Could scrapping gang list have unintended consequences?

Gang officers had responded to 81 incidents this year

The Gang Enforcement Team will continue investigating crimes like drive-by shootings. (Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Reflecting criminal justice reforms sweeping the country, the Portland Police Bureau has announced it will no longer identify anyone as a gang member or associate — and will purge the hundreds of names in its existing gang list.

According to the bureau, the change, announced on Sept. 8, was made because being labeled a gang member or affiliate can have lifelong negative consequences for those trying to overcome the challenges they face.

“This police bureau is very serious about rising to the challenge of building and maintaining trust with the community it serves,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said when the change was announced. “This is a great example of how the Portland Police Bureau is doing it right.”

At the same time, however, the bureau still will maintain the Gang Enforcement Team (GET) and the Gang Violence Reduction Team (GVRT), which work together to investigate incidents of gang-related violence. For example, gang investigators responded to a Sept. 18 shooting where a man and woman were wounded while driving in Northeast Portland.

The bureau said there is no contradiction between the two policies. According to bureau spokesman Sgt. Chris Burley, gangs are criminal organizations, and the bureau will continue to monitor their activities. And GET officers will still investigate crimes with gang characteristics, such as drive-by shootings.

“The police bureau recognizes that crimes will continue to be committed in the furtherance of an organization or a group. The police bureau further recognizes that identifying a person as a gang member does not address the criminal act that was committed and diminishes credibility in the community and can have long-lasting effects on those designated as gang members,” Burley said.

But Matthew Valasik, a Louisiana State University sociology professor who has studied police responses to gangs, said the change could have unintended consequences. He said some future gang-related crimes might not be solved as quickly or at all.

“From a civil liberties perspective, it might be the correct thing to do. But at the same time, there are going to be consequences that people should be aware of,” said Valasik, who first wrote about the change in an opinion piece in the Sept. 19 Portland Tribune titled, “Halting gang database a concern.”

Valasik bases his opinion in large part on a study he co-authored about what happened when a Los Angeles Police Department gang unit in one division was temporarily disbanded in 2010 and 2011. In addition to experienced officers being reassigned, the collection and dissemination of gang-related information from that unit throughout the department also was suspended. Arrests of gang members dropped during that time, not only in the district the unit had been assigned, but citywide.

“You’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge that can help shape investigations,” Valasik said.

Police Capt. Mike Krantz admitted some officers are concerned that the lack of previous and new intelligence on gang members could compromise their safety. Krantz led GET from 2013 to 2016. Speaking on OPB radio after the decision was announced, he said officers might now approach gang members without knowing they are gang members.

Krantz said the issue of “officer safety” is more then offset by the gains in community trust from eliminating the list, however.

The bureau started its gang list over 20 years ago when urban gang violence was increasing in Portland and other cities across the country. Its legality has been challenged in the past, prompting the bureau to purge an earlier list and allow those proposed to be placed on the new one to formally appeal their designation as a gang member. Only about 5 percent ever did.

The new decision to purge the gang list and stop designating people as gang members was announced at a biweekly meeting of the Community Peace Collaborative. The informal public gathering is reguarly attended by community members, including social service providers and relatives of designated gang members, who argue such labeling is discriminatory and creates an obstacle for young people who may or may not have made mistakes, but who want to become contributing members of society.

At the same time, the bureau has long recognized that race-based gangs are real and pose special threats for minority communities, including street-level violence that harms innocent victims, too. The problem grew especially apparent in the 1980s, when gangs fought over territories for control. Like many major cities, the bureau created a unit to specically track and respond to such violence. The size has changed over time as the City Council revamped the bureau’s budget for fiscal and policy reasons.

Today, after many changes, the Gang Enforcement Team consists of officers, detectives, sergeants and a lieutenant who investigate and proactively attempt to deter gang violence. It coordinates with the Gang Violence Response Team, which is comprised of three officers, two detectives and one sergeant from GET.

According to the bureau, GET personnel assigned to GVRT respond to gang-involved Measure 11 crimes, which are the most serious kind. When GET members are assigned to GVRT, they are on call and respond to and investigate gang- involved Measure 11 crimes around the clock. Officers, detectives and the sergeant are assigned to be on call for GVRT for a period of time and then switch out with other members of GET. This allows the team to have a method to provide 24-hour response coverage.

At the time of the announcement, gang officers had responded to 81 incidents of suspected gang violence this year. That is roughly 25 percent less than by the same time in 2016 and about 50 percent less than the same time in 2015, when a record 193 incidents were investigated in Portland. Police believe the numbers were higher in the 1980s and 1990s, however, although gang incidents were not recorded separately then.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.