FOX 12 Investigators: 75% of Portland shootings never solved

Not solved, but cases gone cold; the vast majority of shootings never end with arrest.
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 9:41 AM PDT
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - With summer approaching, 2023 is nearly half over and there’s a glimmer of good news on Portland’s gun violence front: shootings are down roughly 14% over the past two years.

What the summer will bring - the season typically correlating with a spike in gun violence - is yet to unfold, but a downtick is notable; a measure that perhaps shows the city’s effort to curb the violence is making headway.

“It’s a positive direction for gun violence, but we need to be really cautious,” said Sgt. Patrick Mawdsley, who leads the bureau’s Enhanced Community Safety Team (ECST).

SEE ALSO: Portland police warn about dangerous batch of drugs after 8 die from possible overdoses

That’s because a grim reality still casts a massive shadow over progress: turning the tide on what’s been a tripling of gun violence in recent years is no small feat.

“A lot of those cases end up being closed pretty quickly,” said Detective Sara Clark.

Not solved, but cases gone cold; the vast majority of shootings never end with arrest.

“It’s incredibly heartbreaking, actually,” Clark said.

To be clear, data shows Portland police made arrests in just over 50% of murders, last year. Many those homicides are shooting deaths. But when you look at other shootings – ones where people get hurt or property is damaged - the success rate plunges. Fewer than 25% of those cases are solved, according to police.

“Victim’s cooperation is always my biggest hurdle,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of people who show up at hospitals with gunshot wounds. We get called to talk to them – they won’t tell us where the shooting happened and so there’s not even any investigative steps, we can take to attempt to find a crime scene, to find video.”

Clark, is one of several detectives assigned to ECST. There are supposed to be 12 detectives in the unit, but its been chronically understaffed, said police. ECST is the investigative counterpart to the bureau’s Focused Intervention Team (FIT). Together, the units are tasked with fighting gun violence in the city.

“We are averaging four to six injury shootings a week,” Mawdsley said. “Last year, (the detectives) averaged 42 cases, per detective, for the year.”

The investigations are only made more difficult by a relentless workload. The more cases go unsolved, the more they stack up, leaving detectives spread thin.

“I am so overwhelmed, a lot with how many cases we get,” Clark said.

These days, police don’t even bother investigating most non-injury shootings.

According to police, roughly half of shootings in the city involve gangs. There are about 30 gangs in Portland, and around a dozen of them are believed to be responsible for the majority of gang-involved gun violence.

“A lot of times, there’s familiar faces over and over again at different shooting scenes,” Clark said.

More recently, police say there’s also been a huge surge in gun violence related to people experiencing homelessness, accounting for another 30 to 50% of the shootings.

In both populations, it’s hard to get witnesses and victims to come forward.

“There’s a lot of not talking to the police and there’s a lot of fear of retaliation,” Mawdsley said. “And we have seen, in many cases, that there is intimidation of witnesses and victims to not cooperate, to not participate in prosecution.”

No witnesses lead to little evidence, which leads to no case - all very frustrating, for Clark.

“I take it very personal, and I probably shouldn’t,” Clark said. “But I’m very invested in this community and this job.”

“I end up talking to parents a lot of the time, after these shootings,” Clark added. “They get upset that we’re not doing better investigations, that we’re not finding out who shot their children, when the reality is, their children - their adult children - know who shot them, they know what the incident was about, but they’re unwilling to speak to us about it.”

The violence, said police, has only grown more alarming as officers noticed trends of younger teens and children becoming involved in shootings, as well as a dramatic increase in the number of bullets fired.

“We regularly have shootings where 50 rounds are fired and all of those bullets are going somewhere and impacting something.”

Officers say there’s another, more silent pressure that can affect their work.

“If we have a gang violence problem, and we don’t talk about gangs, it’s hard to address that issues honestly and therefore it’s hard to make progress and find solutions that will actually work for that portion of our gun violence,” Mawdsley said.

SEE ALSO: 3 injured in shooting at NE Portland bar

The shift comes in the wake of the national and local activism surrounding racial disparities in policing, with people of color are much more likely to be arrested and have negative interactions with law enforcement.

Most Portlanders arrested for gang-related violence are Black.

Portland police’s long-time Gang Enforcement Team was disbanded after community criticism regarding how officers interacted with Black residents. City audits found officers were disproportionately stopping Black drivers for minor traffic violations.

The death of George Floyd, at the hands of police officers, reignited outrage and activism, leading to massive protests across the country and in Portland.

Today, the struggle between balancing civil liberties and exploring new policing tactics continues.

Oversight groups guiding ECST and FIT are interested in adding gunshot detection monitoring software to neighborhoods hit most by gun violence, as well as finding new ways to track and intervene with people most at risk to become a suspect or victim in a shooting.

However, there is community pushback that the ideas are all just new forms of profiling.

“That’s one of our challenges,” Mawdsley said. “How do we create that list, where do you get that information from and how do you vet that information, so any biases are removed from that and you are just collecting that data.”

Mawdsley has hope that some solution is out there, telling FOX 12 that perhaps university researchers can get involved in setting parameters around tracking criteria around lists and data collection.

“I think it probably has more validity in the community,” Mawdsley said.

As for Clark, she says building rapport with victims and their families is crucial for trust.

“They have to feel comfortable enough; I’ve created a relationship with them,” Clark said.

From there, police say, in theory, it could be a cascade toward real justice and change: more willing witnesses, leading to more collected evidence, then more arrests. From there, more shooters would be in jail, held accountable for crimes, and that would lead to fewer suspects on the street, fewer shootings and then fewer retaliatory shootings.

“We need to focus on this violence, in particular,” Mawdsley said. “Moving forward, for me, this should be a priority in the city, even though we’re down a little bit, we’re not down enough.”

SEE ALSO: 3 people injured after 3 separate shootings overnight in SE Portland

The Portland City Auditor released a report earlier this spring, recommending that Portland Police develop new policies for tracking and using gang information in investigations.

The report also says that, last year, the bureau made it a goal to solve 45% of non-deadly shootings.