Mayor Wheeler speaking at a 2020 press conference
Mayor Wheeler speaking at a 2020 press conference City of Portland / YouTube screenshot

The three newest members of Portland City Council aren't on board with Mayor Ted Wheeler's plan to throw $2 million behind a police-centered solution to the city's gun violence problem.

In a memo shared with Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty on Monday, commissioners Carmen Rubio, Mingus Mapps, and Dan Ryan urged their colleagues to support a more community-informed and transparent response to the recent uptick in gun violence.

"There is agreement among the majority of Council that conversations focused on increased funding for police engagement is the wrong place to start," the memo reads.

"Overwhelmingly, the community has asked for thoughtful, considered, and proactive leadership—and they deserve no less," it continues. "This Council cannot prioritize any new investments to the Portland Police Bureau... until we develop a comprehensive plan and timeline to build a community-centered safety system that is right for Portland and co-led by the community."

The three commissioners suggest immediately rerouting the funds Wheeler has earmarked for the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to community programs that focus on gun violence prevention and to expand the city's park rangers program. They also call on City Council to create a clear and transparent plan to address gun violence that is informed by those directly impacted by its prevalence.

"When I see our community suffering, I go to the community to ask what should we be doing right now," said Rubio in an interview with the Mercury Friday morning. "This is a direct reflection of what we've heard from impacted communities about what they need."

In many ways, the proposal outlines a plan that the community had been promised in June 2020, when City Council voted to defund PPB's Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT), due to the program's history of poor data collection and racially disparate policing. In voting to disband the GVRT, commissioners agreed to "reimagine" how the city should respond to gun violence moving forward. Eight months since making that decision, the public has yet to see a city plan to address gun violence. Instead, it has seen an alarming increase in deadly gun violence.

In 2020, Portland saw nearly 900 shootings—more than double from the previous year—and 41 shooting-related deaths. The alarming trend isn't unique to Portland, however: National data shows gun violence increased by more than 50 percent in at least a dozen cities last year.

"This is a direct reflection of what we've heard from impacted communities about what they need."

Like many Portlanders, Rubio said she and her fellow new commissioners had wanted to see a clear plan to move forward with community programs after cutting PPB departments last summer. She was concerned to discover, after entering City Hall in January, there was no concrete plan in the works.

"We know this is happening everywhere across the country right now," said Rubio. "It demonstrates that people everywhere are feeling isolation and despair and economic changes. It's on us to respond."

It's worth nothing that this new proposal comes from the three commissioners who were not members of City Council when it defunded the GVRT last year.

The commissioners' joint proposal is in response to a plan released in early March by a group called the Inter-Faith Peace & Action Collaborative (IPAC) in collaboration the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). The group's plan, which suggested reinstating PPB's former patrol unit dedicated to gun violence, gained Wheeler's immediate approval.

News of the proposal and the mayor's swift support, however, came as a surprise to the rest of City Council. After a year of consistent calls to improve oversight and limit the powers of local law enforcement (demands that led to the GVRT's dissolution), city commissioners weren't planning on increasing the police bureau's budget anytime soon.

Yet Wheeler, who also serves as the city's police commissioner, echoes the PPB's belief that the quickest way to slow the city's surge in shootings is to reinstate and refund a police team solely dedicated to reducing gun violence. The proposal would create a new patrol team of 12 police officers and two sergeants, who would be assisted by five detectives focused on gun violence crimes. PPB estimates it would cost about $1.7 million to fund for the remaining fiscal year, which concludes at the end of June, along with an additional $6 million to include in PPB's 2021-2022 fiscal year budget, which begins July 1.

Wheeler had intended on asking City Council to immediately approve $2 million to begin funding this renewed program along with other gun violence programs, including the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), and PPB's new Enhanced Community Safety Team (ECST), a 24/7 on-call team meant to investigate gun crimes and respond to gun-related 911 calls.

But he did so without the support of his fellow city commissioners.

Hardesty, the commissioner who led the initial charge to defund the former gun violence prevention team, criticized IPAC for prioritizing the needs of police over that of the community. Her opposition to the plan came as no surprise. But it was unclear where the three other City Council commissioners stood on the funding proposal until this week.

"It felt like we were recycling the same flawed tactics that we discontinued last summer and expecting new results. And that’s pretty tone deaf."

Rubio and Ryan said they first heard about Wheeler's endorsement of the IPAC plan through the media.

"For me, the proposal that came from the mayor… it felt like we were recycling the same flawed tactics that we discontinued last summer and expecting new results," Ryan told the Mercury Friday. "And that’s pretty tone deaf."

Ryan, who entered City Hall in October, faced early criticism for not supporting a November proposal to slash the PPB's budget by $18 million. Ryan said he voted against those cuts because they weren't presented without any clear replacement backed by the community.

"I wanted to see a real community safety system being built," said Ryan. "I saw it as an opportunity to restructure and to repurpose... that didn't happen."

The proposal brought forward by Rubio, Mapps, and Ryan is meant to jumpstart the city's work on building that kind of community safety system. It offers both short-term and long-term plans to address the city's gun violence. Here are the highlights:

Short-term goals (to be carried out by April 30):

- Instruct the city's new Community Safety Director, a position meant to improve coordination between Portland's public safety bureaus, to develop an "overall community safety plan," collect and organize all data related to PPB's gun violence work, and serve as the "lead spokesperson for media and external communications with the community."

- Distribute $3.5 million in grant funding to organizations who work with communities impacted by gun violence and who already have an established partnership with the city's Office of Violence Prevention (more on those programs here).

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- Invest an additional $600,000 toward smaller and emerging contractors that don't currently have a contract with the city, but are also doing work that supports communities impacted by gun violence.

- Use $1.4 million to hire 24 rangers to patrol Portland's parks on a 27/7 basis. These rangers wouldn't carry weapons, but would still be responsible for keeping an eye on parks—areas where gun violence has broken out in the past. The explanation: "Park Rangers are goodwill ambassadors and provide a positive, unarmed community safety presence in Portland’s parks and surrounding neighborhoods."

- Instead of adding new staff, instruct PPB to reassign six qualified detectives and one sergeant to focus on assault investigations (which center on gun violence).

Long-term goals (to be carried out by October 2021):

- Establish a timeline to develop a "comprehensive community safety transformation plan" and "gun violence response plan," both led by City Council, and "hire a trauma-informed consultant team to facilitate and co-create-with council and the new coordinating table and community... a written plan with timelines, actions steps and measures of success."

- Improve transparency and access around PPB's gun violence data (especially in regards to demographic data).

The plan also makes several procedural suggestions to prevent Wheeler and other officials from springing this kind of sweeping, urgent police funding proposal on other elected officials in the future. The proposal asks Wheeler to scheduled a public meeting to discuss this proposal in the coming weeks.

Hardesty applauded the three commissioner's proposal in a statement to the Mercury Thursday.

"This proposal is the kind of collaborative problem solving I expected from our historically diverse council where the majority are grounded in community," Hardesty wrote. "This City Council understands the urgency in acting to mitigate gun violence and we are taking action. I am in full support of this proposal and hope council will bring this to a vote as soon as possible.

"This proposal is the kind of collaborative problem solving I expected from our historically diverse council where the majority are grounded in community."

Wheeler is less eager to back his colleagues' counter-offer as a standalone solution. Jim Middaugh, who serves as Wheeler's communications director, explained that Wheeler is looking for a "both/and" solution—one that includes both community and police investments.

"The mayor believes that given the extreme violence, including brazen daytime shootings, that community-based investments must be paired with law enforcement-supported disruption to break the cycles of violence on Portland's streets," wrote Middaugh in a message to the Mercury.

Rubio said she understands why the community demands urgency to address the city's current uptick in gun violence. But she questions why armed police have become the indisputable solution to this crisis.

"We can't just match the fear of violence with the threat of violence," said Rubio.

It also doesn't reflect the needs expressed by communities impacted by gun violence, Rubio said. From her conversations with those Portlanders, Rubio said she's heard requests for youth activities, summer programs, mentorship, and job creation. Not more police.

"They want an environment that support safety," she said. "So we need to change the environment."