More than 150 guests tuned in Thursday, Oct. 7, for a virtual issue forum on community violence.
The monthly event, hosted by Commissioner Lori Stegmann, features timely topics affecting East Multnomah County and the community at large. Thursday’s forum focused on the pervasive issue of gun and community violence, and served as a follow-up conversation about the progress that’s been made on the investments made by the Board of County Commissioners last spring.
“In the spring, we held the first of these meetings to engage system and community partners in a conversation about increased investments in community violence prevention,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann.
Since then, Multnomah County has made historic investments across the system, including in prevention, intervention, suppression and prosecution strategies to mitigate various forms of violence.
But because the disparate parts of the public safety system have historically operated in silos, "we know there are gaps,” said Stegmann. “We have to do a better job of serving our communities. And this evening we will hear about those efforts.”
Stegmann co-hosted the event with Royal Harris, a longtime Oregonian and organizer of the “March Against Murder” rallies that have convened over the past year in response to surging community and gun violence.
“It was my personal way of doing the work of helping to address the rise in gun violence and homicides in our city,” said Harris. “I’ve been working with young people since 1993. This is something I’ve always been passionate about.”
The ability to connect with the residents of East County and Gresham and understand the level of violence in that community is so important, said Harris, as is getting the necessary resources to those who are doing the work.
“I really appreciate her [Commissioner Stegmann] as someone who comes from the community, really engaging in this work.”
Thursday’s speakers included Multnomah County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council Executive Director Abbey Stamp, Health Department Director Ebony Clarke, President and CEO of POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School Joe McFerrin II, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, County Department of Community Justice Erika Preuitt, Multnomah County Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey-O’Donnell and newly appointed Gresham Police Chief Travis Gullberg.
Stamp described work being done through the Transforming Justice Initiative, an effort born out of the January 2020 What Works in Public Safety Conference.
“We had an all-day conference and really had a conversation about whether the criminal legal system is doing good or harm,” said Stamp. “Just having a hard look in the mirror about what the criminal justice system does, and what it shouldn’t do.”
Today, Transforming Justice’s executive and steering committees are working toward developing a fully realized, implementable vision of the public safety system that leads with race and prioritizes interventions for Black, Indigenous and other People of Color; shrinks the criminal legal system footprint and grows health, housing, and treatment responses; and increases restorative approaches, said Stamp. The goal is to deliver a strategic plan across the public safety system that outlasts turnover and election cycles.
The work comes at a critical time, Stamp said, referencing the global COVID-19 pandemic, as well as flashpoints like the murder of George Floyd and subsequent widespread calls for racial justice and public safety reform.
“Everybody in the criminal legal system was absolutely confronted with racial reckoning, illness in jails, keeping people safe in courthouses — and we were really worried this work was going to stop — but it gave us an opportunity to really lean in. We have to make this work happen.”
A Public Health Approach to Gun Violence
Sarah Fast, a manager for Multnomah County’s Community and Adolescent Health Program, and Yolanda Gonzalez, a senior manager in the Behavioral Health Division, joined Clarke to outline the County’s multi-pronged, upstream public health approach to addressing community violence.
The Health Department has a role to play in addressing issues of survival, such as homelessness, food insecurity and unemployment, and gun violence is no exception, Clarke said.
“We recognize the critical role the Health Department plays in addressing the root causes of gun violence. We really work to bring a public health approach — an anti-violence lens,” Clarke said.
“And there are through lines to structural and systemic racism. The pandemic has exacerbated it.”
Recent investments include roughly $2.8 million split between Behavioral Health and Public Health to fund initiatives such as a Gun Violence Behavioral Health Response Team, community-based mental health services for children and families, and community health specialists to work alongside community-based organizations.
The work of applying public health and behavioral health strategies must also “be community-driven” and effectively engage everyone who is impacted by gun and community violence, said Clarke. That includes victims, justice-involved individuals, the surrounding neighborhoods and communities, schools, businesses and houses of worship.
The County’s Community and Adolescent Health team is contributing to upstream prevention by increasing services in priority neighborhoods, shared Fast. The program is hiring program specialists and three additional community health workers to work specifically with Black and Somali community members, and increase the number of funded projects in the neighborhoods with higher concentrations of those populations.
“We specifically center violence as a root cause because we know it is a leading cause of injury, disability and premature death,” added Fast.
Gonzalez described some of the existing services provided by the County’s Direct Clinical Services programs, including an early childhood team, a crisis assessment and treatment service team, school-based mental health and more.
They are in the process of bringing on the three more clinicians of color to supplement the work, specifically to serve the Latinx, African American, and immigrant and refugee communities, said Gonzalez.
“There’s been a huge effort and energy in bringing on culturally specific providers in my unit. Over 50 percent of our clinicians are now clinicians of color from the community,” said Gonzalez. “We’re also partnering with our community to bring on credible messengers (people with lived experience and/or have experience with gun violence themselves) to bring on that bridge."
And, the County is working on a referral pathway for people affected by gun violence to engage with the Gun Violence Behavioral Health Response Team, she said.
“We needed this yesterday. We need it as soon as possible.”
There’s no wrong door into the County’s behavioral health services, Clarke said. "We have a 24/7 Behavioral Health Crisis Intervention Call Center. That number is 503-988-4888.”
“This work is near and dear to my heart,” said Joe McFerrin II, president and CEO of POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School. POIC (Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center) has existed for over 52 years.
“In the 80s when gangs showed up, crack cocaine became prominent in our community,” said McFerrin. Back then, “we worked with students being pushed out of the school system. So this work runs deep in our organization.”
Today, POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School works closely with students who are vulnerable to the impacts of the uptick in community violence, said McFerrin.
“We have worked with high-risk African American young men who went down the wrong street,” said McFerrin. “We’ve been able to work with them and watch them make a change for the better... Today, they’re productive members of our community."
But the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures — circumstances that McFerrin acknowledges are beyond the school’s control — have combined to exacerbate the dangers youth and adults face.
Despite the challenges, the Community Healing Initiative — a partnership between the organization, Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division and Latino Network that works to reduce disparities experienced by Black, Latinx and other youth of color in the justice system — continues to positively impact hundreds of families affiliated with POIC.
“Not all of our participants make the right choices... but the overwhelming majority make the right choices,‘’ said McFerrin. “I’m thankful to the County for continuing to invest in the Community Healing Initiative.''
The County is also investing in a project called the “Public Safety Village” that, McFerrin shared, will be a consortium of Black-led organizations led by individuals who have been impacted by or involved in community violence. “The Village” will fill local gaps in violence intervention services by providing cognitive-behavioral therapy, conflict resolution, recreation opportunities, youth grief/loss support groups, decision-making skill-building and more.
“I believe if we’re all strong, we won’t be in a situation like we’re in now,” said McFerrin. “We must professionalize this work and get wages up. If we have more people from our community working this problem from all corners, we won’t see this type of uptick.”
District Attorney Mike Schmidt
District Attorney Mike Schmidt shared that he was recently on a call with the sheriff from Middlesex County in Massachusetts on gun violence, and that they were experiencing the same challenges Multnomah County is going through.
While the harms of the surge in gun violence is being felt acutely across the Portland area, rising rates of gun violence homicides is empirically a national problem, with FBI data showing a 29 percent increase in gun violence homicides across the country, Schmidt told attendees.
Schmidt mentioned that the incidents of gun violence “line up almost precisely” with the census tracts in Multnomah County where we see higher levels of poverty and environmental pollution. That level of data, he said, was only made possible by an economic mobility dashboard spearheaded by Commissioner Stegmann and her office.
“A lot of folks are scared, but what we cannot do is go to the knee-jerk reaction of more arrests, more prosecution,” said Schmidt.
Pro-social activities are crucial to getting people engaged and giving them protective factors or conditions that contribute to health and well-being. Unfortunately, those activities are exactly what the pandemic took away. Rebuilding safety requires keeping youth in the community surrounded by family, health care, after-school programs.
“I couldn’t agree more with my fellow presenters,” said District Attorney Mike Schmidt. “To get at the roots of this, it’s going to take Joe McFerrin and POIC, and it’s going to take Ebony Clarke and that kind of outreach.”
However, law enforcement and prosecutors still play crucial roles in accountability and suppression.
“We get called out in the middle of the night. We’re on the scene of those investigations. We are getting called out at higher levels than we have previously.”
Schmidt also shared his office’s dashboard on gun violence, which gives the public an idea of the volume of cases and the agencies the DA’s office is seeing them from. The dashboard includes victim and defendant demographic as well as incident location information.
“I’m grateful to Commissioner Stegmann and the Board for making an investment in our office, adding four new prosecutors so we can keep up in the work that we have, and also help and assist detectives so we can make more cases,” Schmidt said.
The increased capacity in his office will also help get more guns off the street, Schmidt said, a critical strategy for reducing gun violence.
“We see the same gun may be used in three, four or five shooting incidents. We need to get that gun off the street after incident one.”
Department of Community Justice
“As a person who grew up here and has family members who have given to this community, I’m proud to be part of this, '' said Erika Preuitt, director of the Department of Community Justice (DCJ).
The vision of DCJ, which works with adults on probation and parole, as well as youth on informal or formal supervision, is “Community Safety through Positive Change,” Preuitt said.
The department is the last point in the criminal justice system.
“And this is the place where we have hope for change and believe that people can change,'' said Preuitt.
“We invest in proven practices to help (people) look at behaviors and think about behaving differently. When we help an individual change their behavior, we help that person restore their family and build stronger and safer communities.”
DCJ is active in the East County Gun Violence Initiative and the Portland Area Gun Violence Initiative — two collaborative efforts focused on information-sharing and the removal of illegal guns in the community.
“Our parole and probation officers and juvenile court counselors are working very hard to reach families and individuals who are impacted by violence.” she said.
Preuitt noted that DCJ has a hand in launching or expanding several efforts to curb community violence, thanks to the historic investments made by the Board of County Commissioners. For example, the County’s Community Healing Initiative, which will help young Latinx and African immigrant men, ages 17 to 25, who are impacted by gang involvement and gun violence gain employment, further their education, participate in mentoring and more.
“We’re long time partners with POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School and Latino Network, which when it started only focused on youth. But as we have grown and understood the value of the partnership, we have expanded it to other populations, such as emerging adults,” Preuitt said.
The department is also working on plans to virtually “call-in” people on DCJ’s caseloads engaged in risky behavior in the community, “giving them a message of accountability, but also a message of hope.”
“We want to target those engaging in violence — particularly gang violence — so they can go back to the groups to share the message.”
Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office
The crisis of community violence requires a collaborative response, said Multnomah County Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey-O’Donnell. That means addressing issues holistically, including underlying causes, providing services and investigative resources in the crisis's immediacy, as well as working on long-term strategies.
The Sheriff’s Office continually works with the City of Portland’s Office of Violence Prevention, Portland Police, the County’s Department of Community Justice, District Attorney’s Office, Gresham Police and federal partners on the FBI’s Metro Safe Streets Task Force.
They have also created a detective team that is dedicated to investigating all East County gun violence incidents. That team, she said, sees cases through their prosecution to provide accountability and closure to victims and family members. MCSO also assigned the same detectives to the Safe Streets Initiative, which allows access to additional federal investigative resources. That team collects evidence such as shell casings and recovered firearms that are submitted for analysis.
“As DA Schmidt mentioned, this has been a successful process in linking firearms to multiple incidents in our community,” said Morrisey-O’Donnell.
Information sharing on trends, investigations and on what is occurring in the community is paramount to the work, she said. Like DCJ, that work happens through the East Multnomah County Gun Violence Prevention Initiative and Portland Area Crime Gun Initiative.
MCSO regularly works with DCJ and the Office of Violence Prevention to support individuals who are present at the scenes of violence; they also work with Healing Hurt People to support victims who end up in the hospital.
Together, the team works to identify those at-risk and connect again with family members to deter future violence, she said.
Finally, the MCSO Special Investigations Unit focuses on criminal organizations with connections to guns and illegal drugs. Gun dispossession efforts are vital to the efforts.
“A gun dispossession sergeant on that team focuses on removing firearms when protection orders are in place. The same sergeant works alongside our civil unit to serve protection orders to immediately remove firearms in volatile situations,” Morrisey-O’Donnell said.
Gresham Police Chief Travis Gullberg
“The importance of going after guns is really about identifying individuals involved and having a better awareness of what is actually going on,” said Gresham Police Travis Gullberg.
Suppressing violence, Gullberg said, rests heavily on investigation, sharing information and collaboration.
When guns are successfully taken off the streets, “we can actually use that information and share it with our partners to identify individuals taking advantage of vulnerable populations in our community,” Gullberg said.
“We’re taking advantage of long-standing relationships… Now more than ever, we need everybody at the table,” he said. “It is critical for our success that we work together, that we support each other and that we understand we must do it differently than we’ve done in the past.”
Data helps direct both reactive and proactive responses and the department is looking into non-sworn staff support staff to help supplement the effort.
Attendees at the forum had an opportunity to submit questions.
“Leadership matters,” said Stegmann. “I have the privilege of working alongside these departments and divisions.”
“They bring their lived experience, passion and love for our community. I hope you all saw that because it’s something I see every day. I’m incredibly grateful we had this conversation.”To learn more about these initiatives and get connected to future events, please contact the Office of Commissioner Lori Stegmann at District4@multco.us or 503-988-5213.