Between December 2008 and this March, the city’s Gang Violence Response Team responded to more than twenty incidents of gang-related violence on the East Side, compared to just thirty incidents in all of 2006, the year you became chief. What’s responsible for this spike? And what’s your plan for dealing with it?
You have to look at this from an academic and sociologic perspective to really uncover all the reasons why young people may choose, or feel impelled into, a gang lifestyle. But part of what we’re seeing is that there’s a bit of a population bubble—we have a larger number of kids coming of age. It’s like an echo generation from the baby boom. There was the baby boom and their kids, and now we’re seeing their kids. Now that [gang violence is] generational, it’s become a concern, because just as with generational poverty, it’s harder to intervene [when the decision to join a gang is generational].
Is the violence confined to one area, like inner Northeast Portland?
I was a street officer when we saw the first wave of gang violence in the 1980s, and it was confined to relatively small sections of North and Northeast Portland. Columbia Villa was gang infected—areas around N Kerby Avenue, Woodlawn Park. So it was a relatively small epicenter of gang activity. Over the last twenty years, gang behavior and gang associations have migrated throughout the entire metropolitan area, so it’s not really a City of Portland problem anymore, it’s a regional problem that includes the cities of Vancouver, Gresham, Hillsboro, Beaverton, and beyond.
So how did you address it twenty years ago? Are you following the same plan as then, or have you changed tactics?
The dispersal has affected our strategy. When I became chief, law enforcement leaders from across the region entered into an agreement, creating the Metro Gang Task Force. The idea behind that is to look at [gang activity] regionally rather than having our strategies stop at jurisdictional lines. That’s one strategy that’s different. Over the late 1990s and early years of this century, we gained great success with what we called our Gang Violence Response Team. If there was an incident of gang violence, we responded extremely promptly, investigated intensively, and brought in many cases with a success rate unmatched in other jurisdictions—we brought people to justice and thereby broke the cycle of violence. So you wouldn’t have a shooting, then a shooting related to that shooting, and a shooting related to that shooting. If we could respond, intervene, and arrest, there was less tit-for-tat violence. In the waning months of last year and early this year, we found that that strategy was not getting ahead of the violence, and we decided in January to put more emphasis on street-patrol activities with Operation Cooldown.
A monthlong, intensive street-intervention strategy. [The initiative followed a spike in gang-related shootings set off by a December 12 killing during a funeral at a North Portland church.] Officers patrolled hot spots like the King School Park or the East Portland and Rockwood areas to get ahead of the violence. It was more proactive. We’re instituting an afternoon shift patrol as part of the gang team; we’ve [also] shored up investigations [by moving] a sergeant and two more detectives to the gang team. And we’ve shored up the proactive uniform patrol, putting more people on the street. However, I think we all recognize that you can’t defeat gang violence only with law enforcement.