Over 120 community members listened Monday, April 26, as Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and a panel of local experts and community advocates took part in a crucial conversation about the recent increase in gun violence in east County.
The panel consisted of a diverse range of speakers from the Multnomah County’s District Attorney’s Office, Department of Community Justice and Public Health. Also joining were representatives from community partners involved in the Community Healing Initiative (CHI), a program designed to prevent and reduce youth violence and disparities experienced by Black, Latinx and other youth of color who are involved in the juvenile justice system.
“I’ve lived in East Portland for 15 years now,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “Last summer, I witnessed a shooting in front of my house. While this spike mirrors national trends, Portland, and specifically east Portland neighborhoods, have borne an unbearable toll. We need a comprehensive approach to this crisis that incorporates law enforcement, community partners and the providers of our social safety net.”
The numbers paint a dire picture. Even during Monday’s hour-and-a-half panel, two people were shot in Portland.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, charges of manslaughter in east Multnomah County have risen 130 percent; 83 percent of those charges have involved a firearm. In the months of July and August of 2020 alone, 37 gun-related injuries were reported, along with 14 murders.
According to Portland Police Deputy Chief Chris Davis, Portland’s homicide rate has experienced the largest increase of any similarly sized West Coast city. The last month without a homicide in east County was April 2020.
“We were one of the safest big cities in the United States, but that isn’t the case anymore,” he said.
Much of Monday’s conversation contextualized this dramatic uptick in violence in east County and highlighted the necessary work being done to reimagine public safety and find solutions to gun violence. Panelists also took questions from listeners.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt highlighted the intersection between class and the increase in violent crimes in east County, the only region of the county that has seen poverty rates increase since 2010. Today, half of all Portland families experiencing poverty live in east County.
The economic impacts of the pandemic affected east County residents especially hard, as they were more likely to work in sectors with higher rates of layoffs and reduced hours.
“When you overlay the poverty map by zip code with the gun violence map that’s happening in our city, they really are right on top of each other,” Schmidt says. “It’s hard to ignore the socioeconomic factors, they’re very correlated.”
“A lot of the safety net factors were already threadbare,” he said.
Schmidt added that the increase in violence was clearly tied to several factors, including lack of social activities, the long closure of in-person schooling, and general unemployment.
At the same time we were experiencing massive civil unrest in our city, Schmidt said. “The nightly resources called upon by Portland Police had an impact and the different ways we were shifting law enforcing responding to gun violence.”
While we might not know the precise causes of the increase until research and academics can study the impact, explained Schmidt, “some of this we do know.”
Ximena Ospina-Todd of Latino Network, a program that oversees violence prevention and intervention programs for Latinx youth, agrees with Schmidt’s economic assessment. Since the pandemic, the Latinx families she serves have been through tremendous amounts of stress.
“The COVID pandemic has only intensified the needs of our families in our community who were already navigating multiple barriers,” she said. “Families were already navigating multiple work schedules prior to COVID and continue to experience the need for stable housing and access to stable employment, healthcare, mental health services, and overall culturally specific resources and information.”
The youth Ospina-Todd works with have been particularly vulnerable, often having a hard time staying on top of online school and connecting with existing support systems such as friends, church and mentors.
Starting last summer, many expressed concern about being in public for fear of contracting COVID-19. Ospina-Todd says that this has pushed vulnerable Latinx youth to the margins even more, with very little adult supervision.
“These have been the perfect scenarios for recruitment and engagement in activities that only lead to risky behaviors,” she says.
Despite being isolated, youth have yearned for healthy activities and in-person connection. Both Ospina-Todd and Schmidt believe that the best method of upstream action to curb gun violence is by investing in culturally specific community-based organizations (CBOs) to foster positive environments and teach youth about the dangers of gun violence.
“We know that when you invest in CBOs, where we do outreach and work on gun violence, we see up to a 12 percent decrease in violent crime,” Schmidt said.
A Public Health Approach
Moving forward, it is important that Multnomah County looks to increase cultural outreach and allow community-based organizations and community members to guide officials, says Ebony Clarke, the interim director of the County’s Health Department. Doing so, she says, will strengthen already-existing programs and create new connections.
Clarke also stressed the need to tailor solutions and interventions to specific communities.
“We have to have a strategy that’s not cookie cutter. There are disparities that are very different from each other. The drivers or the root causes might not be specifically the same in east Portland versus North Portland,” Clarke said. “There might be some themes, there might be some trends, but we have to understand uniquely what’s the problem specific to each area and region of where we’re seeing this violence.”
One massive step Multnomah County is taking toward ending gun violence in east County is by treating the issue as both a public safety problem and a public health issue. Clarke underscored the need for services, support, and treatment that are not only community based, but clinically based, too.
“We have folks who are hurting, we have folks who are mentally unstable, we have folks who have been traumatized,” she said. “If we don’t have actual treatment services that are coupled with the outreach, prevention, and case management, then we’re not going to be able to mitigate, prevent, and see a decrease in these behaviors.”
To achieve this goal, Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health Division is in the process of creating a mental health treatment team to better serve underserved communities in east County. The team will be composed of Black, Latinx and African immigrant mental health clinicians.
“We have found that in the community, [traditional] treatment services have not lent themselves to the outcomes we’re looking for,” Clarke said.
But that work, she says, “starts with relationships with the community, it starts with relationships with those who are impacted, and it starts with enhancing the relationships with all of us who are here on this panel today.”
Community Safety through Positive Change
Erika Preuitt, the director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ), described the important work the County does with adults and youth on probation.
DCJ is responsible for their supervision, and connects people “who have gone through the system” to culturally specific, wrap-around services. They also sanction and hold individuals engaging in high-risk behaviors accountable.
The work includes adult parole and probation officers and juvenile court counselors who work in the community daily, she said. DCJ’s approach combines accountability with resources to change behavior.
“We could not do this work alone,” Preuitt stressed. The department also partners with the Community Healing Initiative providers Latino Network and POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School, which serve as a clearinghouse of much-needed services for youth and families affected by violence. Preuitt shared that, based on the program’s success with the Latinx and Black communities, Multnomah County will expand the CHI program to work with the African immigrant community.
“The most important footprint we have in public safety is our ability to help people get to the resources they need so they can change their behaviors.”
Investments are also being made in services for victims.
“We know that there are victims in every crime. We are investing in Victim and Survivor Services through the Department of Community Justice. We have resources for families that are actually impacted by gun violence,” she said, “if someone needs somewhere they can be safe or someone needs to have a resource so they have the flexibility.”
Community Health Specialists are also part and parcel of DCJ’s efforts to increase the safety of the community, shared Preuitt.
“We have actively put Health Department staff within DCJ to have a further reach in the community — people with lived experience who can reach out to families.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney Kirsten Snowden, who has over 20 years of experience working with gang and gun violence, overlaid much of the downstream work that the Multnomah County DA’s office has done to curb east County gun violence. She says her team has been meeting weekly with police to share sensitive information to identify and build cases against the most prolific shooters.
“We’re doing analysis where we are looking at the same gun being used in six or eight different crimes in a short period of time,” she said.
“So we’re looking at that retaliatory element and trying to intervene in the violence because when one group is retaliating against another, one shooting, one injury, one death just begins another.”
Though investigating and prosecuting crimes is their primary job, the District Attorney’s office also refers victims of violence to counseling and other support or treatment programs.
Commissioner Vega Pederson thanked each panelist for their contribution to the conversation and their work in helping to mitigate this violence. She also expressed gratitude to the community for submitting questions.
“We’re on the precipice of another summer. None of us want to see a summer like we had before,” Vega Pederson said.
“I think that knowing how we can work together more, knowing how we can support organizations like Latino Network and POIC, and how we can continue to advocate for our east Portland community to get the resources and investments we need to address this gun violence issue, which is just a facet of a larger issue of equity, investment, and… an unfair allocation of resources in our society.”