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by Alex Zielinski
Mayor Ted Wheeler has announced a state of emergency to address Portland’s surge in gun violence during summer months. The announcement allows Wheeler to gather all city departments related to deterring gun violence under his office in hopes of orchestrating a coordinated response.
“Emergency declarations can get results the status quo cannot,” said Wheeler at a Thursday press conference. “It organizes the work needed within a unified command structure and provides the agility and ability to address gun violence in our community.”
Wheeler first hinted at this plan, dubbed “Safer Summer PDX,” in a June 29 press release, where he announced new hires for the yet-to-be-defined program. The $2.4 million program will be funded through the city’s Office of Violence Prevention budget.
In many ways, Wheeler’s plan is simply steering funds toward city programs that are already operational, like the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, which supports community programs that work to deter youth and young adults from joining gangs and engaging in retaliatory shootings. It doesn’t create any new programs or initiatives, simply doubles down on ones already in existence.
“This is an addition to the work that’s already been happening,” said Stephanie Howard, Wheeler’s public safety policy advisor. “It will expedite the way we target resources and respond to individual needs.”
The program focuses on the idea that, despite having a high homicide rate in Portland, the majority of shots fired are coming from a small number of people.
According to a report by California Partnership for Safe Communities, a nonprofit that advises cities on how to reduce violent crime, only 0.1 percent of Portland’s population was involved in a homicide or non-fatal shooting between 2019 and 2021. The report found that a little over 200 Portlanders are responsible for the majority of the city’s gun violence. Much of the gunfire comes from individuals involved in groups or gangs, according to the report.
The program intends to focus social services and support on the small sliver of Portland’s population who are engaging in gun violence. “Depending on needs, services could include Life Coaches and Intensive Case Management services, wrap-around services like relocation assistance, housing assistance, behavioral health services, and job/career training,” reads the city’s Safer Summer PDX plan.
Wheeler clarified this goal Thursday.
“Rather than arrest and prosecute,” he said, “our goal with this program will be to offer each person at risk of gun violence a meaningful and workable plan tailored to each person’s specific needs to prevent them from getting involved with it in the first place.”
This model, often called “ceasefire” in other cities that have adopted it, has produced mixed results. Recent reporting by OPB noted that, in the past two years, US cities with established ceasefire programs have seen their homicide and shooting rates increase along with the rest of the country.
The Thursday announcement allows Wheeler to share the reins on violence intervention work previously laid out by commissioners Carmen Rubio and Jo Ann Hardesty in Portland parks and streets. Specifically, the plan includes funding work currently being performed by Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) to slow traffic on streets regularly used by shooters to flee, and by Portland Parks and Recreation (PPR) to expand patrol services for the park rangers in city parks.
This is only the latest emergency order released by Wheeler’s office meant to streamline the city’s response to crises. In March, Wheeler announced the creation of the city’s Street Services Coordination Center, a program meant to streamline the city’s multi-faceted work with its homeless population. Like the new gun violence plan, the coordination center uses a mayoral executive order to allow Wheeler to take control of programs that are outside of his bureau portfolio. Wheeler defended this practice Thursday.
“I will always reserve the right to use the authority of the mayor to issue executive directives,” Wheeler said. “The reason I use them is because they work. They put an otherwise fragmented structure under a unified command. And we have the ability to get an immediate response.”
Despite its name, the Safer Summer PDX program is meant to endure for two years. The emergency declaration may also last that long.
“This is a two year plan,” Howard said on Thursday. “Hopefully we won’t need an emergency declaration for two years around this, but we’re committed to doing whatever we need to address this.”