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The Rose City's homicide drought

Murders are down in Portland, but few can pinpoint the reason


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - About three out of four homicides are the result of an argument between acquaintances that escalates. Police tactics to reduce homicides involves keeping apart people who might get into conflicts in the first place. In Portland, that means patrolling inside and outside Jefferson High School during football games. Here, Portland Police Gang Enforcement Officers Jim DeFrain, Charlie Asheim and sergeant Don Livingston watch for gang members in the milling crowd inside Jefferson's stadium.Sgt. Rich Austria remembers the beginning, and the end.

The happy drought of Portland homicides began the day after Independence Day, the day after 33-year-old Northeast Portland resident Duane Bailey died of stab wounds. It ended 94 days later when Donte Alwakeel Young of North Portland, also 33, died after being shot in the head. Previously, the longest period Portland had ever gone without a murder was 71 days.

Summer usually brings homicide detectives such as Austria an increased workload as gang activity heats up. Portland police responded to plenty of violent gang incidents this summer, but after July 4, no homicides.

“We’re baffled at this,” Austria says.

It isn’t just the summer that is baffling to those who track violent crime in Portland. With two months to go, Portland is on track for a record low annual number of homicides. In 1987, a record high 66 Portlanders were homicide victims. Ten people have been homicide victims so far this year. In Chicago or Detroit, 10 people may be murdered in a week.

Homicide rates have plummeted nationally since the mid-1990s. Even so, Portland’s homicide rate on a per capita basis has been among the nation’s lowest for years. And though academic criminologists offer a host of data-driven theories that they say correlate a variety of policies and demographics with murder rates, none appear to fully explain why in Portland murder rarely occurs.

“Almost every major city in the U.S., you can locate the areas of the city that have high murder rates by finding the neighborhoods that are impoverished,” says criminologist Jack Levin, who teaches courses on the sociology of violence at Northeastern University in Boston.

Cities with high rates of poverty have higher murder rates, Levin says.

Levin says 90 percent of the murders in Boston take place in three low-income neighborhoods. He did a comparison study between Boston and St. Louis, two cities similar in size. Boston had a murder rate of 11 per 100,000 residents, St. Louis’ rate was 46 per 100,000. Boston had 23 percent of its citizens living below the poverty level while St. Louis had 30 percent.

Another determining factor in homicides, according to Levin, is immigration — the more foreign-born residents a city has, the less likely it is to see murders.

That theory worked in Levin’s Boston/St. Louis comparison. Boston had many fewer homicides and 26 percent of its residents were foreign-born immigrants. St. Louis had more homicides and only 7 percent of its residents were immigrants.

“It’s a self-selection issue,” says Charis Kubrin, a University of California, Irvine criminologist who studies the immigration/homicide connection. “The people who come to this country are highly motivated. They’re here for one reason, usually to send money back to their families.”

That means the last thing new immigrants want is to get mixed up with police, Kubrin says, even though many are poor. Kubrin says data shows that disrupted households, or broken homes, correlate with higher rates of crime and immigrant families have lower than average rates of broken homes.

Rose City is an ‘outlier’

So if Levin and Kubrin are right, Portland’s low homicide rate might be connected to a low level of poverty and a high rate of foreign-born residents. But a 2012 snapshot is less than definitive (see chart at right). Seattle has less poverty than Portland and a higher murder rate. So does San Francisco. Five other cities chosen for comparison have higher murder rates and higher poverty rates.

Portland has a relatively low immigration rate — just 13.7 percent of its residents are foreign born. Six of seven cities used in the comparison have more immigrants and more murders. Only Oklahoma City has fewer immigrants per capita than Portland, and it has about four times as many murders.

Some Portland police believe that many of Portland’s worst criminals are being gentrified out of the city and moving to Gresham and east Multnomah County. Is there data to prove that? It’s inconclusive. In 2012, Gresham had four homicides, in 2011 it had one. This year there have been six, and in 2010 there were seven.

The problem with studying homicides, Kubrin says, is that so many factors can have an effect, and the numbers are so low that small effects can appear outsized. For example, she says, there is data correlating more segregation in a city with higher murder rates. Other studies have connected progressive programs re-integrating felons back into society with lower rates of violence. It is nearly impossible to parse out all the contributing factors in each city.

Maybe Portland’s weirdness extends to its criminals. At the very least, with about 20 homicides a year, and only 10 this year, Portland defies analysis, according to Kubrin. “When you’re studying things nationally, you tend not to care about outliers like Portland,” she says. “Portland does not represent what’s going on nationally.”

Problem-oriented policing

Poverty and immigration rates may affect homicide numbers, but short term there isn’t much a city can do about them. Policing, on the other hand, is something cities control. Franklin Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley law professor and author of “The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control,” says 20 years ago he thought police exerted little effect on homicide rates. Not anymore.

“What we have been learning over the last two decades is that police can make a dent and it can be relatively significant,” Zimring says.

About seven in 10 murder victims nationally are killed by an acquaintance. Most of those murders were not pre-meditated, but instead involved an escalating argument. Police can’t anticipate an argument to be there to stop the escalation, so for years, Zimring says, he believed police could only react once a homicide was committed.

But studies show that those escalating arguments are not completely random. “It keeps happening, the same night and close to the liquor store, in hot spots or open-air drug markets,” Zimring says. “It has extremely predictable geography.”

At outdoor drug markets like Old Town’s Crack Alley, Zimring explains, drug dealers might fight with one another for street corners. Simply breaking up the hot spot and forcing dealers to sell at different places, even their own apartments, reduces the chance that two dealers will get into an argument that escalates into homicide, Zimring says.

Portland’s anti-hot spot strategy is called problem-oriented policing, and its best example involves the corner of North Killingsworth Street and Albina Avenue. When Portland police track homicides by quarter-mile areas, they find three spots stand out with more than 13 each. Two were in the Old Town/Downtown area. The third was right near Jefferson High School, the Killingsworth corner.

In the past year, police and other city agencies have concentrated on making that area less inviting to gang members and dealers. Portland police are even visible at Jefferson High School football games — another place where arguments have turned into fights and in at least one case, a post-game shooting.

Gangs play a big part

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Police Gang Enforcement Officers Jim DeFrain, Charlie Asheim and John Billard wait for the Benson-Jefferson high school football game to come to an end at Jefferson High School. After the game is when violence, including shootings, can break out.Nationally, about seven of 10 homicides in large cities are gang-related. Kubrin studied neighborhoods in St. Louis that featured huge numbers of gang killings, and discovered “there was a complete breakdown in police/community relations.”

“You get this neverending cycle of tit-for-tat among members of these communities with police standing on the sideline, helpless,” Kubrin says.

That is precisely what Portland police have battled in trying to prevent gang murders. During the last 12 years, gang killings in Portland have remained remarkably consistent — there were 25 in the six years from 2001 to 2006 and the same number in the six years since. Which means gang-related killings are a smaller percentage of overall homicides when comparing Portland to other major cities, but are becoming an increasingly larger percentage year to year as the homicide rate drops.

But gang homicide data can easily be skewed, says Sgt. Greg Stewart of the Portland Police Bureau Crime Analysis Unit. The more thoroughly police investigate a homicide, the more likely they are to discover it was gang-related.

Some Portland gang activity has moved to Gresham and east Multnomah County, says Portland Police Gang Enforcement Team Lt. Art Nakamura. But even in Portland, he points out, gang violence has steadily increased. Nakamura offers a theory that is gaining traction among police officers as a partial explanation for Portland’s low homicide rate: superior medical care.

“It’s the hospitals,” Nakamura says.

Nakamura says he and fellow officers are seeing gangsters who are shooting and stabbing victims, who a few years ago would have died, being taken to hospitals and surviving.

Homicide Sgt. Austria says he sees ambulances getting to trauma victims quicker. One reason, he says, might be that street officers might be arriving at crime scenes sooner and calling for ambulances more quickly.

Stewart says national data shows that 85 percent of handgun wounds are survivable, and the key to survival is getting victims to Level-1 trauma centers as quickly as possible. Nakamura says that in recent years, even the gangsters have caught on. Rather than waiting for an ambulance, many now put an assaulted member of their gang into a car and drive straight to the nearest hospital.

It could be making a difference, says Dr. Daniel Handel, director of clinical operations for the Emergency Department at Oregon Health & Science University. OHSU and Legacy Emanuel Medical Center are both Level-1 trauma centers in the heart of the city. Treatment at a Level-1 Center, according to one study, increases a seriously injured patient’s chance of survival by 20 to 25 percent. There are only about 200 Level-1 centers in the United States and Portland has two. In addition, Handel says, Portland is a compact city, which can cut precious minutes off transport times.

Pure luck?

Handel has another theory that might help explain Portland’s low homicide rate. The surge in national homicides during the 1980 and 1990s is partially attributed to the cocaine epidemic that swept the nation. Traditionally, Handel says, cocaine addicts had high rates of gunshot injuries.

Portland has a thriving drug scene, but opiates dominate here. As detailed in a Tribune series last year, Oregon has more youth painkiller abuse per capita than any other state and many of those painkiller addicts turn to heroin. Painkillers and heroin are sedatives.

“If people are sleepy they’re less likely to go out and stab and shoot each other,” Handel says.

Nakamura has two other explanations for the low Portland homicide rate: “Divine intervention or pure luck.” Last year, through the third week of October, 13 people were shot in gang-related circumstances, he says. This year through the same period there have been 24 such shootings. Yet shooting deaths are down.

“A millimeter to the left, a millimeter to the right, it could be the difference between a fatal shot and a non-fatal shot,” Nakamura says.


Debate puts mandatory arrests for domestic violence in spotlight

Historically, about one in five Portland homicides has resulted from domestic violence. Last year, seven Portlanders died from domestic violence. In 2011 there were three domestic violence deaths, in 2010 there were six, in 2009 there were five and in 2008 there were four.

But exactly how police should respond to domestic violence calls is a controversial matter among criminologists.

Nearly all domestic violence homicides occur after previous police calls to the same home. Portland has made a concerted effort to stem domestic violence with a three-pronged program. The city's response advocate program allows police to bring social workers to domestic violence scenes to help survivors connect with resources, including shelter options. The Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services in Northeast Portland was opened in 2010 to serve as an all-in-one resource where survivors of domestic violence can get help ranging from counseling to legal assistance for restraining orders.

But a third piece of local domestic violence policy involves state law, which requires police to arrest a domestic violent offender if they see reason to believe a serious assault has occurred. Typically in such cases the offender will spend at least a night or two in jail.

Nationally, much of the evidence that led to mandatory arrest statutes came from Lawrence Sherman, director of the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge in England. In the 1980s, Sherman conducted large-scale studies in Milwaukee, Wis., and Kansas City, Mo., that showed when police jailed domestic violence offenders — even for just a few days — their victims were less likely to become homicide victims.

But in recent years, Sherman has begun to revise some of his earlier findings. Now, he says, mandatory arrest laws can lead to more homicides. In cases of minor assault, a battered woman might be safer if the man is not arrested, he says. If the man has a steady job, arresting him for serious assault is a good idea. But if he is unemployed, the arrest could double the chances of future domestic violence.

Also, national data shows that since mandatory arrest laws have been implemented, a greater percentage of women have been killed by their domestic partners, but domestic homicides of men has decreased. Levin says that might be a result of some battered women feeling they have more options than simply killing their husbands or partners. Sherman now says mandatory arrest laws are a mistake.

Oregon law still allows police discretion in cases where domestic violence isn't severe, says Sgt. Ron Mason, part of the Portland police Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team. And the law serves a critical purpose, he believes.

“The good thing abut mandatory arrest is it takes it out of the hands of victims at the time of crisis,” Mason says. “It's not making them the bad guy who is sending their boyfriend or girlfriend to jail. It's the police standing up for the community, saying, 'We're not going to accept this.' ”