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The Good Fight

Portland's Gang Wars Are the Most Violent They've Been in Almost Two Decades. We Look at the Battle to Turn Things Around.

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IT'S THE FIRST DAY of summer, and Portland Police Sergeant Ken Duilio wishes he wasn't sitting at his desk.

The past two weeks have been the city's most violent yet this year, with gunfire and assaults erupting nearly every day. Duilio's bulky lineman's frame should be behind the wheel of his Crown Victoria, cruising hotspots in North, Northeast, and East Portland with the rest of the Gang Enforcement Team. Instead, he's stuck tapping out jargon-filled accounts of the violence for supervisors.

"When the shootings go up, that's when you need to be out there," Duilio tells me, eyes trained on his computer screen. But all that activity also necessitates paperwork, so here we sit.

I'm waiting on Duilio because of two massive whiteboards across the room from where he's typing. Neatly gridded out in black marker and cramped with red notes, they serve as a ledger of Portland's recent gang violence.

June 8—"Car-to-car shooting. Victim vehicle found unoccupied."

June 9—"Fontaine Adams shot in both legs. No suspect info."

June 19—"Three males assaulted by Tortilla Flats Gangsters."

That sort of thing.

There are 35 entries crowding the boards this evening, but those are merely the incidents that fit the space (with a few slots left free, just in case). In total, Portland has seen almost 50 gang-related shootings, stabbings, and beatings since January 1.

That's both ominous and hopeful. As Duilio types, gang violence is lagging behind 2012—Portland's busiest year in nearly two decades. But more than half of the attacks occurred in just two months. Cops are seeing more injuries than last year, and make no attempt to hide their alarm at the sheer number of bullet casings on the ground at shooting sites.

Adding to the mayhem is the recent murder of a well-known gang member outside a Gresham apartment complex—a killing that cops say has set off retaliations and spurred tension throughout the city.

"We're kind of back to where we were in 2012," Lieutenant Art Nakamura told the city's Gang Violence Task Force earlier in the day. "Hopefully we don't break any records. I'm tired of records."

But it can't be all about policing. The gang activity Portland's seeing today is increasingly different from any it's experienced before. If the city hopes to reverse the recent trend of year-after-year increases in gang violence, both cops and the social service and faith-based organizations that fill out Portland's anti-gang initiative will need to be on their game.

And as Duilio finally finishes his paperwork and we head out to his unmarked cruiser, it's not looking good.

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The dawn of serious gang violence in Portland is typically tied to a night 25 years ago.

Just after midnight on August 17, 1988, someone pulled up to a park in the old Columbia Villa housing project and opened fire—taking the life of well-known Crip Joseph "Ray Ray" Winston and, with it, a part of Portland's tenuous innocence.

It was the city's first documented gang murder, but hardly its first brush with street gangs themselves. More than two months before Winston's death, an Associated Press article reported gang violence had blossomed in the city as enterprising Blood and Crip members from Southern California sought to push the crack-cocaine market to new, unspoiled frontiers. "Word on the street is that Portland is easy pickings..." the article told readers of the Los Angeles Times. The city had seen more than 280 gang-related crimes, and at least 20 gunshot wounds.

"People were telling us from about '87 on, we've got a gang problem," says Tom Peavey, who patrolled Portland's North Precinct at the time, and now works in the city's Office of Youth Violence Prevention. "The police were caught unawares."

Fueled by crack sales, gang activity flourished. And like many communities grappling to contain this new, unfamiliar crime dynamic, Portland struggled. Segments of North and Northeast Portland were informally carved into territory for different gang sets. Members viciously defended their turf.

"The gang thing was much more entrenched back then," says East Precinct Sergeant Dave Golliday, who worked gang crime during its heyday in the mid-'90s. "I mean, they were flying colors."

Portland had perhaps its most vicious year on record in 1995, when cops reported more than 8,830 violent crimes. But the wave crested and broke in 1996—a year in which cities around the country began seeing a steady decrease in violence. Violent crime has shrunk almost every year since, to the point that, earlier this month, the Portland Police Bureau trumpeted overall violent crime rates "not seen since the mid- to late-1960s."

The city's gang violence followed that receding tide for a time, with only small spikes cropping up in the early 2000s. The police bureau eliminated a gang-specific patrol unit, focusing resources elsewhere. But in 2008, the problem Portland thought it had largely vanquished resurfaced. Gang Officer Russ Corno attributed the re-emergence recently to police and community workers becoming distracted, "misguided."

"We were alarmed when we got up to 63," said Corno, referring to the number of violent gang crimes Portland police reported in 2008. "We were extremely alarmed when things went to 93 in 2010."

In 2012, there were 118 gang attacks.

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The guy sitting on the curb is 28 years old, and says his red handkerchief is for allergies.

Folded neatly, the bandanna hung crisply from the right rear pocket of his jeans as gang unit officers patted him down for weapons. Now it's crumpled harshly between him and an East Burnside sidewalk while cops rummage through the blue Grand Am he'd been riding in.

"We're going home, that's all," says the driver of the vehicle—a black guy, like his friend with the red bandanna—who talks incessantly through the whole process. "Ain't nothing illegal. I don't play that game. No gangbanging, no bullshit."

But the officers in the gang unit have keyed in on the bandanna, and they press its owner.

"Allergies," he says again. The driver loses it.

"Fuck that fucking rag, dude!" he tells his friend. "That's just a rag! They're gonna beat you up because of that, dude! They're gonna beat me up because of that, dude!"

No one is beat up. Both the car and its passengers are free of drugs and weapons, but the driver has a suspended license and the man with the red rag has an outstanding warrant. The Grand Am is staying put, and the guy and his bandanna are going to the Multnomah County Justice Center.

"Putting him in jail, that's not gonna help nothing," the driver tells cops as his sullen friend is loaded into a squad car. "That's just gonna make him worse. Get on some real shit."

Part of me thinks he has a point.

Riding around the drab apartment complexes and strip malls of East Portland with Duilio and the rest of the Gang Enforcement Team's afternoon shift, the scenario repeats itself. Time and again, officers spot someone they recognize as a gang member, or think they recognize—or just someone who they feel might be up to no good—and pull him over. They are gathering intelligence, figuring out who hangs out with whom and who drives what. They're also trolling for guns, trying to keep a little free space on the whiteboards by getting potential murder tools and their owners off the street.

"We're just actively looking for gang members," Duilio tells me as we leave North Precinct headquarters. "Our thing is to contact them."

But Portland's gang population—though made up of all races—is still largely black, and that means the gang unit is essentially rolling around night after night, finding black guys to pull over. It's not hard to come up with a plausible reason to stop them.

"There's so many traffic laws, it'd be impossible for even you and me to drive legally," Duilio tells me.

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We're driving west on SE Stark near 139th when the sergeant spots a coffee-colored Buick headed the other way.

"You guys see that car?" Duilio radios his team. "Might be a good stop."

We make a U-turn and begin pursuit, but the driver has seen us. The Buick pulls into a nearby convenience store and, by the time we arrive, its two black male occupants have emerged, hands raised in placation. They know the drill.

It's the same situation as with the Grand Am. Backup arrives, officers pat down the two men. One of the guys has braids, a black sweatshirt bearing a photo of Muhammad Ali, and a long connection with gang life, Duilio says. The driver, who doesn't have a valid license, consents to a vehicle search. The gang cops turn up nothing.

At another point in the night, the officers pull over a car containing Fontaine Adams, who, if you recall the whiteboards, had been shot in both legs 12 days earlier. Again, the driver doesn't have a valid license. Again, police find nothing.

One surprising thing: Almost every exchange I see between gang officers and the people whose possessions they're rifling through is completely civil. There's often even laughter and chitchat. No one seems irate, or even overly inconvenienced. I tell Duilio I don't know how I'd react if subjected to the same treatment.

"Everybody thinks that," he says. "The gangsters don't care. They totally get it. The reality is, they probably should be arrested more often."

I say some people (I'm really thinking most people) would call this type of thing "profiling," and Duilio's clearly given this some thought.

"You can't add the word 'racial,'" he says. "All cops profile."

He elaborates: "Did I turn around because they had committed a traffic infraction? No. I turned around because I thought I recognized them, and this time I was right."

It's easy to understand the motivations. Police don't want people to feel safe carrying illegal weapons around.

But these are also tactics that have proven contentious. In some ways, they're the vehicular equivalent of New York's much-questioned "stop-and-frisk" policy, which a federal judge recently ruled is "racially discriminatory" and violates civil rights.

This strategy has also led to bloodshed and controversy in the past. In May 2010, officers locked in on 25-year-old Keaton Otis for many of the same reasons gang cops flip on the police lights today. Otis, a black man, was wearing a hoodie despite the day's heat, cops said, and was staring at officers in his Toyota Corolla's side mirror.

Officer Ryan Foote would later say he thought Otis "kind of looks like he could be a gangster." So Foote and his partner followed and, when Otis made a series of illegal lane changes, pulled him over.

Otis, suffering from mental health issues, was furious at being stopped and would not follow police instruction, officers said. Despite being Tasered by multiple cops, he was able to retrieve a handgun and shoot Officer Chris Burley twice in the groin. Otis died in a hail of police gunfire.

The gang unit's tactics are borne out in the numbers. According to an analysis of 2010 traffic stops by Portland Copwatch and the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, cops pull over African Americans and Latinos about twice as often as white Portlanders, though the groups account for less than 16 percent of Portland's population.

At the same time, police searches of white individuals turned up more illegal contraband than black or Hispanic motorists.

The findings led Portland cops to admit institutional racism may come into play when police are making stops. "Context is important. But owning it is important too," Sergeant Greg Stewart told the Mercury in June 2012. "We don't want to make excuses, either."

But as I talk to Portland cops—and even some black social services workers and clergy members working against gangs—it becomes clear many people see the strategy as a necessary evil.

"I understand why some of these kids are stopped," says Robert Blake, one of the city's street-level gang outreach workers. "Are we always in favor of it? No. But you don't always have to be up in arms. If you feel like you were wrongly targeted, there's a process."

East Precinct Lieutenant Vince Elmore tells me: "We're dealing with African American gangs, here. I'm not dealing with Russian gangs, Hispanic gangs. These are black gangs."

But these are not the same gangs that took root 25 years ago.

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From the ebb in activity around 1996 to the current spike, Portland's gang landscape has diversified and shifted with the city's economic straits. The number of people living in poverty in Portland's suburbs shot up almost 100 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to a recent study from the Brookings Institution. Within city limits, poverty increased by more than 71 percent, much of it settling in Portland's former suburbs—East Portland.

These days, the police bureau has more than 600 documented gang members on file, from 114 gang sects. Police estimate there are something like 2,500 gang members in the city.

Cops and outreach workers still report problems in traditional hotspots like the New Columbia development in North Portland, or the Cully neighborhood in Northeast. But gentrification has ensured they also focus their efforts on big swaths of East Burnside and SE Holgate and NE Glisan.

With that drift eastward, gangs' focus on territory has diminished. Instead of streets or city blocks, police now talk of apartment complexes dominated by particular gang sets—in some cases, next door to buildings that house their rivals.

"Hoovers, Gangster Disciples, Rolling 60s, Bloods, Crips—everybody is there," Elmore says. "All the gangs are living side by side."

Drug sales by gang members have slackened as well, cops say, replaced increasingly by sex trafficking. And recent numbers bolster those observations. According to a study released by Portland State University researchers on August 5, nearly half of the sexual exploitation cases currently being worked by Portland advocacy groups involve a gang connection. That amounts to 78 women and girls.

"We all know gangs are spending more of their energy and interest in the sex-trafficking area," Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill recently told Gang Violence Task Force members.

But a few things haven't changed—most pressingly, the potential for violence.

On June 9, a 21-year-old gang affiliate named Andreas Jones was gunned down in front of an apartment complex in Gresham's Rockwood neighborhood. The killing sparked an attack the following day—30 rounds squeezed off near a NE Glisan apartment building—and ratcheted up tensions.

Jones' death also demonstrated what police say has long been the most difficult part of gang enforcement: the reticence of witnesses and victims to help investigators. After the young man's murder, a 23-year-old woman named Dashall Renea Gonzalez was accused of warning a witness, on behalf of members of the Bloods, not to talk to the police.

"People don't talk," Duilio says. "If gang members came forward, the gangs wouldn't be a problem."

It's partly for this reason Portland police are counting on an ever-larger cast of organizations—from clergy to outreach workers to rehabilitation programs—to help staunch the blood flow.

"The people I used to arrest 15 years ago, now we're arresting their kids," says Nakamura, the gang team lieutenant. "We can't arrest our way out of this problem."

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An older black woman opens the door of a maroon and beige row house in North Portland's New Columbia development.

"Hi, Aunt Valorie," says Robert Blake. "Is Cashonna around?"

The home's living room has a worn brown sectional at one end and an enormous old projection TV on the other. On a shelf next to the TV is a Christmas-themed snow globe, though it is July. Beside that sits a "promotion certificate" from George Middle School, dated 2012 and bearing the name of the young man Blake's come to talk about.

The boy's mother, Cashonna, emerges from the kitchen and Blake exchanges brief pleasantries with her before settling down to business.

"You know why I'm here."

"Yes," says the woman.

Blake is one of the many counterpoints to police enforcement in the city's struggle with gang violence. As a street-level gang intervention worker with the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC), it's his job to forge bonds with at-risk youth, offering assistance where needed and defusing violence before it erupts.

It's work he can relate to. Blake, a short and engaging 42-year-old with a shaved head and wispy black soul patch, grew up in inner Northeast Portland at a time when gang numbers were swelling. His brother joined the Crips early on. His father died from complications with alcoholism when he was 18. Blake never joined a gang, he says, but dabbled in crack sales before enlisting in the National Guard.

Most days, he cruises the city in his "office"—a silver Toyota Avalon, pungent from the air fresheners clipped to several of its vents—making contacts at schools and community centers. He'll visit kids' homes, take them out to lunch, talk with their parents. Recently, he's been working with the brother of Jones, the gang member murdered in Rockwood.

But on the sunny Friday I meet up with Blake, the job has taken a more personal turn. His teenaged second cousin—along with the teen's gang-affiliated friend—recently got into a fight near the Lloyd Center. Later that day, Blake's cousin was nearly jumped on a MAX platform. One of his assailants claimed to have a gun.

It is a potentially pivotal point for the young man, Blake believes—a moment that could drive him to the perceived safety and flash of gang life. "Is he now feeling he's teetering on the fence because he's had that encounter?" So we've gone to see the boy's mother at the New Columbia.

"My first concern is who he's hanging out with," Blake tells the woman.

"Mine, too."

"I understand they've been lifelong friends or whatever, but right now we're talking about life or death," Blake presses.

"Yeah, that's what I heard."

"If a kid is brandishing a weapon or whatever," he continues, "in this day and age, they're gonna take a shot." All of this is punctuated by "mmm hmms" from the woman.

She agrees to make her son come home directly from his summer-school classes, and to prohibit him from hanging out with his troublemaking friend. But despite her assurances, it's hard to feel like much is going to change. It seems, I tell Blake, as if she's just telling him what he wants to hear.

"You picked up on that, too, huh?" he says, cruising the Avalon through a shabby residential neighborhood near New Columbia. "She's gonna make it so she's perceived to be doing everything she could be doing. This is what I go through, dealing with families."

He's quiet for a beat, then says: "I need to follow up."

Blake's been doing gang-intervention work on and off for seven years, spending the last two with POIC. He's been around plenty of gunfire in that time, but got his clearest picture of the scourge he's fighting on March 27 of this year.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and he was driving west on NE Killingsworth when shots erupted half a block away. By the time Blake pulled into the Valero gas station at NE 60th, 18-year-old Edward Jewell Paden Jr. was already bleeding to death near pump number four. It is Portland's only gang homicide of the year to-date.

"They got out of the car, lit him up, hopped back in the car, and sped off," Blake says as we pass the site. "Just a completely horrific and chaotic situation.

"If we'd had that kid in some kind of program, that might have been life-changing."

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Social services' efforts to dismantle the city's gang violence are more prevalent than ever.

Seated around North Precinct's enormous conference room table at semi-monthly Gang Violence Task Force meetings are groups like 11:45, a faith-based volunteer organization, and Man-Up, which focuses on stemming the behavior that leads to violence. Straightway Services, another Christian group, and the Portland National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are also onboard.

The city has street-level outreach workers like Blake (12 of them, from three different organizations), and Volunteers of America Oregon runs a program called the Community Partners Reinvestment Project (CPR) that helps inmates—increasingly gang-affiliated ones, staffers say—transition from prison life back to the streets.

"The national research says you need suppression, intervention, and prevention" to succeed in curbing gang violence, CPR Director Kathy Sévos told me in May. "We're really good at suppression—whenever there's a shooting, the cops are on it. What we're not as good at is intervention."

What may be the city's most innovative effort started in early June.

The Healing Hurt People program targets shooting and stabbing victims being treated in Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, offering up months of counseling and social services to patients and their families when they're most vulnerable.

"Within 48 hours of launch we got our first referral," says Alisha Moreland-Capuia, the program's director. Healing Hurt People's taken on two additional clients since.

Differentiating itself is key to the effort's success with a population that mistrusts and dislikes the police.

"We're not there to investigate, we're there to soothe," Moreland-Capuia says. "We're also there to help them understand the neurobiology of violence; why they're angry.

"We're not playing."

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It's August 8 the next time I meet up with Duilio.

In the past seven weeks, Portland's gang wars have slowed a bit—there were less than 10 attacks in all of July. But the violence has been overt, too. On the afternoon of July 5, for instance, gunshots erupted on a busy commercial stretch near NE 7th and Broadway, as occupants in one car shot at another. As we angle the police cruiser toward North Portland, the year's count stands at 59, 12 less than the same point in 2012.

I mention that things have been relatively quiet, and Duilio swats the claim aside. The gang unit has been confiscating more weapons lately, and nine shootings in July is little reason to applaud.

Several times as we drive, the sergeant brings up a theory of his—something that clearly bothers him. The public at large doesn't care about gang shootings, Duilio thinks. He and his officers work nightly trying to prevent gang violence, or to clean up its byproducts, and he sees Portland largely shrug its shoulders.

"People treat these shootings almost like they're shoplifting cases," he says. "To me, if someone's trying to kill someone, that's one of the worst things you can have in a city."

Later in the night, after Duilio and I part ways, he's busy again. A man's been shot in East Portland.

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