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Portland’s broken window epidemic: Who’s behind the vandalism and what is going to stop it?

There were more reports of broken windows and vandalism in Portland last year than during the violent protests of 2020.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Every 42 minutes there is a report of vandalism in Portland — often involving broken windows. Some storefronts have been hit repeatedly.

“We’ve seen a lot of it,” said landlord Matt Kaplan, as a repair crew worked to replace the broken glass outside of his Old Town building. It was the fifth time in three years vandals smashed the windows.

A few doors down, the dispensary Serra is hidden behind a huge piece of plywood, after its front windows were broken for a sixth time.

“People are running out of money replacing the windows. They’re running out of patience,” said Serra employee Kora Burrows.

In 2022, there were 12,238 reports of vandalism citywide — including broken windows, according to data from the Portland Police Bureau. The agency doesn’t separate broken windows from other types of vandalism. Last year’s numbers are up 27% from 9,660 vandalism cases in 2021. In 2020 there were 8,322 cases and 6,289 in 2019.

Vandals caused an estimated $18.9 million dollars in property damage citywide in 2021, according to the most recent FBI data.

Who is breaking the windows?

It is difficult to say who is responsible for the broken windows. Only about one in ten vandalism cases in Portland results in an arrest, according to FBI data.

Court records indicate many of those arrested are repeat offenders or people who break more than one window. For example, police arrested Tyler Miller, also known as Tyler Jaramillo, on September 27. Officers said the 29-year-old smashed windows at more than six different storefronts in downtown Portland using a street sign pole. On October 12, prosecutors alleged Miller struck again — breaking the front window at a different store in downtown Portland using a home-made mallet. 

Miller is currently being held in the Marion County jail for an unrelated incident. Police said he attacked a man in the Salem area in December.

RELATED: Man smashes windows with street sign pole at multiple businesses in downtown Portland

What’s the motive for smashing windows?

At first, one obvious explanation might seem to be protests. Following George Floyd’s murder, downtown Portland was the center of racial justice demonstrations — and some of those resulted in broken glass, fires and property damage. Since then, anarchists and politically motivated groups have also smashed windows sporadically.

But a closer look at the data reveals that there were more reports of broken windows and vandalism in Portland last year than during the violent demonstrations of 2020.

So, if protests aren’t to blame — what is the motivation?

KGW asked for a list of all criminal mischief cases filed in Multnomah County last year.  A review of those case files showed most broken window cases appeared to be random acts of destruction. There was no clear motive. The records also indicated defendants often self-reported mental health issues and admitted taking drugs — like methamphetamines.

Several broken window cases were connected to other crimes — like theft, the court records showed. They were break-ins.

Credit: KGW

What is going to stop it?

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he’s working to address chronic safety and livability concerns through a series of emergency declarations.

“We’re meeting with business owners and operators and helping them understand what strategies they can use,” said Wheeler. “For example, lighting makes a big difference in terms of the frequency of vandalism to a storefront.”

The citywide lighting plan aims to bring more lighting to sidewalks and storefronts.

Wheeler also hopes to clean things up by quickly removing graffiti, increasing police patrols and by helping fix broken windows.

Between 2021 and 2022, Prosper Portland handed out roughly $1.5 million dollars in grants to help almost 400 small businesses throughout the city that suffered damages — including broken windows.

Other repairs will take longer.

Multnomah County said it could be a year and a half until the design phase is complete to protect the Multnomah County Courthouse and the Multnomah County Justice Center. Both buildings are still shielded by plywood after being targeted repeatedly during protests.  The Multnomah County Courthouse suffered damages totaling roughly $550,000 from 2020 to 2022, according to a county spokesperson.

Credit: KGW

Some businesses have found a more permanent solution to help prevent broken windows, especially during the overnight hours. A growing number of storefronts in downtown Portland are protected by roll-down shutters, bars and gates.

Credit: KGW

“It is a complex problem that really requires a complex solution,” said Laurie Drapela, a criminal justice professor at Washington State University Vancouver. Drapela explained that because there are fewer people living and working in downtown Portland, there aren’t as many eyes and ears around to help prevent crime.

 “You have a lot of office complex space now where people are working from home, so they’re not downtown taking lunch breaks, going to and from the MAX or TriMet,” said Drapela. “They provide natural surveillance. What we call in the field — guardianship.”

Drapela says the community should focus on bringing people back downtown, especially on nights and weekends — when much of the vandalism occurs.

Increased police presence and social services will help, Drapela explained — but at the end of the day, it’s less likely that criminals will break windows if people are around and watching.

“You could see some turnaround here that is not short lived. It is more into the future and gets us back to the downtown Portland we know and love,” said Drapela.

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