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New FBI boss in Portland aims to tackle soaring gun violence

So far this year, there have been 17 homicides, compared to one homicide during the same period in 2020.

SALEM, Ore. — Portland's soaring rate of gun violence and deaths is a “public safety crisis,” one in which the FBI intends to try to stem with local law enforcement, the new head of the FBI's field office in the city said Monday.

In a wide-ranging news conference, Special Agent in Charge Kieran Ramsey also said any residents of Oregon who may have participated in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol will face justice if they're caught.

Ramsey said FBI practice precludes him from speaking about whether anyone from Oregon might be under investigation for the Jan. 6 incident. But he pointed out that FBI Director Christopher Wray has said 55 of the FBI's 56 field offices have ongoing investigations related to the Capitol incursion.

The FBI has made about 270 arrests, with 30 more by other agencies, and more arrests are forthcoming, Ramsey said.

“And if we see those individuals that are residents here of Oregon and traveled there, they’ll be held accountable,” Ramsey said.

Stemming gun violence in Portland, which like many other cities sharply increased last year, is a priority for Ramsey.

“We’ve seen, I think, somewhere in the line of 200 shootings in nine weeks, there’s some dozen or more people killed since the first of the year, with some other 50-plus injuries,” Ramsey said.

RELATED: Portland Police troubled by number of shootings to start 2021

Last year in Portland, there were nearly 2 1/2 times more shootings — 900 — than in 2019. So far this year, there have been 17 homicides, compared to one homicide during the same period in 2020.

Ramsey said he's been talking with the Portland Police Bureau, the offices of the mayor and the U.S. Attorney, the suburban Gresham Police Department and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to see where the FBI can help stem the shootings. The FBI might be able to help with money with and personnel or technological resources, he said.

"It is a public safety crisis and we’ve got to start attacking this aggressively,” he told reporters.

Officials and experts say the hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment, economic anxiety and stress on mental health have contributed to increased gun violence nationwide. Nearly half of the 55 total homicide victims in 2020 were people of color, according to Portland statistics.

Last year, responding to calls for change in policing, Portland disbanded a unit focused on curbing gun violence that had long faced criticism for disproportionately targeting people of color.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in January that even if the unit was still around, there would still be a substantial if not identical increase in shootings in Portland, saying it is clearly part of a larger national trend.

Last month, police launched a squad of 15 officers and six detectives focusing on gun violence investigations. Leaders are also partnering with community groups and intend to use approaches that don’t rely on stop-and-frisk.

Previously, Ramsey was the director of the FBI Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, the unit responsible for coordinating the recovery of U.S. hostages abroad. He joined the FBI as a special agent in 1998 and was assigned to the Seattle Field Office.

RELATED: Portland police have responded to nearly 200 shootings in 2021 so far

RELATED: Portland police announce new community safety team to investigate shootings