THREE RETIRED WOMEN meet under the gazebo in McCoy Park at the heart of New Columbia, a North Portland housing project, on the evening of Friday, June 25. It has been 10 days since a gang-related shooting in the park injured a 17-year-old boy.
Caren Cox, Janis Khorsi, and Jane Lancaster are homeowners at New Columbia, an idyllic-looking community the Portland Housing Bureau built in 2005 to replace the infamously crime-ridden Columbia Villa projects. The three meet regularly to stroll around the sprawling development on a foot patrol. They pick up trash along the way, report maintenance problems, and keep an eye out for crime.
"Summers have been rough here since the get-go," says Cox, a resident since 2005. Across from the Boys and Girls Club at the entrance to the development, candles and flowers line the front porch of the house where another 17-year-old, Billy Moore, was killed on Monday, June 21. Marsel Upton, 16, is in custody for that shooting. Police say he flashed a gang sign at Moore before shooting him.
The women are used to finding evidence of gang activity. "We see tagging from people in gangs, and we've found chains and other things in the bushes," says Cox. "You're not just looking for trash sometimes."
Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese held a press conference on Tuesday, June 22, to address four gang-related shootings that happened so far this June. In those 22 days, the police's Gang Violence Response Team (GVRT) had responded to 10 gang incidents—more than double the four incidents that flared up in June 2008 and 2009.
"There's been an increase in gang activity due to warm summertime temperatures and unemployment," said Adams. While unemployment is high, it's tough to blame temperatures for the violence: This year saw one of the coldest Junes on record.
Police are targeting New Columbia with the GVRT as well as HEAT, a unit that roams the city patrolling gang hotspots.
"There are no clear guidelines for determining what's gang-related," says Chief Reese. "We use our best judgment, and rely on what people are telling us on the street."
The police bureau has two officers on permanent duty at New Columbia.
The ladies on foot patrol are happy to have the officers nearby, but residents still worry.
"I come home, drive into the garage, and I'm in for the night," says Khorsi.
In an empty lot nearby, officers stand around a mobile precinct (a large RV used for special-incident staging). They're part of a police effort to deter crime through visibility, and they aren't doing anything except passing out stickers to the occasional kid.
"I don't speak for the police bureau, but I think it's all just for show," says one of the officers. "They have to make it look like we're doing something."