IN NOVEMBER 2014, Ian Elias shot and killed his ex-wife, 46-year-old Nicolette Elias, in her Southwest Portland home before turning the gun on himself.
The murder-suicide that orphaned the couple's two young children might have been preventable: Ian Elias wasn't legally allowed to possess firearms.
Less than six months prior to the incident, a Multnomah County judge signed a temporary stalking order against him. One condition of that order was that Elias surrender any guns he had.
No one checked to make sure he complied.
It's impossible to say whether taking Elias' gun would have prevented the killings, of course, but the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) are dedicating manpower to make sure a similar "what if?" scenario doesn't play out again.
Last fall, Portland City Council approved a supplemental budget request, funding two officers and one sergeant whose focus would be enforcing the conditions of domestic violence restraining orders, including confiscating offenders' guns. The months-old program has been successful enough that Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton has included a similar request—funding one deputy to focus full-time on restraining order compliance—in next year's budget.
"Having that extra deputy would allow us to dedicate the same resources outside of Portland city limits," says Multnomah County Chief Deputy Linda Yankee. "If we get it funded, the county would be able to work with police to get guns away from people who aren't supposed to have them."
If county commissioners approve roughly $147,000 in funding, Yankee says the sheriff's office will fill the new position by July 1.
Similarly, Portland City Council will decide during upcoming budget talks whether to permanently fund the three positions created last fall. Since receiving $228,000 for the two officers and sergeant, the police bureau has relied on overtime payments for restraining order enforcement. But if the council approves the latest requests, the city will hire three new employees, says Captain Derek Rodrigues, head of the PPB's Family Services Division.
"We're fully preparing for the city council to fund these positions," Rodrigues says. "These officers will be enforcing compliance, period, allowing us to follow up on a lot more cases."
The decisions come at a time of crucial need.
From July 2013 through June 2014, Portland police received 1,137 reports of suspects violating restraining orders—official commands issued by courts to prevent a defendant from carrying out threats. Officers investigated just 151 of those, despite having sufficient reason to believe a violation occurred in 75 percent of the reported cases, according to Annie Neal, a program director with the Multnomah County Department of Human Services' Domestic Violence Coordination Office.
"Restraining order violations that don't include other crimes often don't get followed up on because police have so many other issues to investigate," she says. "This program is helping us identify offenders who are slipping through the cracks."
Neal believes so strongly in the fledgling program that she signed up to speak to Portland City Council last month, rattling off grim stats associated with domestic violence.
Some examples: In Oregon, 66 percent of intimate partner homicides are committed with guns, according to the Oregon Health Authority. In Portland, domestic violence makes up 40 percent of all reported violent crime and is the cause of one in four homicides, Neal says. And the risk of homicide increases by 600 percent when domestic violence perpetrators have access to a gun.
"Two of the biggest known risk factors for further violence and potentially lethal domestic violence are violations of restraining orders and access to guns," Neal told city commissioners at the March 25 hearing.
Every month, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, police, and the sheriff's office receive a list of defendants with restraining orders who haven't yet surrendered their firearms. Until the new police detail began, though, cops had no formal mechanism in place to make sure offenders complied. Even if they did follow up on orders, offenders aren't always easy to find.
"Oftentimes the person doesn't list a home address, or the address is for their significant other where they're no longer allowed," say Multnomah County Sheriff's Lieutenant Ned Walls. "On the last list I saw there were something like 85 people. About 75 didn't have a correct address."
Since the project began last fall, Portland police have received referrals for at least 136 cases in which the offender failed to comply with gun dispossession orders. They have made about a dozen arrests and seized "a handful" of guns, Neal says.
"This is really about increased safety for the victim," she says. "When we've got law enforcement looking for high-risk indicators, hopefully they're able to catch offenders before a homicide occurs."
Neal's plea for continued funding has at least one ally on city council. The issue is one of Commissioner Dan Saltzman's "top priorities" for this budget cycle, says Shannon Callahan, a policy director in Saltzman's office.
Saltzman also recently sent a letter in support of Senate Bill 525—which would prohibit gun ownership by individuals who have active restraining orders against them, or who have been convicted of domestic violence.
"The risk of death or injury to a victim is greatest when a victim leaves an abusive relationship or shortly thereafter," he wrote. "Local law enforcement officers should be able to enforce the law and keep firearms out of the hands of abusers."