, who heads up a multi-jurisdictional gang task force in east Multnomah County. That enforcement, he said, is only possible with a two-year grant from the Oregon Youth Authority. "If we lose this grant, you're gonna lose this team."

The Gang Violence Task Force meeting, on the day Minnieweather spoke up, touched on similar issues. Portland Police Chief Mike Reese noted the bureau had reduced gang officers while grappling with budget cuts this year. He encouraged group members to speak up in favor of police funding well ahead of next spring's budget deliberations.

"This is the time to start weighing in on those conversations," Reese said.

But to the pastor and others in the room, such discussions amounted to a distraction, and the interaction that ensued says a lot about the city's fight against the re-emergence of gang violence. There is plenty of energy being thrown at the problem, but still questions about how best to focus it.

"Like the pastor here, I'm kind of dismayed," said Cornell Bailey, a 40-year-old former member of a gang set called the Hilltop Hustlers, attending his first task force meeting. "None of your words matter to a gang member. You've got no one here representing them."

"Can you make them come?" asked Eric Zimmerman, a deputy district attorney who prosecutes gang crimes. "How are you gonna get them in here?"

"I've got two with me," Minnieweather replied. "How'd I get them in here?"

Portland has adopted a national model to combat gang violence—a three-pronged approach aimed at suppression, intervention, and prevention. Suppression is the cops, intervention comes in the form of gang outreach workers who try to quash potentially violent situations, and prevention, the hope is, will come from better social services for prospective gang members and their families.

The numbers this year don't offer much reassurance.

"There are a ton of services," Nakamura says. "[The challenge is] getting the right person to the right services. We can talk 'til we're blue in that room about all the things we're doing. It takes boots on the ground."

Tom Peavey says the strategy is working. Peavey, a former cop who now works in the city's Office of Youth Violence Prevention, notes it's hard to prove a negative—to quantify the number of potential gang members dissuaded from violent activity.

"I think we're having a vital impact on the possibility of continuing gang behavior," he says. "Is this concluded? Are we on the downswing? I can't answer that."

At the taskforce meeting, Minnieweather's voice grew gradually softer as he wrapped up the impromptu speech. It didn't matter; he had everyone's attention.

"I don't know this place anymore," the pastor said. "It's not Portland, Oregon, and it's not what I'm used to. I'm tired."

There was a smattering of applause.

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