PORTLAND, Ore. -- As homicides in Portland, Oregon, continue to increase and with resources stretched “very thin", Police Chief Chuck Lovell announced Tuesday he is shifting detectives from other divisions to help investigate recent killings.
One area where resources are being pulled from is the cold case squad, which investigates unsolved slayings from 1970 to 2019. All three members of the team, two detectives and a sergeant, have been moved to the homicide unit.
“These cold cases are very important to us. We know the importance they have to families,” Lovell said. “We’re not going away from that work, it’s just a temporary shift of resources to help with current rise in homicides.”
Resources and officers from sex crimes, property crimes and human trafficking units have also been moved to help address the city’s killings and gun violence. As a result, the homicide unit has increased from 18 officers to 24.
Homicides have been on the rise in Portland for the past few years. From 2019 to 2020, Portland had a sharper rise in killings — an 83% increase — than nearly all major cities. Nationally, homicides had increased by nearly 30% in the same time, based on FBI data.
City police and officials say the increase — which disproportionally affected Portland’s Black community — was fueled by gang-related arguments, drug deals gone awry and disputes among homeless people. The situation was exacerbated by the pandemic, economic hardships and mental health crises.
Last year, Portland recorded 90 homicides last year — shattering the city’s previous high of 66 set in 1987. So far this year, there have been 31 homicides. The Oregonian/OregonLive reports that nine of the homicides this year have resulted in an arrest.
In total, this year there have been nearly 500 shootings in Portland.
“We’ve had the perfect storm of things,” Lovell said. “Not only do we have a shrinking police department, we have the pandemic, a rise in shootings, a big cut to the budget in 2020, a loss of many officers between August of 2020 and now.”
Portland’s police department has struggled to keep up amid an acute staffing shortage and budget cuts. Currently, the bureau has 772 sworn members. Lovell says his ideal staffing level is 1,100.
Between August 2020 and November 2021, about 200 officers 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. In addition, Lovell says 90 officers will be eligible to retire this year.
However, the bureau hopes to hire more officers soon through recruitment and the retire-rehire program. The bureau just hired eight background investigators to help speed the process.
The bureau has also faced budget cuts.
In 2020, following the rallying cries to “defund the police," some Portlanders demanded that $50 million be cut from the police bureau’s budget, with the money going to community-driven initiatives. The City Council responded by cutting $15 million. An additional $12 million was cut due to pandemic-caused economic shortfalls.
As a result, school resource officers, transit police and a gun violence reduction team — which was found to disproportionately target Black Portland residents during traffic stops, according to an audit in March 2018 — were disbanded.
In November, 2021, officials partially restored the cut funds with City Council passing a fall budget bump that increased the $230 million police budget by an additional $5.2 million.
Lovell says that monetary conversations are continuing ahead of the annual budget process. The chief said that he is looking for “budgetary items” that “show support” for the police bureau and “commitment to public safety."