'A dangerous time': Portland, Oregon, sees record homicides

Jacob Eli Knight Vasquez was almost at the last call of Friday and he went to grab a drink just across the street from the tavern he used to work in northwest Portland. This area has a vibrant dining scene where people can enjoy relaxed eateries, delicious international cuisines, and cozy cafes.

'A dangerous time': Portland, Oregon, sees record homicides

The 34-year old had only been at the pizza place for a few minutes when shots rang out. Vasquez was hit by a stray gunshot and died on the spot.

In late September, he was killed. Portland's 67 murders this year have surpassed the 1987 record of 66. Portland is likely to surpass its high mark with over two months left in the year.

Fear and frustration over gang violence are settling in the metropolis. Stories like Vasquez's make it difficult for some people to go out at night. Contrary to previous years, there are more innocent people being caught up in the crossfire. This includes children playing in parks and mourning at vigils.

Lionel Irving Jr., a Portland resident who is also a gang outreach worker, said that people should be cautious because it's a dangerous time.

Portland's police force is having a difficult time keeping up with budget cuts and a severe staffing shortage. Oregon's largest city has come up with innovative solutions to improve safety. They have added traffic barrels to stop drivers from shooting at police officers and suspended minor traffic stops to allow them focus on immediate threats.

Critics say that the liberal city of Pacific Northwest, home to over 650,000, is in crisis.

Vasquez's brother in law, Don Osborn, stated outside the place where Vasquez was killed, "Let's please untie our law enforcement officers." "I believe that if we had the right tools for our law enforcement officers, this would not have happened."

Portland has seen about 1000 shootings this year. 314 people have been shot and wounded by bullets. Three-quarters (75%) of all homicides have been committed by firearms. While police attribute a lot of the gunfire to gangs and fights, they also affect bystanders.

Hadar Kedem, nine years old, recently spoke out to city leaders about an unfortunate close call she had when she was captured in gunfire earlier in the year.

Hadar was playing at a park in northeast Portland with her brother, father and dog when they were approached by ski-mask wearing people. Hadar and her family ran for cover behind a metal bin. The fourth-grader was hit by a bullet within feet.

Hadar stated that he knows that everyone wants change and that not only does he want it, but also the City Council. "I want to feel secure."

Based on FBI data, national homicides rose by almost 30% between 2019 and 2020. Portland has seen a significant increase in deadly violence, which is faster than most major cities. In 2020, there was an 83% increase of homicides.

Portland had twice the number of slayings and had more homicides than its bigger neighbor, Seattle, in 2021. Albuquerque in New Mexico has seen a record number of homicides and is one of the hardest-hit Western cities. It has approximately 679,000 inhabitants.

Portland police struggled to stop violence with 128 officers less than their authorized strength. About 200 officers have been fired from the department since August 2020. In exit interviews, many mentioned low morale, lackluster support from the city officials, and burnout due to months of racial injustice protests that often ended in tear gas plumes. The department has been largely quiet since then.

"We are running on fumes. "There's no way that we can investigate all these shootings thoroughly and accurately," stated Daryl Turner, executive Director of Portland's police union.

Turner states that the city must hire 840 officers in the next five-years to ensure proper community policing, and to keep Portland safe.

Turner stated that violence has increased because of budget cuts, in addition to staffing.

In the midst of booming calls for defunding the police, the city leaders cut $27 million from last year's police budget -- $11 million due the pandemic-caused crisis budget crisis -- a decision Turner claims has cost lives.

Officials also disbanded the specialized unit that was focused on curbing gun violence. This unit had been criticised for unfairly targeting people of colour.

Officials have had to resort to nontraditional methods to stop gun violence because of insufficient funds and manpower.

In a neighborhood in southeast Portland that has been plagued by shootings and some of which are linked to high-speed drivers, more traffic barrels were added this month. Jo Ann Hardesty, City Commissioner, stated that they want to reduce gun violence and make it more difficult to "both commit crime and get away."

Hardesty stated that "This is an all-hands on deck situation where government must dig deep and think creatively." "From police to community-based organisations to infrastructure design, we all have a part to play in this emergency," Hardesty said.

Ted Wheeler, the Mayor of Portland, announced that officers will no longer be directed to stop drivers who are committing low-level traffic violations.

Wheeler and Chuck Lovell, Police Chief, said that this was to address data showing a disproportionate effect on Black drivers. However, the city does not have enough officers.

Experts, residents and police say that these measures won't be enough to stop the worst year in the city’s recent history.

Irving, an outreach worker who was a former member of gangs, said that the past year had "shattered everything I've ever seen." Irving stated that he believes gun violence will decrease if there are more officers on the streets and a specialized unit for gun violence. He also suggested investing in community-based organizations.

Recently, four cultural institutions from Portland's Old Town Chinatown neighborhood wrote to officials requesting immediate action to ensure the safety of visitors, staff, and volunteers.

Some areas have switched from funding defunded police departments to restoring funds because of the increasing violence and pleas from cities for more.

Parts of the police budgets in other parts of the U.S. are being restored. Some law enforcement agencies that suffered massive budget cuts last year amid protests across the country over George Floyd's murder have seen their funding restored by local leaders or implemented new programs and units.

Portland has a $60 million surplus balance in its general fund that can be used to provide public safety.

Half of the money that came from business taxes last fiscal year can be used by the City Council. However, it may use any portion as it chooses. It is not clear if a substantial portion of the money will be given to the police bureau.

Irving stated, "We must realize that everyone has a part to play, from the community to the police department." "No single entity can solve gun violence."

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