Making our community safer requires recognizing the complexity and root causes of the crisis of community violence, and combining it with action and collaboration to work toward both long- and short-term solutions.
Upstream solutions offer a way to address the circumstances and factors from which violence grows. Interventions ranging from increasing access to preschool and summer jobs for youth to improving the physical environment, making treatment for substance use disorders more readily available and improving overall economic standing for communities, can lead to long-term benefits that reduce community violence.
But upstream solutions must be combined with shorter-term strategies, and in some cases require continual, 'round-the-clock response and partnership, particularly for community members facing the risk of immediate, acute violence. That's the kind of intervention that Multnomah County’s Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT) offers.
DVERT is a long-standing multidisciplinary, collaborative unit that works in high-priority, high-risk domestic violence cases. The team works to enhance the safety of high-risk-for-lethality victims, children and animals.
“The idea being that [DVERT] specifically focused on those instances where the violence is really acute and has escalated to a point that we’re concerned about severe outcomes for folks,” said Annie Oldani, program supervisor for the Domestic Violence Crisis Response Unit, which oversees DVERT and other violence prevention programs.
“We are responding to survivors in crisis when a lot of other agencies are not having business hours and there are very few folks for them to reach. So it’s important for us to maintain that and to be in the community trying to provide those services, especially when folks are isolated.”
DVERT works with multiple partners from a variety of other agencies and organizations, including the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s office, Department of Community Justice parole and probation, nonprofit partners, child welfare, legal resources and crime victims’ advocates. The team is funded, in part, by American Rescue Plan funds meant to address issues of community violence.
Oldani’s team of advocates are based in East Portland. They work seven days a week and throughout the night to address community members in crisis. Advocates may be paged directly by the Sheriff’s Office to come to a scene where they fill a vital role amid crisis.
Detective Tamari Johnson, a domestic violence detective with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, says that DVERT has been a crucial resource for the law enforcement agency.
“Domestic violence cases don’t just stop with an arrest. There’s more follow-up that needs to be done that’s beyond our capacity,” said Johnson. DVERT comes in “to help the victims get through those next processes.”
Advocates and detectives often respond together to calls, bringing supplies and resources with them to help people navigate their toughest hours. This may include safety support such as new door locks or security cameras, or basic needs like food or gift cards, and even minor items such as toothpaste and toothbrushes.
“We recognize that sometimes parents are literally grabbing their kiddos and heading for the door,” said Oldani. “They’re not necessarily able to grab diapers or formula. They don’t have food for themselves at a hotel. Or they don’t have money with them. Maybe they need a cab or immediate transportation to get to a friend’s house somewhere safe. So we try to come in and help ease that moment of just basic needs.”
The team combines logistical support with trauma-informed emotional support. That could mean simply listening to the survivor, assisting them through the steps involved in obtaining protection orders, or responding to any other need they may have.
Victims and survivors may opt in or opt out of services. Every survivor is an expert in their own situation.
Something clicks in the survivors, “When I inquire, ‘Hey, do you need any resources, how about this, how about that?’” said Johnson. “Even if they don’t take the resources, there’s a seed that’s planted in their mind.”
Close collaboration between advocates and the Sheriff’s Office is vital when there’s a potential for weapons to be involved. That’s when the team works closely with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Gun Dispossession Unit (GDU) and Sheriff’s Office Civil Process Unit, which prepares the service and execution of court orders.
Sergeant Gary Kirby has dedicated the latest portion of his 30 year career in law enforcement to work with the GDU. Kirby and members of the Civil Process Unit work tirelessly to protect the community from gun violence by ensuring that anyone prohibited from being in possession of firearms or ammunition by a court-ordered protection order or restraining order is in compliance.
Kirby reviews and serves court orders, and works with respondents to voluntarily surrender weapons within the required time frame. The team performs follow-up visits if weapons and ammunition have not been surrendered by the deadline.
“We look for voluntary compliance for the respondents,” said Kirby. “There’s no crime; we simply advise them that the rules within the order require you to surrender firearms in your possession.
“I do get several people who are compliant and willingly work with me and thank me for the work that we do.”
Respondents can voluntarily surrender their firearms to Kirby, the deputies or any law enforcement agency for safekeeping, or to a gun dealer. They may also use a third-party transfer with a background check completed. This requires law enforcement follow-up to ensure the weapon has been provided. The Sheriff’s Office team verifies, monitors and documents the dispossession, which is then sent to the Multnomah County Circuit Court.
Last year alone, the GDU oversaw 244 declarations, where a person legally declared they no longer have weapons, said Kirby. Weapons were surrendered to the GDU in approximately 145 of those declarations.
The last two years have seen a surge in community and gun violence. This year, the Civil Unit team has expanded to include two full-time deputies. The work the team performs is also consistent with state law implemented in 2019, which requires those convicted of certain domestic violence-related charges, as well as those subject to court orders, to turn over guns and ammunition.
“The positive thing out of this whole thing is the fact that we’re tracking and recording these guns — that’s a key factor,‘’ said Kirby. If the GDU isn’t tracking these guns, then “nobody’s tracking” them.
Access to guns presents a danger to victims of abuse. Statistics show that a woman is five times more likely to be murdered if the abuse partner has access to a firearm, Oldani says.
“It can be very terrifying for the victim when there're firearms involved, in this type of situation or any type of situation,” said Johnson. “Gary’s team is instrumental in that to make sure guns are taken out of situations that could be volatile in the future.”
The collaboration and information sharing between DVERT, the Sheriff’s Office and a variety of partners involved in the program are key to keeping people at high risk of domestic violence safe from harm.
Their partnership helps survivors overcome the myriad of barriers they come up against in their search for safety, says Oldani.
“It was a hard thing before and the pandemic has made it even harder, and scarcity of resources has made it even harder. So I think it’s more important than ever if we have safety situations where folks are concerned for their life, that we are doing everything we can to respond in a coordinated and cohesive way.”