As violence surges, some question Portland axing police unit

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Elmer Yarborough received a terrible phone call from his sister: she was crying when she told him that two of his nephews may have been shot in broad daylight while leaving a bar in Portland, Oregon.
He drove there as fast as he could. An officer told him one of his nephews went to the hospital and the other, Tyrell Penney, did not survive.
"My sister, Tyrell's mother, was on the phone; I just said," He's gone. "And I just heard the most terrifying scream you could ever imagine," said Yarborough.
When Penney was killed last summer, there was unrest in liberal Portland as protesters took to the streets every night to demand racial justice and disappoint the police. At the same time, one of America's whitest cities was experiencing its deadliest year in more than a quarter of a century - a trend observed across the country - with shootings that largely affected the black community.
In response to calls for a change in policing, the mayor and city council cut several police programs from the budget, including one that Yarborough believes could have saved his nephew. A gun violence control unit, long criticized for targeting people of color disproportionately, was disbanded a month before the death of Penney, a 27-year-old black man from Sacramento, California.
Yarborough and a few other families wonder if the end of the unit was partly to blame for Portland's dramatic increase in shootings, but officials and experts attribute mounting gun violence in cities across the country to coronavirus pandemic troubles, unemployment, economic fear and back the stress on mental health.
"Without a doubt, I think my nephew could potentially still be alive if (the gun violence reduction team) were not disbanded," said Yarborough, a volunteer Portland police emergency worker who responded to shootings targeting families Support victims.
"I can't say for sure if he would, but what I'm going to tell you is if my nephew hadn't been saved, it probably could have saved someone else's life," he said.
More people died from gunfire in Portland last year - 40 - than in the entire list of murders last year. The number of shootings - 900 - was almost 2 1/2 times higher than last year. The surge continued that year with more than 150 shootings, including 45 wounded and 12 dead.
Police had warned of the possible effects of ending the unit and pointed out cautionary stories in other cities that had made a similar decision.
Portland police quoted former Salinas, California police chief Kelly McMillin: "Not to be over-dramatic, but if you lose the unit that focuses on removing firearms from the hands of violent criminals, people die." It really is that simple. "
Stockton, California, began disbanding and de-funding police units dealing with gun violence in 2010. The city's murder rates reached record highs in 2011 and 2012. After the units were restored through the city, the killings fell significantly, according to police.
While Portland policing has been realigned, experts and officials say these changes are unlikely to have led to an increase in gun violence.
"I believe if (the gun violence reduction team) were (around) today, we would still see a significant, if not identical, increase in gunfights in Portland," Mayor Ted Wheeler said in January. "This is clearly part of a larger national trend."
Wheeler, who is also the police superintendent, announced the disbandment of the unit last June and assigned its 34 officers to patrol. He described it as an opportunity to redefine the police force and passed $ 7 million on to police funds at color communities.
The push was led by Jo Ann Hardesty, the first black woman to be elected to the city council. She cited a 2018 audit that found that nearly 60% of those stopped by the gun violence team were black - despite making up less than 6% of the city's population.
Almost half of the 55 total murder victims in 2020 were black people, many of them from the historically black neighborhoods of Portland, according to city statistics.
There have been 17 murders so far this year - a worrying number considering that there had only been one murder in the same period in 2020.
Among the people shot dead last year was a 23-year-old Iraqi refugee who stopped to pick up an Uber fare. an 18 year old high school graduate; and a 53-year-old woman was caught in a crossfire and killed in front of her husband.
The violence has caused leaders and community members to seek solutions. Some say the loss of the unit's seasoned detectives harmed the city, while others are pushing for new approaches.
Last month, police launched a force of 15 officers and six detectives to focus on investigations into gun violence. According to official sources, this is only part of the solution as executives work with community groups to increase transparency and use proactive approaches that are not based on stop-and-frisk tactics.
That is little consolation for Penney's three children, the friends he visited in Portland, or his family who moved to California as a child to avoid the exact cause of his death - gun violence.
Yarborough, Penney's uncle, was a gang member in the 1990s and was arrested by officers from the Portland Gun Violence Team. Even so, he described the unit as the "CIA" of the police department and said they often stopped the shootings before they happened because of their in-depth knowledge of the community.
"They built relationships with gang members and knew who the perpetrators were," Yarborough said. "They ... could band together to stop this, or at least point people affected by programs to programs to change their lives."
Cline is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program in which journalists report undercover issues to local newsrooms.
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