The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) still doesn’t track enough data to evaluate whether its gun violence intervention tactics are effective at measurably reducing gun violence, a report from the city auditor found.
The report, released Tuesday, is a follow-up to a larger audit published in 2018 that evaluated the PPB’s Gang Enforcement Team—a group that aimed to target gang members by pulling them over for minor traffic violations in order to search their car. The audit found the Gang Enforcement Team disproportionally initiated traffic stops with Black drivers, citing the unsubstantiated claim that “most gang shootings in Portland [are] committed by African American gangs.” The audit also cited concerns with the team’s documentation of people they believed to be gang affiliated, noting that the bureau lacked policies that would protect those people’s civil liberties.
After the team openly admitted to racial profiling, the Gang Enforcement Team was renamed the Gun Violence Reduction Team in 2019, with a focus on reducing gun violence generally. Following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, City Council voted to dissolve the specialized team.
However, after gun violence spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, the police bureau resurrected its gun violence reduction efforts in the form of two new teams that split the workload of the former Gang Enforcement Team. The Enhanced Community Safety Team (ECST) investigates gun violence, and the Focused Intervention Team (FIT) aims to address gun violence through patrols and traffic stops.
Because the two gun violence-focused teams share a similar mission and duties as the original Gang Enforcement Team, City Auditor Simone Rede reevaluated whether the recommendations the bureau received in 2018 are being applied to the new teams. According to the report, while the Portland police have improved their reporting on racial demographics for traffic stops and monitoring stop data, the bureau must do more to establish criteria and goals that can be used to measure the effectiveness of the traffic stops and create policies that protect civil liberties of people the police believe are affiliated with routine gun violence.
The FIT’s patrol efforts have a high-level goal of improving relationships with community members most impacted by gun violence and using targeted patrol missions to seize illegally-possessed weapons during traffic stops. While the team has a guiding mission, the auditor says the police bureau doesn’t have measurable goals or criteria to track the effectiveness of the FIT’s work.
“While the Bureau has a high-level mission statement for the Intervention Team, it has not set goals to measure the effectiveness of patrol stops made by the Intervention Team,” the auditor’s report reads. “This makes it difficult for the Bureau to articulate whether the new unit’s traffic stops are successful at meeting its mission to reduce violent crime and ease tension in the community.”
The report also points to a continued concern with the lack of demographic data and reporting on FIT traffic stops that are recorded as “mere conversations”—interactions that don’t result in the driver being detained or charged. The report recommends that those conversations are recorded more diligently to have a complete picture of the team’s patrols and how “mere conversations” are utilized by the police.
In a letter responding to the report, Mayor Ted Wheeler—who also serves as police commissioner—disagreed with the recommendation to increase reporting on the conversations. Wheeler argued that “mere conversations” account for any interaction an officer has with a member of the public, like someone engaging in small talk or asking an officer for directions. Wheeler argued that not only would it be a major lift to record and maintain all of the additional data, but it could also have a “chilling effect on community engagement if police officers are required to collect demographic information.”
Wheeler also disagreed with the entire premise of the follow-up report, stating that the FIT and ECST are fundamentally different from the previous Gang Enforcement Team and thus should not be held to the same expectations outlined in the 2018 audit. According to Wheeler, because the FIT uses real-time community feedback to inform its work, the team would be better evaluated with a new audit. That real-time input is provided by the FIT Community Oversight Group, a volunteer committee that gives feedback on the team’s efforts and makes recommendations for other gun violence reduction tactics.
One of the oversight group’s recommendations included Portland employing gun detection technology company ShotSpotter—a service that uses microphones to record possible gunshots and alert the police. ShotSpotter is currently under investigation by the city for possibly violating lobbying laws due to how closely company representatives worked with the Portland police and community oversight group members ahead of the group’s recommendation to utilize the technology. The city is currently still considering a gun detection technology pilot program, possibly in collaboration with ShotSpotter, despite significant negative public feedback on the plan.
The FIT oversight group also recently raised the idea of developing a Violent Impact Players list—a point system that ranks people who are most likely to engage in gun violence. According to the city auditor, developing policies for protecting people’s civil liberties and weighing them against legal requirements would become even more important if the FIT moves forward with that recommendation.
PPB did not provide a comment on the report independent of Wheeler’s response.
“Though its units have changed, the Police Bureau’s commitment to accountable and transparent policing should not,” Rede said in a press release Tuesday. “Policies are fundamental to responsible management of information the Bureau collects about community members. Setting goals would help City leaders and community members assess whether the Bureau’s tactics are reducing violent crime.”