Members of PPBs Gang Enforcement Team
Members of PPB's Gang Enforcement Team Portland City Auditor

It's uncommon for city commissioners to introduce their own counter-proposals to a mayor's proposed city budget. Usually, commissioners' qualms with how the mayor divvies out city dollars are brought up behind closed doors or during a council work session—and ultimately reflected in the budget's final draft.

So when Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty went public with a list of specific tweaks to Mayor Ted Wheeler's proposed budget earlier this month, City Hall raised its collective eyebrow.

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But, after holding a community budget hearing dominated by public support of Hardesty's pitch, Wheeler added a few of Hardesty's suggestions to his budget, like flagging $250,000 for community outreach in preparation for the 2020 Census and setting aside $270,000 for anti-displacement work in East Portland.

There's one particularly contentious request, however, that Wheeler has refused to consider: Defunding the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT).

This particular department, previously called the Gang Enforcement Team (GET), faced harsh scrutiny in March 2018, after a city audit revealed GET officers disproportionally pull over Black drivers because "most gang shootings in Portland [are] committed by African American gangs.” This open admittance to racial profiling enraged police accountability advocates, like Hardesty, who frequently referenced the audit during her city council campaign.

"There's a difference between community groups that work with young people to give them positive activities to be engaged and involved in and hiring 28 police officers who... ride around all day looking for gang members," Hardesty told the Mercury last week.

Hardesty suggests cutting the entire program and placing its officers on general patrol, where they can respond to the city's skyrocketing 911 calls and provide backup to other officers.

This is despite the city's attempt to redesign the controversial GET program in October 2018. According to PPB spokesperson Brad Yakots, the renamed Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT) has a new mission "to investigate and reduce all shootings regardless of the presence of a gang nexus." This transition expanded the 28-person team to 34. Since October, the number of monthly shootings in Portland have steadily declined.

In an email to the Mercury, Yakots said the new team relies heavily on analyzing forensic data pulled from firearms and bullets used in a crime, and focuses on all types of gun-related crimes, not just gang violence. But GVRT officers still conducts traffic stops. Yakots did not answer whether or not the GVRT has taken steps to reduce any potential biases regarding which drivers they chose to pull over and interrogate.

"Although this project has experienced some early success," Yakots said, "it is still considered relatively new."

In the past week, PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw and US Attorney for the District of Oregon Billy Williams have issued press releases arguing that the GVRT plays a critical role in Portland policing. Neither leader has addressed the main bias issue driving Hardesty's distrust of the program.

Royal Harris, a Multnomah County health employee and former gang outreach contractor with the city, says that data should resolve Hardesty's issues with the GVRT.

"Police were pulling over more Black people because 80 percent of the city's shootings were being committed by Black people," said Harris, an African American man who's been pulled over by the GET in the past. "We can't cherry pick data to change major policies."

While he saw issues with the way the city made generalizations about gang-involved youth in the past, Harris says he's hopeful that the GVRT will improve how PPB addresses gun violence—and improve public safety along the way. Harris says the name change is an important start.

"Language is important. Getting rid of the word 'gang' says we're moving away from identity-based policing to behavior-based policing," says Harris. "We're focusing on the behavior of gun violence, not racial profiling or suspected association with a gang. It's data-driven."

City Council will vote on Wheeler's proposed budget—with or without GVRT—on Wednesday, May 22 at 2 pm.