'A dangerous time': Portland, Oregon, sees record homicides

Portland, Oregon, has had 67 homicides so far this year and the city has surpassed its previous full-year record of 66 in 1987

PORTLAND, Ore. -- It was nearly last call on a Friday when Jacob Eli Knight Vasquez went to get a drink across the street from the tavern where he worked in northwest Portland — an area with a thriving dining scene, where citygoers enjoy laid-back eateries, international cuisines and cozy cafés.

The 34-year-old had been at the pizza bar only a short time when shots rang out. Vasquez was struck by a stray bullet and died at the scene.

His killing in late September was one of the 67 homicides this year in Portland, which has surpassed its previous full-year record of 66 in 1987. And with more than two months remaining in the year, Portland will likely shatter its previous high mark.

In a metropolis wracked by gang violence, fear and frustration have settled over Portland as stories like Vasquez’s make some wary to go out at night. Unlike previous years, more bystanders are being caught in the crossfire — from people mourning at vigils and sitting in cars to children playing in a park.

“People should be leery because this is a dangerous time,” said Lionel Irving Jr., a lifelong Portland resident and a gang outreach worker.

Portland’s police department is struggling to keep up amid an acute staffing shortage and budget cuts. Now, the liberal Pacific Northwest city is implementing novel solutions aimed at improving safety, including adding traffic barrels to prevent drive-by shootings and suspending minor traffic stops so officers can focus on immediate threats.

But critics say Oregon’s largest city — where the population has grown by nearly 50%, to more than 650,000, over the past few decades — is flailing.

“Let’s please untie the hands of our law enforcement officers,” Vasquez’s brother-in-law, Don Osborn, said outside the business where Vasquez was slain. “I believe if the proper tools were in place for our law enforcement officers, this wouldn’t even have happened.”

So far this year, Portland has had more than 1,000 shootings, at least 314 people have been injured by bullets, and firearms have accounted for three-quarters of homicides. Police attribute much of the gunfire to gangs, fights and retaliation killings, but they are also affecting bystanders.

Nine-year-old Hadar Kedem recently told city leaders about a dangerously close call when she was caught in gunfire earlier this year.

Hadar had been playing with her father, brother and dog at a northeast Portland park when a group of people in ski masks started shooting. Hadar and her family dove for cover behind a metal equipment bin. One bullet landed within feet of the fourth-grader.

“I know that not only do I want change, but everyone wants change,” Hadar said during a City Council meeting last month. “I want to feel safe.”

Nationally, homicides increased by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, based on FBI data. However, in Portland, deadly violence — which has been exacerbated by the pandemic — is increasing at a faster rate than nearly all major cities, with an 83% increase in homicides in 2020.

Portland has had more homicides in 2021 than some larger cities, including San Francisco, and twice as many slayings as its larger neighbor, Seattle. Other hard-hit Western cities include the Albuquerque, New Mexico, metro area, which has about 679,000 residents and has had a record 97 homicides this year.

Portland police have struggled to quell the violence with a force 128 officers below its authorized strength. Since August 2020, about 200 officers have left the department. Many, in their exit interviews, cited low morale, lack of support from city officials and burnout from months of racial justice protests, which often ended in plumes of tear gas before largely dying down last fall.

“We are running on fumes. There’s no way we can investigate thoroughly, and correctly, all these shootings," said Daryl Turner, executive director of Portland's police union.

Turner says the city needs to hire 840 officers over the next five years to implement proper community policing and keep Portland safe.

Besides staffing, Turner said the increase in violence is directly related to budget cuts.

Amid booming calls to defund the police, city leaders slashed $27 million from the police budget last year — $11 million due to the pandemic-caused budget crisis — a decision that Turner says has cost lives.

Officials also disbanded a specialized unit focused on curbing gun violence, which long faced criticism for disproportionately targeting people of color. However, the City Council has approved the creation of a new team of officers to address gun violence, set to launch in November, but with no additional funds.

Insufficient manpower and money have forced officials to implement nontraditional ideas in an attempt to hinder gun violence.

More traffic barrels were installed this month in a southeast Portland neighborhood plagued by shootings, some linked to high-speed drivers. City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said they hope to slow activity at gun violence hot spots and make it harder to "both commit a crime and get away with it.”

“This is an all-hands-on deck situation where government needs to dig deep, think creatively,” Hardesty said. “From police to community-based organizations to infrastructure design — we all have a role to play in this emergency."

In addition, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced in June that officers are no longer being directed to stop drivers for low-level traffic violations.

Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell said this was in response to data showing a disproportionate impact on Black drivers, but also because the city doesn't have enough officers.

But experts, police and residents say these measures aren't nearly enough to counter the most violent year in the city's modern history.

“This past year has shattered anything that I’ve ever witnessed,” said Irving, the outreach worker and a former gang member.

He said he does not believe gun violence will slow unless more officers patrol the streets and a specialized gun violence unit is created. Investments also are needed for community-based organizations that help at-risk youth, he said.

Four cultural institutions in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown neighborhood recently sent a letter to officials, demanding immediate action to keep visitors, staff and volunteers safe.

The increasing violence and pleas for cities to do more have compelled some areas to switch from defunding police departments to restoring funding.

Portions of police budgets are also being restored around the U.S. There were massive budget cuts for departments such as Los Angeles and New York amid the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd last year. But local leaders have approved reviving some funding.

In Portland, there's money available for public safety in the form of a $60 million general fund excess balance.

The City Council can use half the money, which came from business taxes last year and was far more than anticipated, however it wants. Whether a significant portion will go to the police bureau has not yet been determined.

“We have to realize that everybody has a role, from community members to the police department,” Irving said. “No one entity is going to solve gun violence.”

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Sara Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.