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By Donovan M. Smith | The Skanner News
Published: 17 September 2015

 According to the Portland Police Bureau, the number of violent crimes tied to gang activity is at an all-time high since the bureau started keeping records in 1999—and the year’s not even over.  

Already, the police have recorded more than 150 incidents they say are gang-related. Portland Police spokesperson Sgt. Pete Simpson told The Skanner that term doesn’t have a universal definition. Instead, police use a working description of gang membership. Simpson said every city that documents gang activity still has “gray areas.”

At the beginning of this month, PPB sent out a press release to media outlets across the metro area saying they have investigated over 600 violent crimes related to gang activity in the last five years. The city defines “violent crime” using four categories: robbery, aggravated assault, forcible rape and murder (including non-negligent manslaughter). Nonetheless, Simpson said, the numbers help add some perspective to the city’s current situation.

 “This exceeds all previous years in which this type of record has been kept by the Portland Police Bureau, and there are still four months to go in the year,” Simpson said. “While it is not possible to accurately compare 2015 to the mid-1990s, when gang violence was rampant in the city of Portland, we know that this year, communities are experiencing gunfire on a regular basis.”

After a 16-year-old boy was arrested in connection with a shooting at Alberta’s Last Thursday street festival in May, injuring three people, Chief Larry O’Dea assigned six additional officers to the Gang Enforcement Team.

Turon Lamont Walker Jr., who confessed to and apologized for the shooting at his first court appearance, faces charges of attempted murder with a firearm and unlawful use of a weapon. Under Oregon’s Measure 11, children who are 15 years of age or older can be tried as adults if arrested on attempted murder charges.

The gang unit has recovered more than 100 illegal firearms while on patrol this year, 30 of which came in June, the same month O’Dea increased staffing for gang enforcement.

Of the number of violent crimes in the city, those pegged as gang-related account for less than 10 percent of the amount of violent crime occurring in town

In fact, violent crime in general is at its lowest levels nationwide, according to the FBI. Simpson said Portland’s statistics are in line with that trend.

However, statistics don’t capture the very real pain of those who’ve been stricken with the pain of gang violence in town.

This past spring 26-year-old Quintrell Holiman, a self-proclaimed and documented member of the Hoover Criminals, took his own life after while fleeing from police in the Foster-Powell neighborhood.

In the following days, Holiman’s mother called a press conference alongside mothers, who like her, have lost their Black sons to gun violence. With her were Assistant Police Chief Kevin Modica and members of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention in a unified message of peace and love.

 “If everybody loves my son like they say, put the guns down,” Holiman said. “Instead of putting your arms up to shoot somebody, put your arms up to wrap around somebody." Holiman said.  

Last year, Portland native James Crittenden Sr., a former gang member, put out a similar call for peace in a video via Facebook that showed him embracing a former rival.

That video released in August, 2014, was shared by thousands in a matter of days.

"It takes a real man or a real woman to do this," Crittenden said. "If you can approach someone and let them know, 'I'm sorry about what I did.' Or if they did something, to say:  ‘I want to let go of what you did. Let's not let this happen again. Let's just live life and be happy.’"

Another former gang member, Isaiah Holt, told his story of joining the ranks of a local set at the age of 12, serving a 7-year sentence by the age of 18, to later mentoring youth. At a Tedx Portland event last year, he spoke about the effect rehabilitation, post-incarceration services and personal perseverance had on his life and can have on the lives of others like him.   

“My message to you,” Holt told the crowd, “is that people can change, and now I’m a productive member of society.”

When asked what the police bureau has learned in the 20-plus years since gang activity peaked in Portland, Simpson said police have learned the importance of taking a role in the community.

 “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” Simpson said. “We have a role in the community to protect the community from gang violence and gun violence and to be responsible to the victims to work those cases and try to make the community safer.”

Conversely, Simpson said, in other areas like providing resources to things that have a proven positive affect on youth outcomes like school budgets, after school programs and athletics, and community programs are outside their function.

However, Simpson said the bureau has been learning the importance of building relationships with communities and organizations throughout the city. 

There are a number of groups working to fight both the direct and indirect causes of gun violence and gang life in the Portland area including Neighbors Against Violence, Office of Youth Violence and Prevention, Striving To Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere, #DontShootPDX, Enough is Enough  and even the Portland Police’s 13-week Gang Resistance Education and Training program for middle and high schoolers among others.

Mayor Charlie Hales office also chairs the bi-weekly Community Peace Collaborative, held at the North Portland Community Policing Center in which police, various organizations, and the community are invited to discuss current crime trends in the city and strategies to combat the conditions that breed the activity.

Those most prone to joining gangs are those aged between 12 to 22, under extreme socioeconomic conditions, and often  but not always, have strong familial ties to the lifestyle, according to the most recent Multnomah County Comprehensive Gang Assessment .  The next Community Peace Collaborative meeting happens at 10 a.m., Oct. 9. For more information, call (503) 823-4180.

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