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Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the city's first Black woman elected to the city council, led a charge to dismantle the police's gun violence unit. [Alex Milan Tracy/AP]

Law Enforcement

Portland’s High Stakes Experiment to Shrink the Role of Police in Fighting Gun Violence

Away from the protests, shootings are on the rise. City leaders recently disbanded a police unit meant to prevent them — and what happens next might shape public safety for years.

Five months before federal troops swept in and President Donald Trump deemed the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, a “wacky Radical Left Do Nothing Democrat,” an assistant police chief in Portland, Oregon, asked his bosses to keep a unit dedicated to reducing gun violence. 

The team, which pairs police with community organizations to reach potential victims and shooters, had more work than it could handle, Andrew Shearer told the City Council in February. Portland had averaged a shooting every 13 hours in January. Each bullet seemed to spur several dozen more. A 2013 fatal shooting outside the Fontaine Bleau nightclub, for instance, had inspired 114 retaliatory shootings, Shearer said, including one that killed a pregnant woman. 

Most of the violence involved just a couple hundred people, Shearer said, but that number disguised a disturbing truth: More than half the shooters and victims were Black — in a city where just 6 percent of the population is. 

“There is no group more directly and disproportionately affected by gun violence in Portland than African American adult males,” Shearer, who is white, told the council. 

Across the table, Jo Ann Hardesty leaned forward. A year and a half earlier, she’d become the first Black woman elected to the City Council in Portland’s 105-year-history. She had campaigned on a promise to cut the gun violence unit, which started 30 years ago doing gang enforcement. For too long, Hardesty said, it had done nothing more than hassle Black residents. 

Her fellow commissioners, all of whom are white, were not convinced. For the second year in a row, they decided to continue funding the team. 

“Then,” Hardesty said, “a revolution happened.” 

Just before Portland finalized its budget, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protesters crowded streets in every major city, including Portland. The city’s white police chief stepped down, suggesting as her successor a Black lieutenant, and more than 67,000 people — a tenth of Portland’s population — asked the council to slice $50 million from the department’s $245 million budget. Hardesty’s colleagues agreed to eliminate the police units that patrol schools and public transit, and they cut the gun violence team she had long yearned to disband.

Cities across the country began considering similar moves this summer. In New York City, the police commissioner dismantled the plainclothes team tasked with stopping violent crime and ridding the streets of illegal guns. Leaders in Baltimore halted plans to expand the police hubs that focus on gun violence. City councils in Oakland and Norman, Oklahoma, slashed overall police budgets. And in Minneapolis, a group of city councilors began pushing a plan to abolish police entirely. 

But two months later, as gun violence has surged, demands that reached a fever pitch earlier this summer have met new opposition. Homicides are up 16 percent compared to 2019 in a sample of cities. In Portland, where shooting had been rising all year, July was the deadliest month in three decades. The push for reform has begun to stall. The Minneapolis Charter Commission blocked councilors’ policing proposal from appearing on a November ballot. Portland’s mayor has suggested he might reinstate the gun violence team his council just cut.

No city has successfully diminished gun violence without the help of police. In fact, researchers who study the issue say decades of data shows that nothing has done more to reduce violent crime than uniformed teams like the one Portland dissolved this summer. But police-led violence prevention also comes with collateral costs: namely fear, incarceration, and the kind of violence that has propelled protesters into the streets. 

Activists and academics say there is another way. Emerging research suggests that nonpolice approaches might cost less and work better, but city leaders will have to reimagine how they invest dwindling tax dollars in the middle of a crisis. Navigating a path forward won’t be easy: Protesters say the cuts are not deep enough, and gun violence victims say the changes have left them vulnerable. But what city leaders do next may shape Black communities across the country for generations to come.

In the late 1980s, Portland leaders believed they could suppress gun violence without a special police unit. Gang members were creeping up I-5 from Los Angeles then, spreading the crime that had proliferated in Southern California. Cities from Santa Rosa, California, to Seattle created uniformed squads to address the problem. But Portland’s chief said in 1987 that he preferred a “proactive” approach focused on the root causes of crime. With his encouragement, officials invested in a coalition of 37 organizations they thought would keep the city safe. They created a gang hotline and hired field workers to mentor young people in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. Schools rolled out anti-gang curriculums, and nonprofits started helping young people find jobs. 

The experiment lasted less than a year. Against the chief’s recommendation and amid a surge in shootings, the City Council unanimously agreed to create a new gang enforcement team. By July, 1988, a team of 10 officers was patrolling the city’s Black neighborhoods, arresting people for drugs and low-level offenses in an attempt to keep them off the streets. 

For 30 years, Portland relied on that unit to reduce gun violence. Then, in March 2018, a city audit raised concerns about its effectiveness. The audit found that the gang officers were skilled police who de-escalated fights and racked up fewer misconduct complaints than their colleagues. But nearly 60 percent of the people they pulled over were Black. The officers often didn’t note the reasons they’d stopped people, and they never followed up to determine whether those stops led to declines in shootings. Even when the team increased its patrols, the report found, violence levels fluctuated, sometimes decreasing for a month or two, other times spiking right after police upped their surveillance. 

Though Portland had the fewest homicides of the nation’s 30 largest cities in 2018, it averaged a shooting a day that fall. In October, six people died of gunshot wounds during a three-and-a-half week span. Five of the victims were Black men. 

“I bet some of you are saying to yourself, ‘I’m tired of seeing my people die,’” Pastor Kimberly Black said at the funeral for Markell Devon Jones, a 44-year-old who was gunned down in his car, a shooting that officers witnessed. Police and prosecutors told The Oregonian that most of the incidents stemmed from gang rivalries or shootings like the one outside the Fontaine Bleau. 

Soon after, Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, a Black woman who’d come to the Police Bureau from the Bay Area, announced that the team was restructuring. Its members would no longer focus on gang violence. Instead, they would adopt “focused deterrence,” a model that had worked to reduce homicides in Oakland by more than 40 percent. The new team would keep better data, and it would investigate all city shootings — not just those that police claim are linked to gangs. They would collaborate with community groups, and they’d begin doing their own ballistics testing. They would also change their name: The gang enforcement team would become the gun violence reduction unit. 

“These crimes deeply impact our community,” Outlaw said in a February 2019 statement. “And we want to ensure we create a robust team with the common goal of reducing gun violence.” 

Jo Ann Hardesty joined the council a month after Outlaw rebranded the team. 

Hardesty, a former state legislator and president of the local NAACP chapter, has long been one of the most vocal critics of the police in Portland. She began pushing for reform in 2003, after an officer shot and killed a young Black woman during a traffic stop. Hardesty served on city panels and in volunteer groups aimed at reforming the police. She protested and spoke at rallies, and for eight years, she co-led a monthly memorial for Keaton Otis, a young Black man who died after officers stopped him because they thought he looked and drove “like a gangster.” 

The Police Bureau’s rebranding did not sway Hardesty. The gang team had been operating for 30 years, she said, but for the last two decades, the number of homicides per year had remained roughly the same. Officers stopped people to have what police call “mere conversations,” leaving young Black men feeling powerless in one of the country’s whitest major cities. “This whole system is set up just how it was supposed to be 400 years ago,” Hardesty said. 

Shearer knew Hardesty hoped to cut the gun violence unit, and he told commissioners in February that doing so might be dangerous. Portland is one of the country’s safest big cities, but Shearer said he’d talked to police chiefs in two California cities — Stockton and Salinas — and they’d both seen “significant increases” in shootings after they cut similar teams. Stockton wound up restoring its unit, Shearer said, and homicides declined afterward. 

The truth may be a bit murkier. The public media partnership Guns & America found in February that the gun violence units have no long-term benefit. Stockton’s numbers eventually went back up, even with a team in place, and the same thing happened in Detroit and in South Bend, Indiana. 

Thomas Abt, a former Obama administration official and the author of “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence,” says no one program is a panacea, but that “focused deterrence” — the model Oakland uses — has “the strongest track record of any single program that’s been rigorously reviewed.” How it’s implemented matters. Oakland failed twice before finding a version that worked. The successful incarnation, which Oakland calls Ceasefire, uses police, prosecutors, and community groups to identify the people most likely to shoot or be shot. The partners contact those people, individually, and through what they call “group call-ins,” which typically involve both police officers and social workers. They then connect willing participants to jobs or other social programs — which Abt describes as “something to say yes to.” Police deal with the most persistent offenders. 

Shearer acknowledged in February that he didn’t know yet whether Portland’s version of focused deterrence was working. Before 2019, the Police Bureau did not track every shooting, so the team couldn’t show whether their work led to an increase or decrease in gun violence. But they’d reviewed data and found that the average shooting suspect had been arrested 10 times before the incident, and the average victim had been arrested 13 times. The team had started doing call-ins, and they’d connected some people with social services, but they hadn’t reached everyone. 

Charlie Asheim, an officer who joined the unit in 2010, when it was still a gang enforcement team, said it was impossible to chart his best work. He hung out at basketball games and barbecues, and when he did stop people, he often didn’t arrest them for small offenses, he said. He didn’t care if a person had weed or an expired license, he just wanted to build relationships. 

“Lots of times, it’s literally seeing a car on the corner. You don’t get out of your car, you just say ‘What’s up?’ shoot the shit,” he said. “I would contact the same kid three or four times, maybe at a traffic stop, maybe at a football game, maybe at his job. We might run into a group at a shooting scene, and the more you get to know him, the more I can say, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be here.’ I’m not just an anonymous cop. I have talked to you four times before this.”

Those connections help officers solve crimes, Asheim said, and sometimes, they help them prevent a shooting before it occurs. 

Researchers say abolitionists are arguing against one of criminology’s most robust findings: Putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime. 

But Patrick Sharkey, a Princeton sociologist and author of “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence,” says that research comes with a caveat: While police may have the best track record, they also have the biggest collateral costs. 

Sharkey’s studies have shown that just one neighborhood shooting can cause children to sleep less and perform worse on standardized tests, setting in motion tides that may leave them behind for life. But that’s true whether the shooter is a civilian or a police officer. And new research suggests that officer-involved shootings might have twice as strong an impact on children, Sharkey said. In a study released this summer, Harvard professor Desmond Ang showed that when a law enforcement officer kills someone, the high school students who live near the scene begin to perform worse in school. They miss classes. Their grade point averages drop, and they become less likely to graduate from high school or enroll in college. 

Even departments with better practices can harm residents. Minneapolis, for instance, had tried reform. Its officers had undergone implicit-bias training, and the city even had its own Ceasefire program. Nonetheless, Ang’s research suggests that the young people who live in the neighborhood where George Floyd died will fall behind in school. 

“When we rely on police to create public safety,” Sharkey said, “it comes with huge, staggering costs that are visible not just in the extreme cases, but in other outcomes, like a sense of being welcomed in your own neighborhood, and in rates of mass incarceration.”

Sharkey believes there’s another option. Community groups might reduce gun violence just as well as police officers do, but civic leaders have never deeply invested in them, and researchers haven’t studied them as rigorously as they have law enforcement. 

That lack of research may drive budget decisions. Last year, in Fresno, California, the city council wanted to adopt a program that would have provided education, job training, counseling, and addiction services to those most at risk of being a perpetrator or victim of gun violence. The mayor vetoed the council’s vote, citing a lack of scientific evidence in favor of the program, which is called Advance Peace.

But Sharkey says the research that does exist is encouraging. After the Fresno veto, the American Public Health Association found that when Richmond, California, began using Advance Peace in 2010, violent gun crime declined by 43 percent, and gun deaths dropped by 55 percent. 

Other cities have had similar successes. A study in Philadelphia found that after volunteers turned vacant lots into green spaces, violence fell by 40 percent. In Baltimore, former gang members who served as mentors and violence interrupters helped reduce the homicide rate in four neighborhoods. And in Chicago, when organizations connected young people to summer jobs, participants’ involvement with violence declined by 43 percent

Even Abt — who believes that police must be a part of any violence prevention strategy — has said that cognitive behavioral therapy might be the most effective way to reduce gun violence. That strategy, which boosted high school graduation rates in Chicago and cut participants’ violent-crime arrests in half, gives traumatized young men help with anger management and impulse control, and it empowers them to make better use of other social services. 

The problem, Sharkey said, is that good programs sometimes don’t last. For a community organization to truly be effective, residents have to know that they are stable and integrated into the neighborhood. 

“We’ve never made that kind of enduring commitment,” Sharkey said of funding a program for 10 or 20 years. “The only enduring commitment cities have made is to the police and criminal legal system, so they become the default plans in dealing with violence over time. But another model is not only possible, there’s good reason to think it would be more effective, and it would not generate the same costs as when we rely entirely on police and the criminal legal system.” 

When Portland’s council decided in the 1980s to create a gang team, it set in motion three decades of unequal investment. As the police budget grew, the city cut back the number of civilian outreach workers it employed. By 2006, the program had a single employee and a $37,000 budget. A newer effort, the city’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention, has fared better, but it, too, has always had only a fraction of the money and manpower the gun violence team had. City leaders budgeted $5.4 million for the 36-person police unit last year. They spent $1.5 million on the two-person Office of Youth Violence Prevention. 

Shearer, the assistant police chief, asked the council in February to invest more in social support, but when the commissioners cut the team, they did not put the savings toward other gun violence reduction efforts. Instead, they allocated $4.8 million toward a nonpolice team that will respond to 911 calls involving people who are homeless. The rest will go into the city’s general fund. 

Activists, led by minority-run groups like Unite Oregon and the Portland African American Leadership Forum, say Hardesty’s cuts did not go far enough. “Friendlier” policing was not the goal, Joy Alise, the executive director of the leadership group, said in a council meeting. “There is no policing that does not threaten us.” 

Even after Hardesty’s cuts passed, Portlanders have continued to protest outside police precincts and in a small section of downtown — demonstrations the police have responded to with tear gas and rubber bullets. Both Oregon’s governor and the speaker of the legislature’s House of Representatives criticized the bureau’s response to protests, and federal judges twice granted temporary restraining orders, one limiting officers’ use of tear gas, and another barring them for arresting or using force against journalists

In mid-July, as some protesters lit fires and officers continued to use tear gas, President Trump called the city “out of control.” He dispatched federal officers to “quell” the protests. One federal officer shot a protester in the head with an impact munition, fracturing the man’s skull. 

Late last month, a right-wing activist was shot and killed. A few days later, law enforcement agents fatally shot a man who’d told Vice News hours earlier that he’d killed the right-wing activist in self defense. 

The head of Portland’s police union has cast the violence surrounding the protests as part of a bigger problem exacerbated by the loss of the gun violence team. In a statement, he urged the mayor to restore the cuts before the city falls deeper into “the sinkhole that has made Portland the subject of negative national news.”

Police in Portland use tear gas to disperse protesters during a demonstration on September 5. [AP/Noah Berger]

Hardesty, who has demanded that Mayor Wheeler give her oversight over the Police Bureau, said the city has to find a new way forward. The transition might be “messy” and require city leaders to “enter uncharted waters,” but she has said she is eager to find new models for community safety. 

Nike Greene, the director of Office of Youth Violence Prevention and a Black woman who grew up and still lives in the neighborhood where gangs first appeared in the city, said she knows what to do. On her first day last fall, she found a copy of Abt’s book on her desk. She knows that cognitive behavioral therapy and intense mentoring can drastically reduce gun violence.  

Even if Portland leaders want to try a new model, Greene’s office doesn’t have the capacity to build one. Her team awards grants to nonprofits, and those community groups hire outreach workers who coordinate with her. The outreach workers earn only $19 an hour, nearly $30,000 less per year than a rookie police officer makes without overtime. And a hospital-intervention program that’s worked in two dozen cities has only two employees to mentor the hundreds of Black and Latino men who’ve been treated for gunshot or stab wounds. 

Like Abt, Greene believes that violence prevention doesn’t work without police. She says her team has suffered since the gun violence unit disbanded July 1. Officers used to call social workers as soon as a shooting happened to tell them who was involved, who might be at risk, and who might be gunning for revenge. Last month, when the hospital outreach worker showed up after a shooting, the patrol officer didn’t understand why the worker was there. The officer didn’t know the backstory of the victim, and he didn’t know who might need help. 

“This provides an intelligence gap that is alarming for our office,” Greene said. “When you don’t know what you’re walking into — is this a high-risk family, is there a nexus — you find yourself spending more time spinning your wheels. You could have had three more shootings by the time you figure out who the individuals are.”

Both Sharkey and Abt worry that cutting the unit without approving a robust alternative may prove deadly. Portland officers say it already has. By June, as violence surged nationwide, Portland had seen a 30 percent increase in shootings over last year. July saw more homicides than any month during the past three decades. Early that month, someone fired 25 rounds in a Southeast Portland neighborhood, several of which hit a car with a mother and her four children inside. A 10-year-old girl was injured. Two days later, an 18-year-old woman who’d just graduated from high school was killed in the middle of the afternoon (the suspect, according to her family, was her boyfriend). The month ended with someone firing 150 shots outside of an apartment building, hitting one woman, eight apartments, and seven vehicles.

Wheeler hinted in early August that he might restore parts of the team. The number of shootings has continued to tick up — there were 116 in August, a 183 percent increase over the same time period in 2019 — but the mayor has yet to announce a plan for addressing the violence. 

Royal Harris, a community activist who helped start Portland’s Black gangs in the 1980s, and whose brother’s 2013 shooting death inspired the 114 retaliatory shootings Shearer mentioned in February, said he understands why people long for reform. An officer first held a gun to his head when he was an 11-year-old walking to his grandmother’s house after dark, he said. 

But the gun violence team was different. They knew his grandmother. They were the only officers who saw his brothers as people, not just Black men to arrest. They helped his neighbors find jobs, even when they had outstanding warrants. 

Harris said the Black men he knows want police because they want their mothers, spouses, and children to be safe. But the random officers who patrol his outer Northeast Portland neighborhood now don’t know his relatives, and Harris worries that may lead to more dangerous policing. 

“We tear shit up without a plan,” Harris said. “That’s radical to white people in Portland. But Black and Brown men will disproportionately suffer.”