March 19, 2013

On Saturday, March 2, just before midnight, Portland Police responded to reports of shots fired at an apartment complex at 16047 E. Burnside St.

Officers from Gresham and Troutdale as well as Portland’s Gang Enforcement Team responded, checked all of the apartments and found evidence of gunfire, but no gunshot victims. According to Portland police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson, they got no help from witnesses, and made no arrests.

Gang-related incidents in Portland, often like Saturday’s midnight shooting, have fallen into a lull in past months, a relief to public safety officials after an alarming rise in gang activity during the past three years.

Portland police responded to nine gang-related incidents during the first two months of this year (six in January and three in February), compared to 21 during the same period last year (10 in January and 11 in February).

Yet police and youth outreach workers are not about to rest. They’re keeping the vigilance, holding youth anti-violence summits and bracing for spring break, which is the last week of March.

“In all the precincts, the focus is on hot spots where kids will gather when they’re out of school,” Simpson says. “Parks, community centers, underage dance clubs; a lot of it depends on the weather — if there’s better weather, more will be out.”

TriMet officers will also have extra eyes on the bus and light-rail platforms.

And park rangers and street gang outreach workers from the mayor’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention will have extra patrols on identified hot spots as well. Those hot spots, according to those announced at the recent gang task force meeting, include Lloyd Center, Holladay Park, Cully Boulevard, Burnside Street, 82nd Avenue, and 122nd and Stark. Some of those spots are noted for drug trafficking, others for human trafficking.

The two go hand in hand, according to police.

Victim-centered approach

The term “human trafficking” is often misconstrued as applying only to the prostitution of young girls born oversees. The truth is quite the opposite.

Both the city of Portland and Multnomah County have task forces to combat human trafficking after Portland gained a reputation in recent years as having one of the largest sex industries of any U.S. city.

According to the county, human trafficking includes all sex and labor trafficking and is a growing problem in Oregon due in part to the traffic permitted by Interstates 5 and I-84, the Willamette and Columbia rivers and the state’s large seasonal farming community.

The county’s task force is charged with locating victims, connecting them with resources and coordinating with law enforcement to arrest and prosecute the offenders.

The city’s task force includes two victim advocates from the Sexual Assault Resource Center, housed at the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services.

The city has four shelter beds open for young people caught in human trafficking, and a pilot program provides housing for adult trafficking victims. So far, six women helped through the center are living in their own apartments.

The city is also able to seize items such as cars, cell phones, computers and cash from pimps and johns.

Finally, Portland police have a human trafficking unit of four officers and six detectives who investigate such crimes.

As local officials have tried to wrap their arms around the problem, it’s one that’s inextricably linked to gangs.

“We’re not unlike many cities seeing gang members involved in human trafficking,” Simpson says.

When Simpson worked in the gang unit several years ago, there were pimps and johns, he says. The new terminology change signals a different perspective on the crime.

“When people think of prostitution, their first instinct is a girl walking on the street,” Simpson says. “They’re not thinking about the fact that she’s being traded as a commodity, sold as a product,” often moving from city to city up and down the I-5 corridor.

The change humanizes the victims, Simpson adds. “We have a very victim-centered approach” to the crime.

In Oregon, a few recent human trafficking cases have brought lengthy and even life sentences for the offenders.

Gang task force work continues

Police and youth outreach workers are still doing as much proactive work as they can, especially as spring break approaches, the last week of March.

The mayor-led meetings, held at North Precinct, began during the height of Portland gang activity in the 1990s.

Dozens of juvenile justice and crime prevention stakeholders from the city, county, state and Portland school districts as well as local churches and other organizations participate, sharing updates about the latest problems and efforts to keep kids off the streets.

The meetings are open to the public, and even former gang members have showed up. At every meeting, task force participants make announcements about new programs or community events related to public safety and youth gang outreach.

The largest upcoming event is the 2nd Annual Rob Ingram Youth Summit Against Violence on Saturday, March 16.

It’s being organized by the Multnomah Youth Commission, the official youth policy body for the city of Portland and Multnomah County.

The all-day event is set for the Ambridge Event Center, 1333 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and includes workshops on topics including anti-gay and gender bullying, cyberbullying, gangs, home and school bullying, police harassment and sexual and dating violence. There will also be free meals, a raffle and a youth panel leading discussions.

About 500 youth and adults are expected to attend.

“Our hope is that policymakers who attend the summit will authentically engage with youth in dialogue around issues of violence in our community,” says Umulkher Abdullahi, a student speaking on behalf of the youth commission. “Our goal with this workshop is to have adults listen to youth stories and projects, and to build youth-adult partnerships around issues of violence in our community.”

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