Local youth outreach workers and law enforcement officials are worrying over a sharp escalation of gang-related shootings across Portland's east side.
Meanwhile, organizers of a statewide convention on preventing gun violence hope it will lead to a new effort to reform Oregon gun laws and slow the flow of illegal firearms onto the streets – and into the hands of youths.
Much of last week's meeting of officers and outreach workers in the Gang Violence Task Force at Northeast Precinct was given over to analysis of the shooting incident at Madison High School Aug. 29, in which dozens of young men and women taunted police officers, and a still-unidentified gunman shot into a crowd of teenagers outside a charity football game.
Before the shots were fired, a reported 15 police officers were nearby investigating a group of youths who'd been observed hiding a gun on school property.
No one was injured in the shooting, which brings the number of Gang Violence Response Team callouts for this year to almost 50; last year the squad investigated 40 incidents in the entire year.
Rob Ingram, director of the Mayor's Youth Violence Task Force, is spending some of his own personal time walking through hot spots and looking for opportunities to engage kids on the street – some of whom he's known all their lives.
"More young people, younger people — people as young as 12, 14 years old — are carrying large guns, with lots of rounds of ammunition," Ingram said. "That is alarming to me because I grew up in the 70s and 80s where if you had a knife you were a bad guy — but you'd never touch a gun."
Now, Ingram said, middle school and high school students are so steeped in the gun-toting subculture that the potential for violence is escalating.
Ingram cited two incidents this summer in which gunshots were reported in close proximity to police officers, including one that occurred right across the street from the Northeast Precinct.
This summer the experimental Hotspot Enforcement Action Team – a special mobile squad gathered by Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer to check street violence – has responded to shots-fired calls in Southeast, Northeast and North Portland neighborhoods.
Organized as a temporary measure, the HEAT team is scheduled to be disbanded on Sept. 20.
Ingram says that if it is, the whole city will be affected.
"The number of guns on the street, the brazenness of the youth with the guns in their hands, the size of the guns, the amount of ammunition – those things are very strange, not normal, not something that we would ever have predicted," Ingram says.
A statewide Conference on Preventing Gun Violence, held Wednesday at Portland State University, featured speakers such as Chief Sizer and Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk as well as public health experts from around the nation.
"Illegal firearms and accessibility of illegal firearms will be a very large part of the discussion," Shawn Alford, Ceasefire Oregon president, said.
She said the organization, which sponsors gun turn-ins and education programs on gun safety, started in 1994 as a group of concerned citizens.
In 1997 the group merged with Oregonians Against Gun Violence, ultimately organizing into an educational foundation as well as an advocacy group working towards gun control laws on the state level.
Currently, not only is there no gun control legislation whatsoever in Oregon, but state law forbids local governments from enacting any of their own.
The issue of gang violence appears to fall through the cracks of this wider political debate.
"First thing I think we really have to do is we have to figure out how many guns are really out there," Ingram says. "I don't want to make anyone paranoid, but here are a lot of guns on the street, just by the fact that there's been over 30 recovered in the last couple of months."
Ingram said last week police and policy leaders kicked off an investigation into legal and illegal gun sales, with an eye toward stemming the street trade.
"I think personally that parents and teachers need to be more aware of how these kids are getting the guns and where they're stashing them at," he said. "We need to keep the HEAT team intact and together, because that team has really made an impact over the past several months in getting weapons off the street — I think without them we are going to find we need some more assistance."
Youth Violence Task Force meetings are open to the public and participation is encouraged. The next meeting is Friday, Sept. 22 at Southeast Precinct, 4735 E Burnside St. For more information call 503-823-4180.