Portland police amp up patrols amid spike in violent crime

·4 min read

Sep. 9—Portland police are shifting resources to address a wave of violent crime in the city. The number of shootings and stabbings have spiked sharply this year amid a persistent staffing crisis that shows no signs of letting up.

The department will limit outside officer details in an effort to increase patrols in hotspots and add more two-officer patrols city-wide.

But the force is down 25 officers — about 15% of the 161 authorized positions — and is struggling to recruit new applicants, interim Portland Police Chief F. Heath Gorham said.

Gorham said Portland police will continue to staff mass-gathering events, such as large sporting events or outdoor concerts, but will turn away detail requests not essential to public safety.

"I'm not someone that believes we can arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic, or arrest our way out of our behavioral health issues. But there is a point in time when people do need to be arrested and they do need to be taken to jail," he said. "And when we don't have the ability to do that, it effects public safety in our communities."

The Cumberland County Jail is effectively closed because of an even more serious staffing shortage. The jail is being run by about 100 employees, or a little more than half its normal staff. The situation became so dire that federal authorities transferred out dozens of inmates last week.

Because of the staffing problems, only people charged with serious felonies or who are sentenced by a judge are being admitted to the jail. This means officers cannot make arrests for lower-level crimes and instead can only write summonses to appear in court later. This is frustrating enforcement efforts for quality-of-life issues residents often complain about, Gorham said.

Sheriff Kevin Joyce, who also attended the press briefing, said the jail closure is temporary, and will give his staff time to rest. He did provide a timetable for reopening.

"We're taking it day by day," Joyce said. "I can't afford to lose any more staff. There needs to be a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, or I will lose them. My theory is, if I lose too many more, then we'll really have to look at shutting down the jail completely."

To date in 2022, there have been 17 stabbings—a 31% increase from the same time last year. Shootings have more than doubled from this time in 2021. According to department statistics, there have been 42 shootings, seven victims, two deaths, and four arrests.

"Our officers on the street are dealing with a sense of lawlessness," said Gorham, "People who are willing to do things and say things to them that we've never seen. And it's adding stress. We're seeing officers leaving."

Within the last two weeks, police responded to five shootings within six days. On Tuesday, police charged 21-year-old Abdihamit Ali, of Portland, after a 20-year-old woman in Riverton was wounded over the weekend.

On Wednesday, a 31-year-old Portland man, Walter Omal, was shot and killed in Deering Oaks Park. A day later, investigators charged Amin Awies Mohamed, 38, of Boston, with Omal's killing. He is now being held without bail at the Cumberland County Jail following a brief court appearance Friday.

In a third case this weekend, a mentally unstable man was found shooting a gun into the air near the intersection of Bolton Street and Brighton Avenue, police said.

This is not the first time the jail has been effectively closed to new arrests. Last fall, the county declared an emergency at the jail as coronavirus infections, low staffing and employees going on temporary leave created another dire shortage of employees. Correction officers were being forced into repeated overtime shifts day after day.

But staffing levels have not substantially improved, and in February during another surge in COVID cases, the jail was closed once again. During that time, a man was shot at a Wharf Street bar. The victim had been kicked out of the bar after getting into a fight. Police issued him a summons to appear in court, instructed him to stay away from the business and then cut him loose. He immediately returned to the bar and was shot.

Gorham said he asked for assistance from the state to hire more staff, both last year and now, but has received no help.

There is no single factor to blame, he said. Employers across the country are scrambling to find workers, he said, and law enforcement requires working nights, weekends and holidays, and working in dangerous, difficult situations. Despite an incremental sign-on bonus, fewer people are applying to work at the department, he said. Before the pandemic, each academy class received about 300 applicants, but in the last cycle, only 89 applied.

Public perception about the profession "really took a dive" in 2020, he said, when the murder of George Floyd by several Minneapolis police officers was captured on film, sparking the largest public uprising against police violence since the civil rights movement.