As violence surges, some query Portland axing police unit


PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Elmer Yarborough obtained a terrifying name from his sister: She wept as she informed him two of his nephews might have been shot in broad daylight as they left a bar in Portland, Oregon.

He drove there as quick as he might. An officer informed him considered one of his nephews was heading to the hospital and the opposite, Tyrell Penney, hadn’t survived.

“My sister, Tyrell’s mom, was on the phone; I just said, ‘He’s gone.’ And I just heard the most horrific scream that you could ever imagine,” Yarborough stated.

When Penney was killed final summer season, unrest was roiling liberal Portland as protesters took to the streets nightly to demand racial justice and defunding police. At the identical time, one of many whitest main cities in America was experiencing its deadliest yr in additional than a quarter-century — a pattern seen nationwide — with shootings that overwhelmingly affected the Black neighborhood.

Responding to the requires change in policing, the mayor and City Council minimize a number of police applications from the price range, together with one Yarborough believes might have saved his nephew. A specialised unit targeted on curbing gun violence, which had lengthy confronted criticism for disproportionately concentrating on folks of shade, was disbanded a month earlier than Penney, a 27-year-old Black man visiting from Sacramento, California, was killed on July 25.

Related: Dems advance police reform regardless of ‘defund’ claims

Yarborough and another households surprise if ending the unit is partly guilty for Portland’s dramatic spike in shootings, however officers and consultants attribute elevated gun violence in cities nationwide to the hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment, financial anxiousness and stress on psychological well being.

“Without a doubt, I think it is a possibility that my nephew could still be alive if (the Gun Violence Reduction Team) was not dissolved,” stated Yarborough, a disaster response volunteer for Portland police who responds to shootings to assist victims’ households.

“I cannot say for sure if he would, but what I will tell you is had it not been my nephew that was saved, it probably could have saved the life of someone else,” he stated.

More folks died of gunfire final yr in Portland — 40 — than all the tally of homicides the earlier yr. The variety of shootings — 900 — was nearly 2 half occasions greater than the yr earlier than. The spike has continued this yr, with greater than 150 shootings, together with 45 folks wounded and 12 killed up to now.

Police had warned of potential repercussions of ending the unit, declaring cautionary tales in different cities that had made the same selection.

Portland police quoted former Salinas, California, Police Chief Kelly McMillin: “Not to be overly dramatic, but if you lose the unit which focuses on removing firearms from the hand of violent offenders, people will die. It’s really just that simple.”

Stockton, California, started disbanding and defunding police items devoted to gun violence in 2010. In 2011 and 2012, town’s murder charges reached report highs. After town restored the items, homicides considerably declined, based on information reported by police.

While policing has been refocused in Portland, consultants and officers say it is unlikely these modifications brought on spikes in gun violence.

“I believe if (the Gun Violence Reduction Team) were (around) today, we would still see a substantial, if not identical increase, in shootings in Portland,” Mayor Ted Wheeler stated in January. “This is clearly part of a larger national trend.”

Wheeler, who can be police commissioner, introduced the unit’s disbanding final June and reassigned its 34 officers to patrol. He described it as a chance to reimagine policing and redirected $7 million in police funds towards communities of shade.

The push was led by Jo Ann Hardesty, the primary Black girl elected to the City Council. She cited a 2018 audit displaying nearly 60% of individuals stopped by the gun violence crew had been Black — although they make up lower than 6% of town’s inhabitants.

Nearly half of the 55 complete murder victims in 2020 had been folks of shade, a lot of them from Portland’s traditionally Black neighborhoods, based on metropolis statistics.

So far this yr, there have been 17 homicides — a regarding quantity contemplating there had solely been one murder in the identical interval in 2020.

Among the folks of shade shot to demise final yr had been a 23-year-old Iraqi refugee stopping to select up an Uber fare; an 18-year-old latest highschool graduate; and a 53-year-old girl caught in gang crossfire and killed in entrance of her husband.

The violence has left leaders and neighborhood members scrambling for options. Some say the lack of the unit’s seasoned detectives has harm town, whereas others push for brand new approaches.

Last month, police launched a squad of 15 officers and 6 detectives specializing in gun violence investigations. Officials say it is solely a part of the answer, as leaders companion with neighborhood teams, work to extend transparency and use proactive approaches that do not depend on the stop-and-frisk tactic.

That’s little solace to Penney’s three kids, the buddies he was visiting in Portland or his household, who moved to California when he was baby to keep away from the precise motive he died — gun violence.

Yarborough, Penney’s uncle, was a gang member within the 1990s and had been arrested by officers with Portland’s gun violence crew. Despite that, he described the unit as “the CIA” of the police department and said they often stopped shootings before they happened because of their deep community knowledge.

“They built relationships with gang members and knew who the perpetrators were,” Yarborough said. “They … were able to band together to stop it, or at least refer people impacted to programs to help change their lives.”


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.

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