East Portland’s crime-busting unit disbanded; but cops put ‘HEAT’ on crooks

How’s the city combating gang crime, street thugs, transit safety and prostitution? Learn more about the program the bureau’s Assistant Chief says is doing the job … or at least, part of it …

East Portland Involved Citizens (EPIC) Director Dave Smith introduces the cops who are tasked with putting the “HEAT” on crooks.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Many outer East Portland neighbors expressed concern, when they learned that the Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Crime Reduction Unit (CRU) had been dismantled.

Starting as the “Tired of Tweekers” initiative several years ago, CRU officers focused on detecting the criminal behavior, primarily, of drug-affected individuals – especially repeat offenders.

The CRU cops became very adept at keeping an eye on the crooks who were committing a large number of crimes; property crime reports dropped, and the drug trade was diminished.

Portland Police Bureau Assistant Chief Lynnae Berg tells why CRU was dismantled, and introduces the new policing policies.

Cop shortage forces changes
To find out why the CRU was dismantled – and how the Portland Police Bureau now deals with outer East Portland crime, especially along the eastern border of Portland – we attended the bi-monthly meeting of East Portland Involved Citizens (EPIC), a few days ago.

“In our bureau, we’ve been short on staffing,” explained Portland Police Bureau Assistant Chief Lynnae Berg. “We’re ‘running lean’, partly due to the time it takes to recruit and train new officers, and partly due to retirements. We’ve cut special units [such as CRU] in order to bolster staffing in the precincts.”

Additionally, Berg said, the bureau needed to better address gang activity throughout Portland. “From January through June 2008, there has been an increase in gang activity. Citywide, there were 32 gang shootings or incidents in which the gang unit was called out.”

Asked if this has become a crime trend, Berg responded, “It’s hard to tell, because of the cyclical nature of gang violence.”

These ‘high speed, low-drag’ officers make up the city’s new “Hotspot Enforcement Action Team” (HEAT), commissioned to reduce gang violence.

HEAT focused on gang activities
Berg told the group that a new citywide unit has been formed – called the “Hotspot Enforcement Action Team” (HEAT). “We believe that ‘high speed, low-drag’ officers – led by sergeants of the same ilk – could have an impact on crime. We sought out high-performance officers with good judgment, who work well in small teams.”

Berg said HEAT meets weekly to decide how to allocate resources. They focus on areas with gang activity, or where youths cause problems. Another purpose is to have officers show themselves in public spaces, to ease the fear of crime in parks, she added. “And HEAT has more than exceeded our expectations.”

With that, Berg introduced HEAT Sergeants Mendenhall and Passidore.

Difference between CRU and HEAT
Sgt. Anthony Passidore – one of the original CRU officers – spoke about the new program.

“In CRU,” Passidore began, “we took the time to ‘climb the ladder’ in several criminal organizations and dismantle them. In HEAT, we are ‘out in the public’; we’re not exclusively dealing with those who are involved in criminal behavior.”

While the team works citywide, Passidore explained that they focus on outer East Portland hot crime spots, such as the ones on the MAX light rail line along E. Burnside Street at 82nd, 122nd, and 162nd Avenues. “Most of the ‘hot spots’ we deal with haven’t changed; we look for areas that have a propensity for a high level of activity. It may be a high school, or some sort of social gathering place.”

Talks about gang violence
Berg said HEAT is helping the bureau with gang designations. “There is a growing segment of Hispanic gangs. Challenges we face dealing with them include cultural and language issues.”

Passidore said that during the 1980s, gangs wore their “colors” [a bandanna or other clothing of a certain color or pattern] when they hung out. “Starting in the 1990s, members hid their colors, for fear of being identified; older [gang members] coming out of jail don’t show colors. But, the younger members do.”

Little compassion for others
The difference between rude teenagers and gangsters, Passidore continued, is that gang members are driven by money and status. And, chillingly, they have little compassion for others.

“Gang conflict comes from disrespect, girlfriends, and territorial issues,” Passidore informed. “Especially with the younger ones, the silliest things can set them off. They go from calm to extreme violence — instantly.”

Asked if gang members set out to hurt uninvolved citizens, Berg answered, “They are intending to do violence against one another. But they show little concern a about ‘collateral damage’, when they spray automatic weapon fire in a dense neighborhood. Their threshold is very low for using violence.”

Passidore added, “It can be difficult to tell the difference between a band of disrespectful roving kids and gang members.”

Sgt. Anthony Passidore – one of outer East Portland’s original CRU members – now helps lead the citywide HEAT officers.

Violence on mass transit
Asked about mass-transit-related violence, Passidore put it this way: “If I’m talking to a family member abut riding MAX, I’d tell them, ‘You don’t have to live in fear. But if something doesn’t feel right, act with a little more caution. Good common sense and awareness is the rule. Call police, and let them address the issues’.”

Berg added, “TriMet policing has become more multi-jurisdictional. We have 18 TriMet officers and three sergeants in the system. We benefit from participating in TriMet policing; many crime problems are located in and around transit facilities throughout the city.”

No HEAT on street prostitution
Asked whether nor not the HEAT officers have worked to decrease outer East Portland’s exploding street prostitution problem, Berg said, “No, HEAT provides a uniformed police officer presence. Our strategy was not to get them involved in drug and vice issues.”

Responding to a question regarding Prostitution-free Zones, Berg added, “The zones were useful tool. The benefit was being able to trespass [prostitutes] out of an area and hold them accountable for their behavior. But, the zones are no longer in place; this is a fact of life. We’re working on other strategies to deal with prostitution. Until we have an effective strategy in place, we are working precinct-level missions to reduce it.”

The assistant chief added that it wasn’t possible to continuously run anti-prostitution missions because they are highly labor-intensive. “Hopefully, we will have more effective strategies in place in a couple of months.”

HEAT ends this fall
Berg said that they’ve recommended that HEAT continue operating until the start of school. “We’ll see if we need to send officers back to the precincts at that time.”

Learn more about EPIC
EPIC, formally known as the “East Precinct Block Captain Program”, is a group of concerned citizens who work toward being “part of the crime reduction solution”.

Their September 24 program will be a “field trip” to see the Portland Police Bureau’s Mounted Police Division stables.

To learn more, contact the EPIC Coordinator, Dave Smith, at dsmith@portlandpolice.org — or call (503) 823-4636.

© 2008 David F. Ashton  ~ East Portland News

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