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Portland Police Bureau struggling to fill new gun violence prevention team

The bureau wants the team of two sergeants and 12 officers to be experienced and come from current staff. But they're nowhere near that number.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland's gun violence continues to escalate and police can't keep up. Shootings on Portland's streets show no signs of slowing down, and efforts to staff a new team within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to address it have gotten off to a slow start. 

"Safety is at stake. Human life is at stake," said PPB Public Information Officer Lt. Greg Pashley.

Sadly, Laura Wiegman knows how true that is. Her great niece, Danae Williams, 25, was shot and killed in May.

"I just wake up and go, that didn't happen, that's not real," said Wiegman. "She was just sweet and beautiful. She worked with handicapped people and was starting to go to school to be an EMT. She was a helping type of person."

Her family is not alone. The number of gun-related homicides has quadrupled in a year.

"Somebody better start studying something and doing something different," Wiegman added.

The Portland Police Bureau is trying to do something different.

In July 2020, amid nationwide calls for police reform, the city council eliminated the bureau's Gun Violence Reduction Team. Since that time, PPB data shows the number of shooting incidents has almost doubled.

"People decided something needed to be done," said Lt. Pashley. "There was interest in trying to reestablish some sort of uniform function."

This new group, the Focused Intervention Team (FIT), will operate under a new community oversight group. The city already began recruiting for that committee.

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FIT members will respond to shootings, follow up and arrest any suspects, assist with investigations and try to prevent shootings from occurring. 

"Their purpose is to be out in the community, visibly, trying to interact with people and go to spots where they receive information there could be violence ahead of time, if possible, to intervene and prevent," said Lt. Pashley.

The bureau wants the team of two sergeants and 12 officers to be experienced and come from current staff, but they're nowhere near that number. 

Rather than attempt to hire all 12 officers, the bureau has decided to focus on identifying the sergeants that will lead the team. Those supervisors could then begin identifying officers who they believe are a good fit for this type of specialty work.

Pashley also noted they may end up dropping the number of officers needed to start the team. 

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Efforts to create the team to deal with the rising gun violence has hit a road-block. Jobs were posted in May but few have applied. Pashley said around four people applied so far, which isn't nearly enough to form a team.

While a captain was just promoted to head up hiring, not one Portland police officer has been assigned to FIT yet.

"It's not for everyone," Pashley told KGW. "It's not that unusual to have low numbers of people put in for job openings depending on what the job is and what's going on at the time."

The police bureau didn't get any extra money to pay for this new team.

The elimination of the previous gun violence team weighs on officers' minds, giving them pause before they apply. Internal officers for FIT would likely move over from patrol, and Lt. Pashley said those patrol officers won't immediately be replaced because it takes a while to hire and train incoming recruits.

Police, and Wiegman, worry that without resources, shootings will continue at a record pace, leaving more families grieving.

"It's stress and trauma," said Wiegman. "I think there's hope. They've got to try something. They've got to put more people on it so more people don't die."

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