Portland Police Bureau (PPB) announced a new gun violence response team Friday, less than a year after Portland City Council dissolved the controversial Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT).
Dubbed the Enhanced Community Safety Team (ECST), the new unit will be tasked with investigating gun crimes and responding to high-level 911 calls involving a firearm. The ECST is framed as responsive gun violence unit, where GVRT attempted to be preventative—a practice that fell prey to reported racial profiling.
"This is a very high priority for us," said PPB Deputy Chief Chris Davis at an afternoon press conference. "This is not just a a public safety issue, it's a public health issue."
The ECST will consist of three sergeants, six detectives, and 12 officers, many of whom already focus on gun crime investigations at the bureau. The biggest difference is that the ECST will have several of its officers on-call 24/7 to respond to gun-related emergencies. This change comes with a price tag: Davis estimates the police bureau needing to expand its annual budget by at least $350,000 to compensate the on-call workers.
Davis said the bureau, which has been tasked to make significant budget cuts, is still figuring out where that additional funding will come from, but PPB "didn't want the money to stand in the way while people are being hurt."
The creation of this new PPB unit follows a significant citywide surge in gun violence. In 2020, Portland saw nearly 900 shootings—more than double recorded the previous year—and 41 shooting-related deaths. About half of those killed were people of color. This uptick began in late 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but criminologists say the anxieties brought out by the pandemic could have contributed to the surge. It's not a Portland-specific issue: National data shows gun violence increased by more than 50 percent in at least a dozen cities last year.
Others link the increase in shootings to the July disbanding of the police bureau's GVRT, the unit dedicated to investigating gun-related crimes.
City Council voted to defund the GVRT in June, one of several decisions made in response to the local racial justice protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. The GVRT—previously called the "Gang Enforcement Team"—had been on the chopping block since a 2018 city audit found its officers disproportionally pulled over Black drivers because "most gang shootings in Portland [are] committed by African American gangs.” It took 2020's racial justice uprising to get the entire council behind its disbandment.
The Portland Police Association (PPA), PPB's union for rank-and-file officers, and other law enforcement advocates say the end of the GVRT explains the year's increase in shootings—ignoring the fact that this surge began seven months before the team was defunded.
On Friday, Davis explained that the bureau is being "intentional" to make sure the ECST doesn't succumb to the same problems as the GVRT.
"The traditional police approach... is for us to define the problem and then to impose a solution on that problem," said Davis. "In the past we haven't always done a good job in engaging the public in those solutions, and that's how you get this collateral damage, in terms of disparates."
"The difference this time," he continued, "is that we have community engagement in what those strategies will be."
He did not elaborate on what that community engagement has looked like in practice.
Davis did say the new team will not focus on building the kind of relationships that GVRT officers did with members of the public who were involved with gun crimes or gangs, a practice that some saw as an excuse to over-police Portland's Black community.
Davis said the new team is just a piece of the city's solution to increased gun violence, which will involve additional programs from the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), which is overseen by Mayor Ted Wheeler. Wheeler has been working closely with PPB Chief Chuck Lovell and OVP Director Nike Greene to find a suitable replacement for the GVRT since he chose to defund it.
"I am deeply impacted by the loss of life and the trauma plaguing our community," said Wheeler in a press statement sent after the Friday press conference. "This is one of several law enforcement actions my administration is working on. We’re also working on increased prevention, intervention, education and support for victims and their families."