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Rockwood residents testimony galvanizes safety summit

Mayor Bemis promises task force will look at ways to prevent crime
by: Aubrie Aurand, Gresham Police Chief Carla Piluso explains during the city’s first safety summit Wednesday, March 21, that Gresham averaged 213 crime incidents a day in 2006.

Of the 130 people who filled Gresham's council chambers on Wednesday, March 21, for a community safety summit, Tammy Zuniga's testimony packed the most punch.

The Rockwood resident, her voice strained with tears and frustration, told the crowd that vandals have shattered her car windows 10 times in the last three months. Just a few weeks ago, a gangster terrorized her 17-year-old daughter by shoving a gun in her face.

'Me and my neighbors, we're willing to help,' she said. Her husband and another neighbor have resorted to trading night shifts on rooftops trying to catch the criminals on videotape. 'What else can we do to help you guys?'

Her testimony moved some in the audience to tears and underscored the event's importance.

Organized by Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis, the forum centered around testimony from various law enforcement agencies regarding rising rates of violent crime, increasingly dense population growth, their effect on livability and the need for more public safety funding.

Speakers included Gresham Police Chief Carla Piluso, FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Jordon, Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto, TriMet Executive Director Fred Hansen, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk, Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Michael Crebs, Pam Holsinger with the U.S. Attorney's Office and Carl Goodman with Multnomah County Parole and Probation/Juvenile Justice.

Bemis, a small business owner sworn in as mayor in January, promised to hold the summit as part of his mayoral campaign. While organizing the event, 'some thug looking for a quick hit,' as Bemis called the suspect, robbed his employees at gunpoint at his Gresham Station pizza parlor in the middle of the afternoon. Vandals also have tagged his Italian restaurant in downtown Gresham with graffiti.

'People don't feel as safe as they ought to,' Bemis said. A recent survey revealed that only 32 percent of Gresham residents feel safe walking in their neighborhoods at night. 'Sixty-eight percent are not so sure and that's a problem.'

Bemis also is alarmed by how few police officers patrol Gresham, a city of nearly 100,000. Citizens tell him they think 20 to 30 officers are on patrol at any given time. In reality, it's seven to 12.

'We have fewer officers per 1,000 (residents) than any other jurisdiction we could find,' Bemis said.

Changing city, changing crime

Piluso said Gresham and crime in Gresham has changed a lot since she started as a patrol officer 28 years ago. Back then, officers drove every street in the city's four districts, plus patrolled the parks, during their shifts.

'That's something that doesn't happen any more,' Piluso said.

Gresham's Rockwood area, where the majority of police calls take place, was annexed into the city in the mid-1980s. But community and social services didn't come with the property, Piluso added.

As regional housing costs rise, more people are being priced out of their homes in North and Northeast Portland and are moving to more affordable places in Gresham and East Multnomah County.

Poverty is increasing. In 2005, 30 percent of Gresham residents living in poverty were children, up from 17 percent in 2003. The largest percentage of those living in poverty, 33 percent, were families headed by single women.

Meanwhile, the city's population growth is outpacing that of the Gresham Police Department and its funding.

'We are stretched as far as we can be stretched,' Piluso said.

Plus, as the city approaches a population of 100,000, bigger city crime is hitting Gresham. During a complicated murder case, 'the likes of which has never been seen in Gresham before,' Piluso said, Gresham police spent $300,000 on the investigation involving a man from New York City who allegedly murdered a Gresham resident before hunting down his real target in Parkrose. That man talked his way out of the situation and survived.

Gangs have also become an ever-growing problem in East County. Since receiving state funding to fight gang violence in 2005, the number of documented gangs in the East Multnomah County area has grown from about 20 to 114.

And although property crimes went down last year, violent crimes against people and crimes that affect the area's livability are up.

'We are a department who no longer patrols, we respond,' Piluso said. 'We are reactive, not proactive. We displace, disrupt and disperse crime. … We don't break cycles of violence or cycles of crime. We displace it.'

Task force to form

With that in mind, Bemis said the city is creating a task force to study crime, its affects on the community and possible solutions. 'I think it's safe to say more boots on the ground is a fairly obvious one,' Bemis said.

The subject of a public-safety levy to pay for those extra officers also is on the table for discussion, Bemis added.

In addition, TriMet applied earlier this month for a Homeland Security Grant to fund surveillance cameras at five eastside MAX stations - 162nd, 181st, 188th, Gresham Transit Center at Northeast Eighth Street and Kelly Avenue and the Cleveland Avenue station/park-and-ride.

Javier Arteaga, 19, of Gresham died in December after being stabbed during a fight at the Gresham Transit Center. Police arrested the suspect moments after the fight on a stopped MAX train.

Zuniga, the woman who tearfully testified at the forum, said that when she and her family moved into their apartment off Southeast 178th Avenue and Division Street seven years ago, it was a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. Now she calls the police two or three times a week.

Some of the police who respond to those calls ask her why she doesn't just move.

'Why should I have to move?' Zuniga asked. 'We're ready to go out and buy a gun, we're getting to that point. We don't know what else to do.'