Community Conversation on Gun Violence in Salem, Oregon
But with police leading talks, outcomes feel predetermined
SKP is thrilled to publish this report from guest author Levi Herrara-Lopez - someone who has been closely involved in many issues critical to the future of Salem. In this piece, Herrera-Lopez describes his experience at a recent joint work session and provides expert feedback on how Salem officials could better address root causes of violent crime in our community.
By Levi Herrera-Lopez
Executive Director, Mano a Mano Family Center
Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack** advertised a November 20th “…special city council and county commissioner work session…” by describing the beginning of a “community conversation related to the increase in shootings here in Salem. Data will be presented that helps to understand the problem, which is a critical first step toward the development of effective intervention strategies.”
I must be getting ahead of myself but this November 20th event was not the community conversation that was promised. Hopefully, that is yet to come.
**Full disclosure, I’m a current member of Chief Womack’s Community Advisory Council. Until a couple of years ago, I also volunteered on the Marion Public Safety Coordinating Council. In fact, if my application for renewal of my term had not been rejected by the Marion County commissioners, I likely would have attended this meeting in that capacity.
So…what problem was laid out by researchers and by law enforcement?
In my expert opinion, how the majority of Salem residents will hear the message presented is as follows:
Salem’s homicide rate is one of the highest in the state
Most gun violence happens in NE Salem
Latino gang members (specially juveniles) are the driving force behind gun violence in Salem
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In light of this understanding, the suggested recommendations make total sense. Of course, I’m paraphrasing and using common everyday language, but the core ideas are to:
Develop a strategy focused on gangs that includes identifying those with the highest potential to commit violence.
Target Blacks and Latinos between the ages of 18 and 34 as the most likely to become perpetrator or victims of violence.
Bring back the Gang Enforcement Team and School Resource Officers to better identify and deal with Latino (and Black) potential gang members and criminals.
Increase patrols and visible police presence in NE Salem neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latinos (and Blacks), so they know we’ve got our eye on them.
Identify gang affiliates to the Court and prosecutors so their connection to a gang is weighed in on any kind of action taken by the Court.
But, I’m also using language informed by very real experience that already happened in Salem in the 1990s.
The same kind of talk in the 1990s led to:
Latino and Black youth treated like potential criminals at school and in the community;
Youth fashion and culture being criminalized, along with Chicano culture;
The passage of Measure 11
A more careful look at the data provided shows a bit more nuance
With law enforcement driving this “community conversation,” the narrative seems designed to de-emphasize certain data points that were included in the presentation, but not the submitted report. In those omissions, we see a complex set of data and trends that suggest a far more nuanced network of challenges faced here in Salem, and in many other cities in the United States. Examples include:
“Like many U.S. cities, Salem did experience an increase in gun violence in recent years.” (Lisa Barao, PhD & Chris Mastroiani; Salem, OR Gun Violence Problem Analysis (2018-2023), Page 1)
Salem’s average 10-year homicide rate (3.4/100,000) falls below the national average (4.0 in 2019, 1.7 in 2020, 5.1 in 2021, and 2.8 in 2022)
Nationwide average was about 5.0 in 2018, and 2019, and about 6.5 in 2020
Oregon average in the same periods were about 2.0 (2018), 2.8 (2019), and 2.9 (2020)
No statewide or nationwide data is provided for comparison beyond 2020
Male adults, aged 18 to 44, account for about 77.4% of all victims and suspects in gun violence (Lisa Barao, PhD & Chris Mastroiani; Salem, OR Gun Violence Problem Analysis (2018-2023), Tables 1 & 2, Pages 3 and 4)
Most crime-related data provided seems to have been at its lowest in 2020, followed by huge spikes in incidents in 2021 and 2022. For example,
17 year olds and younger accounted for about 11% of gun violence victims and suspects in 2019, then about 5% in 2020, followed by about 6% in 2021, then 22% in 2022, and about 27% from January to June 2023 (Lisa Barao, PhD & Chris Mastroiani; Salem, OR Gun Violence Problem Analysis (2018-2023), Figure 3, Page 4)
3.9% of all arrestees were juveniles in 2019, followed by 0.9% in 2020, then 13.2% in 2021, 21.4% in 2022, and 12% from January to June, 2023 (Lisa Barao, PhD & Chris Mastroiani; Salem, OR Gun Violence Problem Analysis (2018-2023), Figure 3, Page 4)
Although there has been an increase of about 189% in the number of houseless people in Salem from 2020 to 2022, the data provided showed no change in the proportion of suspects noted as unsheltered in 2021-2023 – in other words, houseless people are victims of gun violence, but not any more likely to engage in gun violence than housed people (Lisa Barao, PhD & Chris Mastroiani; Salem, OR Gun Violence Problem Analysis (2018-2023), Figure 3, Page 4)
However, more of them have become victims of gun violence – about 19.6% from 2021-June 2023, compared to only 2.6% from 2018-2020
Most gun violence incidents in Salem (about 80%) are not a result of gang violence
About 17.4% of incidents are labeled as being caused by “group/gang” violence. According to the researchers in their presentation (not written in the report), they use group/gang to more accurately reflect “dynamic criminal groups that lack hierarchy or structure”
**Download and view sumary and full research report commissioned by the City of Salem below**
I walked away from that meeting with many questions.
Why were so many of the charts the researchers used in their presentation not included in the official report? (important enough to share, but not enough to be included in the actual report?)
Did the ending of the Covid-19 pandemic have any impact in the sudden and rapid spike of crimes being recorded in 2021 and 2022?
What is the definition of “gang” and “gang-related” that the Salem Police Department is using? Lives were destroyed on this point alone in the 1990s.
Why are the White gangs not included in this conversation? Namely those whose initials sound like a popular sandwich minus the jelly? I’d like a definitive statement on whether law enforcement considers this one a threat.
Why do none of the recommendations include figuring out how to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and of teenagers?
One of the great axioms of bureaucracy is that you value what you measure. That is, what we choose to measure and track determines our actions and priorities.
This is the problem with Salem and Marion County.
We are stating a problem in terms of crimes and criminality. So the logical solution (through that lens) is to implement solutions led by law enforcement, or devised in such a way that the outcome is a reduction in crime rates. Well, we did that in the nineties, and it seems that is what some people want.
In my informed opinion, crime is a symptom of societal ills. Like in health care, law enforcement is only a sliver of how a community should deal with crime. Gang activity, in particular, is the same.
So, our problem in Salem and Marion County, as I see it, is that criminal justice institutions – whose job is to DETAIN AND PROSECUTE violations to current law – are kicking off and setting the parameters of this conversation, and so our focus will inevitably be crime reduction, and not improving LIVABILITY for the people of NE Salem.
For example, many neighborhoods in the areas where most gun violence occurs in Salem have no sidewalks. Many families live in neighborhoods where they have no local access to groceries. Many families cannot afford rent except in NE Salem, IF they are lucky. This is only the low-hanging fruit of the needs of this community.
In other words, no sidewalks for you, but more police presence in your neighborhood and at school, so you know we’ve got our eye on you.
Not to say there is no place for law enforcement. They absolutely should be at the table. But they should be part of the solution, and not the tip of the spear.
The more youth that are in line to graduate, find stable employment, and thrive, the less crime we will have. That’s the challenge.
We clearly have a problem with violence and crime in Salem and the surrounding area. If I were in charge, here’s what I’d do:
Convene a series of community CONVERSATIONS where people in the neighborhoods throughout the area talk about how to improve LIVABILITY;
Take those ideas and build a budget across City-County-Public Schools-Nonprofits that supports improving LIVABILITY in the neighborhoods;
To reduce juvenile involvement focus on POSITIVE YOUTH DEVELOPMENT as a long term solution to improve outcomes for all youth;
Include restorative justice practices, along with intervention and suppression tactics used to address ongoing violence (specially gun violence) against persons and the community;
Identify tactics to reduce the use of guns in criminal acts, particularly those involving juveniles.
About the Author:
Levi Herrera-Lopez is executive director of the Mano a Mano Family Center, Salem-Keizer’s oldest Latino-led community based organization. He has worked with youth and families in NE Salem for over 25 years. Mano a Mano has supported hundreds of Salem-Keizer youth over the last 30 years to graduate, find stable employment and acquire essential life skills. Alumni of Mano a Mano’s various programs include current educators, business owners, professionals, and nonprofit leaders across Oregon and nationwide. Mano a Mano programs include early childhood education programs, assistance with basic resources, systems navigation, youth leadership, mentoring and case management, parenting education, and a community radio. Levi has resided in East Salem since 1992, and has served as a community member on the Marion County Sheriff’s Advisory Board, Chief Womack’s Community Advisory Council, the Steering Committee for the Assessment of Salem Police Department practices, and on the Marion Public Safety Coordinating Council.
Salem-Keizer Proletariat is entirely reader-supported local journalism. To receive new posts and support awesome shit, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.