A new FBI-led task force will work with Portland police to build cases against people responsible for the dire rise in shootings in and around the city.
The agreement to create a multiagency Metro Safe Streets Task Force came after much behind-the-scenes negotiation and a guarantee to set boundaries on the participation of Portland officers.
They will be deputized as federal officers but won’t do any immigration or crowd control enforcement in coordination or on behalf of federal law enforcement, under a memorandum of understanding reached with the city attorney’s office. The city can pull Portland officers out of the task force at any time.
The task force also will draw officers from Gresham police and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to coordinate investigations with federal agents from the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, as well as state and federal prosecutors.
The collaboration will bring federal money to local police agencies to do the work – up to nearly $20,000 per officer to reimburse overtime costs – as well as additional cars, equipment and federal forensic tools to do quicker ballistic analysis of shell casings often found littering homicide scenes.
The task force work will be restricted to post-shooting investigations, authorities said.
Portland police will dedicate 20 officers to the task force, including three supervisors, 11 officers and six detectives. The sheriff’s office and Gresham police each will assign one supervisor and one officer. The FBI and the ATF each will dedicate one supervisor and four federal agents.
The dramatic rise in gun violence in Portland has mobilized police and politicians to act: More than 284 shootings have occurred so far this year in Portland, more than 90 people have been injured in the shootings and 18 of 26 homicides have been perpetrated using guns.
If the pace continues, the city could see a record 100 homicides by year’s end.
“The city can’t be allowed to reach any kind of milestone like that,” said Kieran Ramsey, Oregon’s top FBI special agent in charge.
Last year, Portland recorded 55 homicides, the most in 26 years, with nearly half of the victims people of color. Countywide, as of April, there have been more than 30 homicides this year, nearly half of which involved a gun, prosecutors said.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said he has devoted significant time talking to Portland commissioners in an effort to “make sure everybody was comfortable” with the task force, understood the parameters of the officers’ federal deputization and the “urgency” of the moment.
The city last year sued the U.S. Department of Justice when it failed to heed its request to rescind the federal deputization of Portland officers who assisted in crowd control during mass protests downtown. Attorneys for the city are in discussions with federal Justice officials to try to resolve that case without more litigation, according to court records.
With former President Donald Trump no longer in office and a new administration in place under President Joe Biden, coupled with memorandums to limit task force officers’ activities, Schmidt said he doesn’t expect problems. Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner, Police Chief Chuck Lovell, Ramsey and Jonathan T. McPherson, the head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Seattle field division, signed the memorandums.
“We have a new federal administration that I think we will work very well with. I’m looking forward to turning the page on the past summer and the way that played out, and working with this new administration in collaborating on these cases,” Schmidt said.
Officers and prosecutors are seeing retaliatory violence on the streets, he said, and the goal of the task force is to stop one shooting from leading to another and another.
Schmidt said he told Portland’s mayor that he wanted more detectives assigned to shooting investigations. Because of the explosion in violence, prosecutors were finding that police weren’t able to work investigations “in a way that we want,” he said.
While Schmidt said he recognizes the importance of bolstering community-based support and outreach services, “unfortunately once there are shell casings on the ground or bullets in the air, that’s our lane, that’s the law enforcement lane, and it’s our job to go in and investigate those, interdict the violence and hold people accountable.”
“I think we’re a critical piece, but we are just one piece,” he said. “We need to do everything we can right now because people are dying.”
One full-time federal prosecutor will be assigned to the task force but more could be added, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel, chief of the office’s organized and violent crime section.
“As one part of a holistic approach to preventing and interrupting gun violence, this task force brings together federal and local resources to ensure that all shooting crimes are properly investigated with all lawful and available resources,” Gabriel said.
Schmidt estimated that 95% of the cases initiated will be handled in state court, but state prosecutors will be in close communication with federal prosecutors to determine if there are broader, racketeering-type cases that should be pursued in federal court.
“Everything is on the table,” he said.
Ramsey said he also has had “robust discussions” with local officials in an effort to set up the task force since his arrival in Oregon in January.
“Unfortunately it took time,” he added. “Look, the city of Portland has specific concerns about how we partner here with law enforcement. That’s understandable. We wanted to make sure we got it right, so the Police Bureau could effectively partner with us.’’
Police and prosecutors said it’s important for Portland police to collaborate closely with Gresham police and sheriff’s deputies as the shootings are extending into East County and Gresham.
In Portland, gunfire has been more frequent in the Southeast neighborhoods of Hazelwood, Powellhurst-Gilbert, Centennial and Lents. From January 2019 through this past February, two of the neighborhoods – Hazelwood and Powellhurst-Gilbert – each had more shootings in their communities than every neighborhood on the city’s west side combined.
Despite Census Bureau figures that show only 8% of Portland residents identify as exclusively or partly Black, roughly 50% of the victims of gun violence in Portland are Black.
“I wish none of this was necessary,” Lovell said. “But we’re experiencing unprecedented violence. These partnerships will help advance investigations of shootings across Portland.”
Lovell said the task force will help serve the disproportionate number of the victims who are Black men. “This partnership will serve them, and other shooting victims. Every shooting victim deserves to have their case investigated and agreements like this help,” he said.
Portland officers and detectives assigned to the task force will be those already working on the Police Bureau’s Enhanced Community Safety Team, a specialized team the chief formed in February to respond and investigate shootings.
The FBI leads about 160 Safe Streets violent crime task forces in other major cities.
Their focus has been primarily on targeting street gangs believed responsible for shootings and drug-related violence by pooling local, state and federal resources and intelligence through coordinated investigations that could lead to state or federal charges, including racketeering.
The federal deputization of local officers will allow them to apply for and execute federal search and arrest warrants, and request and execute federal grand jury subpoenas for records and evidence under the supervision of federal agents, according to two memorandums of understanding obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive. The task force officers will investigate gun crimes and gun trafficking, conduct undercover operations and pursue potential electronic surveillance when warranted, the agreements state.
“The mission of the SSTF (Safe Streets Task Force) is to identify and target for prosecution criminal enterprise groups responsible for drug trafficking, money laundering and crime of violence such as murder, aggravated assault, and robbery,” Ramsey wrote to the city to explain the task force’s goals.
Ramsey said the task force agreements will allow law enforcement to share resources and expertise.
In recent years in Oregon, Portland police have worked with FBI agents in similar cooperative investigations that have led to federal racketeering conspiracy cases pending against members of the Gypsy Joker Outlaw Motorcycle Club and Hoover street gang members.
Motorcycle club members are accused in a 2015 torture-style murder of a former member and Hoover members were charged in 2019 in three killings and other crimes to gain standing in the gang, according to prosecutors.
The FBI, as well as federal and state prosecutors, have been working the last several months to gain Wheeler’s support for the federal task force.
Once Portland’s city attorney signed off on a written agreement with federal authorities, Schmidt played an unusual role, asked by the mayor’s office to help sell the idea to the other four city commissioners though the move wasn’t going before council for a vote.
The City Council last June eliminated the Police Bureau’s dedicated Gun Violence Reduction Team, citing concerns about its disproportionate number of stops involving people of color, and just last week chose not to provide any additional funding to the Police Bureau to help it address the increased violence. Instead, it voted to set aside $6 million to bolster community-based support and outreach groups and to hire 24 seasonal, unarmed park rangers.
“It’s my belief that we cannot continue investing money into a broken policing system until we have a truly collaborative process between our City Council and Portlanders at large to set a vision and commit to action that fundamentally rethinks community safety,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty wrote on Twitter on Monday afternoon.
Wheeler welcomes the additional federal resources that the multiagency task force brings to help address the significant spike in shootings, said his spokesman, Jim Middaugh.
“From our perspective, we know that because we have limited capacity, we’re going to ask these officers to work overtime, and this will help us defray those overtime costs. That’s a terrific win for the city of Portland,” he said.
Ramsey said the city’s support of community-based street level outreach programs and family services is also essential.
“The community efforts need to happen. That’s going to stop tomorrow’s shooter,” he said. “Hopefully, the young person getting peer pressured into picking up that gun will be deterred.”
Police and some city violence prevention leaders have cited the elimination of the Police Bureau’s gun violence enforcement team as one of the factors in the rise of violence, emboldening people to settle disputes or intimidate rivals with guns.
Fatal shootings surged last summer – with 41 shooting homicides in the last half of the year compared with only three from January through June.
Criminologists say many factors may be at play, pointing to pandemic-enforced social isolation, the closure of schools and youth social and sports programs, economic calamity, civil unrest, cuts to police budgets, challenges to police legitimacy and resulting reluctance of police to intervene out of fear they’ll get in trouble.
Gun violence also has plagued other big American cities in the last year, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Memphis and Phoenix.
Administrative background checks, security clearances and training must be completed before the task force is up and running, officials said.
“I’m glad we were able to get this agreement in place,” Ramsey said. “Now the real work begins.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.