Homicides, Gun Violence in Portland Hit Record Highs in 2021

October 26, 2021Hannah Ray Lambert

There have been 71 homicides in Portland, Oregon, so far this year, setting a grim new record for the city. Photo by Steve Morgan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The shooting deaths of a man and woman in the Old Town neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, pushed the city past a grim milestone Sunday, Oct. 24, as the number of homicides in 2021 climbed to 71.

With more than two months left in the year, 2021 is the deadliest year for the City of Roses since 1987, when homicides claimed the lives of 70 people. 

Victims this year include a 33-year-old male shot in the back of the head while at a pizza cart, a 17-year-old male shot and run over by a car, at least four people living in or near homeless camps, and an 18-year-old female killed in a suspected drive-by shooting that injured several others near a food cart pod downtown, according to an analysis by The Oregonian.

Multnomah County, where Portland is located, has seen its population grow by more than 46% since the last homicide record was set, which means the per capita murder rate is still lower than it was 34 years ago. But that’s of little comfort to those for whom the sound of gunfire has become a daily occurrence.

Earlier this month, Portland surpassed another record, documenting more than 1,000 shootings since the start of the year. That’s up from 891 shootings in 2020 and 388 in 2019, according to police statistics.

Portland police officers seized 11 guns during separate incidents over a 48-hour period in late September. The city has seen an alarming rise in gun violence over the past two years. Photo courtesy of the Portland Police Bureau.

Press releases from the Portland Police Bureau show a pattern of violence, with particularly bad days seeing upward of a dozen separate shooting incidents across the city. But the problem is not isolated to Portland.

Homicides in the US increased almost 30% in 2020, the biggest one-year jump since the FBI started keeping records in the 1960s. Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows 21,570 homicides in 2020, with the violence escalating in the summer months. That’s an increase of 4,901 from 2019. The murder rate was still lower than historic peaks in the early 1990s when drug wars raged in many cities.

The numbers are somewhat incomplete since only a portion of eligible law enforcement agencies submitted data to the FBI, but it paints a disturbing picture of violent crime across America. Even as property crime declined 7.8% in 2020, violent crime increased 5.6%, according to the FBI.

Experts say it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of the increase, but some criminologists have suggested the coronavirus pandemic may have played a role, as well as political and racial turmoil.

Data visualization by Coffee or Die Magazine.

In Portland, police attribute much of the violence to gang activity; however, an op-ed by city Commissioner Mingus Mapps suggests many city leaders won’t call a spade a spade.

“Anti-police rhetoric has given way to a feeling of lawlessness, and criminals are filling the void … Willfully ignoring the fact that gang violence is devastating Portland’s Black community is itself a form of racism,” Mapps wrote. “Pretending gangs do not exist devalues Black lives.”

While police arrested a 45-year-old man on murder charges for Sunday’s slayings, the majority of homicides in 2021 remain unsolved, with no suspects and no arrests. Staffing shortages have plagued the police bureau in recent months, leading to slow response times and a heavy burden on detectives. Critics place much of the blame on city leaders, who responded swiftly to calls for police reform following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

In June 2020 — roughly two weeks after Floyd’s death — the city council voted to cut more than $15 million from the police budget. The next month, the city council eliminated the police bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT), which had been under scrutiny because officers disproportionately made contact with people of color.

Prominent Black activists and community leaders have criticized that decision as hasty and motivated by public pressure rather than what was in the city’s best interests.  

“I personally spoke out against the reduction in policing as it related to the Gun Violence Reduction Team,” Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee told KOIN 6 News last year. “I thought that was not a very thoughtful decision at a time when we were already seeing a spike in gun violence on the street.”

The increase in gun violence in Portland started around June of 2020. Chart courtesy of the Portland Police Bureau.

Officers have retired or left for other departments in droves, citing burnout, dissatisfaction with city leadership, and poor morale amid Portland’s historic anti-police protests. The bureau is budgeted for 919 sworn officers but currently has 129 vacancies, KOIN reported.

“It’s awfully difficult to serve and embrace a city that doesn’t embrace you back,” Mapps said of the police shortage in a virtual town hall meeting last month.

But as gun violence and homicides have increased and the community has cried out for action, city leaders have struggled to come to a consensus. When Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed seeking $2 million to reinstate a version of the GVRT, he faced opposition from every single member of the City Council.

​​“The police have the resources — the police don’t need specialty units to solve crime,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime critic of police, said at the time.

Rather than give more funding to the police bureau, city commissioners in April gave Portland Parks and Recreation $1.4 million to expand its unarmed park ranger service and patrol city parks as “goodwill ambassadors,” a decision that drew ire from many park rangers.

Downtown Portland, Oregon, as seen from the Ross Island Bridge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“We are not the police of the parks, period, and we’re not going to be, period,” Dave Barrios, one of the city’s longest-serving park rangers and a former police officer said after hearing of the plan. “It’s not something that the rangers themselves want.”  

Around the same time, the FBI stepped in to take the lead on gun violence investigations in the Portland area, working with federally deputized local officers and deputies. Under the agreement, the feds will reimburse local agencies up to almost $20,000 per officer for overtime costs and will provide additional cars, equipment, and forensic tools, The Oregonian reported in April.

Many residents, meanwhile, are fed up.

Joel McCollough, a Marine veteran who worked at a popular nightclub in downtown Portland until moving out of the city this month, told Coffee or Die Magazine the city’s staggering gun violence motivated his move.     

“I spent many years working and serving in war zones, and I didn’t want to work in a war zone anymore,” McCollough said. “And that’s what downtown Portland has turned into since the pandemic and the protests.”

Read Next: Union Head Says 50 Portland Cops Who Resigned Together ‘Held the Line’

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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