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Portland church hopes to address the roots of gun violence with youth summit

Highland Christian Center held a youth summit Friday and invited police to attend, part of an effort to tackle the city's gun violence epidemic.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Friday was the final day of a summer camp for kids at Highland Christian Center in the Montavilla neighborhood of Northeast Portland; a day of celebration and fun for the young ones and their teen mentors.

But there was something else in store for the older kids. The teens took a seat inside for a youth summit on gun violence, and some took the mic to ask questions.

The event was about connecting and building trust and respect between the police and young Black members of the community. It was organized by Senior Pastor Shon Neyland, who said he's heard the kids concerns about gun violence and wanted to start a dialogue.

Neyland said kids have said things like, “I'm always on the lookout, I’m always on alert." With that hypervigilance in mind, Neyland wanted to find out what the police can do to assure these young people that they are caring for them, they are out there with them — that they're not against them.

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John Bartlett has been a Portland police officer for five years. This year he is on the city's Focused Intervention Team, which deals directly with gun crimes.

“What I can say with my experience is that the gun problem on the streets of Portland is prolific, they're everywhere,” said Bartlett, referring to the ubiquity of firearms throughout the city.

Bartlett told KGW before the summit started that he wanted to be there to connect with young Black people who are disproportionately affected by Portland’s gun violence.

“These are kids — they haven't done anything to deserve this horrible plight that's been dropped in their laps," he said, "but again, I can't do it alone and we need their help. And we have to do it as a team.”

So Bartlett took questions about what he's seen.

“Does it hurt to see someone pass away in (front of) your eyes?” asked one teenager named Oscar.

The officer answered that it is hard, even when it's your job.

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“I have, as a police officer, had people that I don't know die in my arms, I’ve been covered in other people's blood that I was trying to help after some horrific emergency,” said Bartlett, who emphasized that the pain runs deeper for those who lose loved ones and friends.

And there were questions about police use of guns instead of other options.

“They have tasers, pepper spray, other things they can have instead of having their hands on a gun as they're walking up to the car,” said another teenage boy.

“I've been shot at by the driver of a car and so there are safety concerns," Bartlett responded. "But just because I’ve been shot at before doesn't mean that I should have license to treat every person as a threat.”

When the kids were asked if they've been affected or know people affected by gun violence, the hands went up — a sign that there is a history of trauma here, and more work to do.

So far this year, 51 people have died by gunfire in Portland and 252 more have been injured, according to Portland police numbers. The number of total confirmed shootings, where someone may or may not have been hurt, is astronomical — 844 as of Thursday.

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