Portland on the verge of the most violent year in modern history

AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

Portland hasn’t quite crossed that line this year but it seems inevitable. So far this year, 68 people have been killed compared to a high-water mark of 70 who were killed back in 1987. Of course the population of Portland is almost double what it was in 1987. Still, the city had just 36 homicides in all of 2019, so a sudden surge to what will likely be double that in 2021 is worrisome.

Fatal shootings in almost all sections of the city have followed fistfights, social media disputes, and drug deals gone bad. People sitting in cars, relaxing after work with friends in a bar, attending house parties or walking in a park have been shot dead.

Forensic analysis of spent bullet casings from crime scenes reveals connections between many of the shootings, pointing to gangs and retaliation as frequent drivers of the gun violence, investigators say…

From January through the end of September, police counted a total of 943 shootings that killed or injured 307 people. That compares to 488 shootings and 126 people killed or injured in all of last year.

During that same period, police recovered 4,909 bullet casings. That compares to 4,652 in all of 2020.

The comparison to last year is especially worrisome because the number of murders had already spiked 83% last year according to FBI data. Another conspicuous aspect of the murder rate is that it is disproportionally impacting black residents. Portland is one of the whitest cities in the US (nearly 75%). The black population only makes up about 6% of the city. And yet, the breakdown of homicide victims this year looks like this:

So in a city where Black Lives Matter protests were a constant last year, the city now has a murder rate for black residents that is 8 times the murder rate for white residents.

Portland was also one of the cities that jumped in to defund the police last year. In particular, the city got rid of the Gun Violence Reduction Team which activists had argued was racist. That team was specifically focused on reducing gang violence by interceding before it could get started. And as the murder rate continued to rise, the Mayor had second thoughts and announced he was reforming a nearly identical team under a different name.

After one particularly bad weekend this summer when an 18-year-old woman was shot and killed, Mayor Wheeler vowed to “fight for more police officers.” But it turned out that no one wanted the jobs. The city listed 14 openings with the Focused Initiative Team in May, after two months they had a total of four applicants. Meanwhile, officers were resigning their jobs in Portland to take similar jobs making less money elsewhere.

It’s really not hard to see why. Portland has a hardcore contingent of Antifa members who routinely battle the police and destroy public and private property. There were literally dozens of riots last year and in the end almost no one creating the mayhem ever face charges because they inevitably get dropped. Being a cop in Portland is a Sisyphean task. The only thing you can count on is that you’ll be criticized by city leaders, verbally abused by protesters and, if you happen to be a black officer, then it’s likely that abuse will take an ugly racial turn.

But it’s not just the lack of officers that is the problem. The other end of the problem is what is described as a new approach by gangs in which social media sparring online often turns into bullets flying IRL:

The widespread use of social media by gang members, who sometimes post videos of their shootings or taunts to rivals, only exacerbates the anger on the streets, Irving said.

“Everybody wants to be famous. You see guys posing with guns, posting videos of shootouts,” he said. “The information age has added a whole new layer to this gang member lifestyle.”

Police detectives working on these cases have been overwhelmed. The Oregonian reports the clearance rate so far this year is barely over 40 percent. And that means most of the shooters are still out there gunning for members of opposing gangs. And while murder gets the most attention, it’s not the only type of crime that is rising in the city.

Along with the climbing homicides, other violent crime in the city rose in the first half of the year: rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults were up compared to the same period in 2020, according to FBI figures. Portland’s property crimes, including burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and arsons also increased during that same time, the FBI said.

In short, Portland is facing a real mess and there’s no clear way out of it at this point. Gangs are out for blood and no one wants to talk to police. Police have left the city and people don’t want the jobs in a city with an anti-police reputation. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Mayor Ted Wheeler. Almost but, given his history, not quite.

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