Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian, January 9, 2023
Damala Badon bolted past dozens of police officers gathered in the hotel hallway and stopped in front of an open door to a third-floor room.
Her son had been celebrating a cousin’s birthday that Saturday night in late November. Badon had gotten a call about a shooting at the party and raced to the Embassy Suites by Hilton near Portland International Airport.
Several people wearing masks had burst into the room and appeared to target her son, according to family and police. Parnell “PJ” Badon Jr. was shot multiple times.
When his mother looked into the room, “All I could see was his legs,” she said.
“I wanted to believe that wasn’t him,” she said.
Her 18-year-old son was one of 101 people killed in Portland in 2022, making it the deadliest year in the city’s history.
The unceasing toll has left a trail of grief, devastating families and frustrating police and city leaders. Their effort to stem the violence hasn’t slowed it, though Mayor Ted Wheeler and the city’s new public safety director said they have plans to do more this year.
Extra money the city provided last summer for grassroots groups to help interrupt the shootings was short-lived. A special police Focused Intervention Team quickly became overwhelmed, including having seven of its officers placed on standard leave at different times after they were involved in one fatal and two nonfatal shootings.
“At some point, we have to be tired of burying our children, having our children’s names turned into hashtags,” Damala Badon told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
“Nobody gets completely tired of it until it happens to their family. As a city, we just sit back and continue to watch this happen,” she said. “We’ve let it continue to happen and it’s gotten worse. We’re reacting, instead of preventing.”
PJ Badon was among seven victims younger than 20 last year. Six of the seven were Black teens and six of the seven died from gunshot wounds.
The youngest victim was 17-year-old La’Marcus Brazile, a junior at David Douglas High School.
In 2021, 10 people under 20 were killed in Portland and six of them died in shootings.
Nationally, gun-related injuries became the leading cause of death for young people from ages 1 to 19 in 2020, fueled by an increase in gun homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While murder counts began to taper off last year in almost two-thirds of the country’s major cities that had recorded increases since 2019, Portland bucked that trend.
Both retaliatory gang shootings and shootings involving people living on the street drove up the killings here, police said.
“As a community we have to acknowledge that we have a gang, a houseless and a gun violence problem that is contributing to the violent crime level in this city,” said Sgt. Michele Hughes, one of the supervisors of the Police Bureau’s Homicide Unit.
Other killings stemmed from slights on social media, drug disputes, robberies, domestic violence and random violence, according to investigators. The oldest victim was 82-year-old Donald Pierce, beaten while waiting at a downtown bus stop in an unprovoked attack, police said.
More than half of Portland’s homicide victims in 2022 were people of color, mostly Black men – the same breakdown as the year before. That’s far disproportionate to the 6% of Multnomah County’s population that identifies as Black and 3% who identify as Black men.
Also as in 2021, dozens of spent bullet casings of multiple calibers were left behind at many of the crime scenes, suggesting the involvement of multiple shooters, police said.
At least 15 people killed were experiencing homelessness, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive. The Police Bureau, tracking homelessness-related homicides for the first time, estimated that roughly a third of 2022′s killings involved homeless people — both as victims and perpetrators — but police wouldn’t identify the specific cases because of ongoing investigations.
Many of those killings involved guns, Hughes said. It’s a departure from the past when knives and beatings often resolved disputes between those living on the street and guns were treated as a commodity to trade for drugs or other things, she said.
It’s hard to know why Portland’s homicide count has continued to increase while it has dropped in other cities — and if or when the pace of the killings will slow, said city officials, police and criminal justice experts.
Even in the cities where homicides are falling, the numbers are still significantly higher than before the pandemic, according to Jeff Asher, a crime analyst based in New Orleans and co-founder of AH Datalytics, a data consulting firm.
“It’s something that’s not fully understood just yet,” Asher said. “It’s usually a complex set of factors that affects various cities.”
Those include easy access to guns, community distrust of police in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer and social isolation and school closures during the pandemic, Asher and other analysts said.
Police recorded 1,308 shootings throughout the city last year, slightly below the 1,319 shootings in 2021. That’s still more than three times the 413 shootings reported in 2019. Slightly more people – 394 — were injured last year, compared to 391 in 2021.
Bullets have shattered the glass entrance door to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center’s emergency department, wounded a total of four students outside Jefferson and Cleveland high schools and injured a man walking along the Eastbank Esplanade. (Another shooting occurred in the parking lot of Portland’s Franklin High School Saturday night during a basketball tournament, injuring a 15-year-old.)
More than three-fourths of the people killed in 2022 homicides died in shootings.
The fatal shootings included five people killed by immediate family members who then killed themselves in four separate murder-suicides. One of the cases involved three men – a 30-year-old man shot and killed his father and his older brother and then himself.
Another five people died in separate strings of shootings by two men, according to police.
Joseph Kelly Banks, 50, was living in a Northeast Portland group home for adults with mental illness at the time police say he shot three men in what investigators suspect were random attacks that occurred over the first three months of the year. He remains at the Oregon State Hospital after a judge found he couldn’t assist in his own defense.
Nathaniel Freeman, a 34-year-old felon barred from having guns, faces charges in two fatal shootings 10 days apart.
Another high-profile killing last year was the close-range shooting of a 60-year-old woman, June Knightly, and wounding of four others gathered for a march in February outside Normandale Park.
According to police, 11 of the homicides were ruled self-defense – nearly double the amount of the year before.
Portland police shot and killed four men in separate confrontations and a Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a fifth man after a chase into Portland. Grand juries found four of the shootings to be justified. One has yet to be reviewed by a grand jury.
Portland police also were involved in five nonfatal shootings, wounding three people. In one, no one was hit. In another, police shot at a driver after he rammed his truck into a police car. The driver sped away, and police said they didn’t know if the officer who fired wounded anyone.
Three of the police shootings — one fatal, one nonfatal and one where shots were fired but didn’t wound anyone — involved members of the Focused Intervention Team. The suspects were either armed with guns or shot at team members, police reported.
Veteran detectives also have retired in droves in the past two years, leaving the new team largely to learn on its own as the pace of shootings has intensified and spread across the city.
Police also cite a directive from the police chief and mayor not to make traffic stops for low-level infractions and state case law that puts greater restrictions on when police can search a stopped car.
As a result, more people are freely carrying guns on them or in their cars, unafraid police will stop or search them, officers said.
The team’s officers have expressed frustration that when they work to build cases and remove guns from convicted felons, the people arrested often aren’t held in jail pending trial after their initial court appearances.
Wheeler is considering adopting a “focused deterrence” public safety model this year — a step recommended by police and members of the oversight group monitoring work by the Focused Intervention Team. They visited Tampa and Oakland to learn about how those cities target gun violence.
Stephanie Howard, community safety director in the mayor’s office, said details are still being worked out, but a decision should be made by mid-January. Any move to adopt such a strategy will include more community input, she said.
The strategy discourages gang members from engaging in violence and was developed in Boston in the late 1990s and used in Portland in that era, too.
Through meetings dubbed “call-ins,” police, prosecutors, probation officers, service providers and leaders from the most affected communities address people suspected of participating in shootings or illegally carrying guns.
They deliver three messages: The affected communities want the violence to stop and want those at risk of getting shot to stay safe and not hurt others. They can get immediate support, including protection, food and shelter. If the violence continues, authorities will work collectively to prosecute people not only for any shootings but will investigate other alleged crimes, such as drug dealing, identity theft or sex trafficking.