Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced earlier this week he would be disbanding the police bureau’s often criticized Gun Violence Reduction Team.
Chapter one: HISTORY
The team, which has gone through several name changes, was found to disproportionately be targeting black Portlanders during traffic stops, according to an audit in March 2018. The audit also claimed the “Gang Enforcement Unit” wasn’t necessarily focusing on suspected gang members.
In fall 2018, the team was rebranded as the Gun Violence Reduction Unit, and was assigned to handle all gun violence – not just gangs – in the city.
In May 2019, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty urged Police Chief Danielle Outlaw to get rid of the team, and instead, redirect that money to the fire bureau and the parks department. Several days after that, Chief Outlaw pointed to statistics suggesting the team was having an overall positive effect in Portland.
And in early June 2020, following the calls of thousands of protesters in Portland, Mayor Wheeler – who also served as the police commissioner – announced he would be disbanding the Gun Violence Reduction Team.
The officers who belong to the team will be reassigned to patrol, though no other details have been released about the specificities of the team’s budget. According to the mayor’s budget, the GVRT was set to get $6,007,842 in the upcoming 2020-2021 fiscal year. The budget is being voted on this week.
When asked what the disbanding of GVRT would look like, the mayor’s office sent the following statement:
“This is still a work in progress. Though at this time we don’t know exactly what the dissolving of the GVRT will look like, some of the functions of the GVRT must still continue; The investigative function still needs to happen and there are likely still some partnerships that need to be continued. We are going to work with the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, incoming District Attorney Mike Schmidt, our colleagues in the Portland Police Bureau and the community to determine the better way to stop gun violence within our community. Our goal is to make a meaningful impact and bring about a reduction in shootings in our community.”
Chapter two: WHAT IS THE GVRT?
Officers who are assigned to the GVRT don’t respond to every single shooting, according to information released by the bureau, as well as a podcast recorded in February 2020 detailing the team’s responsibilities.
According to Assistant Police Chief Andy Shearer, who oversees the team, the GVRT tracks all shootings in the city (homicides, suicides, robberies, domestic violence, etc.). In the podcast, Assistant Chief Shearer, Sgt. Ken Dulio and Officer Jason Hubert talk about GVRT officers being dispatched to crime scenes when shots are fired, to canvas the neighborhood, look for witnesses, find security footage and track down any forensic evidence. They also develop relationships within the community, according to the assistant chief, in an effort to stop future crimes from happening.
“Patrol might be like the ER doctor and then your specialists would be like GVRT. It's more than just going to those shootings and have an experience on processing crime scenes, canvassing, doing diagrams, doing the interviews, the photographs that need to be taken, detectives coming out there and developing probable cause to work that case in itself. But it's this long-term approach of a lot of times knowing kind of who the people are, the relationships that have been built with people involved in gun violence, especially repeat shooters,” Sgt. Dulio said.
When asked what the city would look like without the GVRT, Assistant Chief Shearer said if there’s no specialized team to respond to the shootings, the amount of shootings will increase.
“There's been cities in the recent past, two in California that I'm thinking of, that both had to reduce their staffing sizes and did away with their gun violence reduction units. Both agencies saw record numbers of homicides in the year immediately following that. And one of those cities even set a new record the second year after they did away with that team … The partnership between the community outreach and then data-driven, very deliberate law enforcement efforts are critical in addressing this type of gun violence,” Chief Shearer said.
Chapter three: POLICE RESPONSE
KGW spoke with Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner after Mayor Wheeler’s announcement to disband the team.
“If this is police reform, we’re going in the wrong direction. Obviously we want to serve and protect the citizens of Portland, but this isn’t the way. This isn’t what Portlanders deserve. We need to sit down, we need to have those conversations, but the knee-jerk reaction to what’s happening in the protests is not the answer. Everything needs to be thoughtful, it needs to be thought out, it needs to be better. We will be paying for this for years to come,” Turner said.
How officers are reassigned and how shootings are investigated remains in the air.
“We’re going to have to figure that piece out. Those shootings have to get investigated. We have officers and detectives in that unit, so it might be a combination of detectives doing the investigative piece,” newly-appointed Chief Chuck Lovell said on June 9, following the announcement.
Chapter four: GUN VIOLENCE IN PORTLAND
Shootings in Portland have been steadily on the rise this year, following a string of shootings in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic briefly stifled gun violence in the city, but those numbers spiked back up again in April.
Updated statistics have not been made available, but according to prior news releases, as of April 9, there were 136 incidents of gun violence in Portland in 2020.
According to records, 426 shootings were reported across in the city in 2019.