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Are gangs to blame for Portland’s spike in gun violence? It’s not that simple

Police estimate roughly half the shootings in Portland are connected to gangs, while the other half are crime-related or disputes involving the homeless.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Record gun violence in Portland has some people wondering: Are these gang shootings? Police and community activists warn the problem is not that simple.

“There’s a lot of gun violence occurring in the city. A lot of people are armed and shootings happen for all different reasons,” explained Lt. Ken Duilio of the Portland Police Bureau.

Police estimate roughly half of the shootings in Portland are somehow connected to gangs. Another 25% are connected to crimes like robbery, road rage or domestic violence. The remaining 25% of Portland shootings involve disputes within the homeless community, which is relatively new. Across the board, gun violence in Portland is way up.

“In the last year or year and a half, there has been an increase in all shootings — gang shootings and non-gang shootings,” said Duilio.

It’s hard to say just how many shootings are gang related.

In 2017, Portland police stopped designating people as gang members, something the agency had done for roughly 20 years, after concerns the labels disproportionately affected minorities and created barriers for those trying to shun the gang lifestyle.

Additionally, police and prosecutors don’t track motive and casual factors for shootings.

“The shootings today, they scare me,” explained Lionel Irving. The gang veteran helps steer young men away from gangs at his non-profit Love is Stronger.

Irving admits, the dynamics of gang shootings have changed over the past few decades.

These days, it’s not uncommon for there to be multiple shooters, multiple guns and lots of shots fired.

RELATED: 57 bullet casings found in East Portland; more than 1,000 shootings reported this year

“The type of weapons they have nowadays with 50 and 60 round drums? We just ran around with revolvers. Boom, boom, boom. Four or five shots and you’re out of there. Now these guys are there shooting for a minute and a half,” explained Irving.

Shooters aren’t waiting for the typical 'tit for tat' revenge.

Instead they’re actively looking for rivals, explained Irving. Sometimes even going after associates of gang members, not just known gang members.

“It don’t even matter now if you are with somebody — active or not. If you are with the wrong guy, that creates a dangerous environment,” said Irving.

Experts have mixed ideas about what has caused the spike in gun violence in Portland, along with other U.S. cities. It could be the loss of support systems due to the pandemic, easy access to guns or distrust of police.

One thing is clear: The violence has disproportionately affected people of color.

“It’s a public health epidemic with them killing each other,” explained Seneca Alexander, who lost his 17-year-old son by the same name in August. It is not clear if the shooting was gang related.

“I don’t understand how money is not being thrown at this problem,” said Alexander.

Despite rising gun violence, Portland city leaders slashed the police budget last year. A specialized unit, the Gun Violence Reduction Team or GVRT, was disbanded after criticism that it disproportionately targeted people of color.

“They dismantled like everybody wanted them too and now we got shootings everywhere,” said Alexander.

RELATED: Rehiring retired police officers, expanding street response team: Here's what Portland's mayor and police chief want to do to curb rising gun violence

Portland police are trying to create a new team of uniformed officers to spend more time on the street but after six months, the team hasn’t been formed. Some people are growing impatient with city leaders.

“Decisions need to be happening. We did enough talking,” said Irving of Love is Stronger. “We need action.”