Mayor plans to convene leaders to address Salem’s gun violence

Salem Mayor Chris Hoy intends to convene community leaders to draw up ways to reduce gun violence in Salem after a recent report found shootings doubled in the last five years.

Hoy made the announcement at a rare joint session Monday night that brought together the Salem City Council, Marion County Board of Commissioners and Salem-Keizer School District leaders Monday night to discuss the report’s findings.

Meantime, Marion County Sheriff Nick Hunter said at the meeting that the same surge in gun violence is likely happening in unincorporated areas east of Salem city limits. Researchers didn’t count shootings outside the city limits in producing their report about increasing gun violence.

Both officials reacted after researchers briefed a room filled with local leaders on the escalating gun violence they identified in Salem through police reports and interviews.

Hoy said he wanted to form a new community organization to take the lead on addressing the crisis and recommendations made by the researchers. He gave no details about that plan.

“It wouldn’t be a city function or a county function or a law enforcement function,” he said. “It would be a community-based function to try to intervene in a lot of these situations and try to prevent them from happening.”

Other leaders said local organizations need more money to combat gang violence and to work with those facing criminal charges. Some pointed out that the gun violence is clustered in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Salem.

The audience listens to a briefing on Salem gun violence during a Salem City Council work session. A handful of people wore shirts from Moms Demand Action, an anti-gun violence group advocating for stricter regulations on guns (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

The Salem Police Department earlier this year hired outside consultants to analyze gun violence, focusing only on murders and shootings that weren’t fatal. The work focused on the city limits and didn’t consider crimes in areas such as Four Corners or reports of gun-related crimes that did not result in an injury or death.

READ IT: Gun violence violence analysis report

For 40 minutes Monday night, the researchers went through mounds of statistics that left no doubt the city is facing a crisis.

The meeting was a joint session of the Salem City Council and the Marion County Board of Commissioners but drew leaders from city and county agencies, social organizations and the school system.

Their discussion after the briefing largely revolved around the challenges of building trust with people surrounded by gangs and gun violence, how the institutions and community groups in the room could work together, and what solutions have proven effective in getting people at risk of violence on a safer path.

But officials also pressed to better understand the researchers’ findings.

Salem City Manager Keith Stahley asked police officials how they think the numbers would change if they included data from Marion County.

Police Chief Trevor Womack said he, Hunter and Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton want a deeper understanding of such data. Womack said his agency just hired a new crime analyst, which brought their data team from one person to two.

“We don’t have the capacity to do this level of work, and so we need to have a better understanding and more analysis done. I think that there will be more incidents. It would show overlap. It would show connections,” he said. “Anecdotally, we know that to be true. It’d be nice to confirm that through the data.”

Hunter said the sheriff’s office doesn’t have “the exact numbers” but “I think you will see some similarity and trends.” 

“I’m assuming that driving towards that anecdotally, we will get to solving the same problem,” he said.

Nick Hunter, Marion County sheriff, speaks at the Salem City Council work session on the Gun Violence Problem Analysis Report held at the Salem Public Library (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Marion County Juvenile Director Troy Gregg noted that the report only covered cases from the first half of 2023.

“As the juvenile actor, I’m very concerned around the numbers that are coming up with juveniles, and I can tell you that those trends have not changed in the last four to five months,” he said.

Researchers said the disbanding of Salem police’s Gang Enforcement Team in 2019 made it difficult to develop and share accurate information about gangs.

Marion County Commissioner Danielle Bethell said the gang unit was created in the late 1990s when she was a student at McKay High School. She said the school “was overrun with gangs and extreme violence.”

“I’d be curious to see what the data sets look like from the origination of that gang unit back in the late 90s to the violence that we’re seeing today, specifically among youth,” said Bethell, a former Salem-Keizer School Board director. “I’m mostly troubled by the fact that we have so many youth caught up in violence.”

She said Woodburn is seeing similar issues of teen violence. 

“I encourage people to look at the data in our juvenile department and to determine where crime is coming from and the type of crime that we’re seeing across the county,” she said, adding that she grew up in east Salem. “This feels very familiar to me.”

Bethell noted that the data in the report did not capture poverty and the daily challenges facing low-income people.

Researchers found that those at most risk of being involved in violence tend to be primarily Hispanic and Black men between the ages of 18 and 34.

“There’s neighborhoods and residents in our community that are affected by this way differently than other neighborhoods and residents,” Womack said.

In his experience, he said people who are most affected by community violence and need the criminal justice system have the least trust in law enforcement.

“We want to step into this in the right ways,” he said. “If you shoot somebody with a gun in our community, you need to be arrested and held accountable and removed from society. That’s my view. Everyone else that’s lowly associated or contributing in some way needs some sort of other prevention or intervention, and that’s where the gap herein lies.”

Salem police Chief Trevor Womack addresses local leaders about a new gun violence report that shows a sharp increase in Salem. He appeared at a joint session of the Salem City Council and the Marion County Board of Commissioners (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Hunter said police need the help of community programs.

“It sounds like an odd concept when you’re talking about building a rapport with a suspect,” he said. “We’ve got to build a rapport, have influence and persuasion, and start truly changing behavioral habits, but we can’t always be the ones that build that rapport.”

Salem City Councilor Jose Gonzalez said the city uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau when considering where to do public works projects such as sidewalks and park improvements. It will take time, he said, but northeast Salem will eventually start to see such improvements.

Gonzalez also said he hopes to see city crews more frequently in northeast Salem cleaning graffiti.

“When these kids walk around, they’re walking on Hawthorne, there’s no sidewalk there as they’re going to school. Can you imagine every step of the way, they’re not happy?” he said. “How are they going to feel that the community has invested in them?”

Gonzalez also said community groups represented at the meeting, such as Mano a Mano Family Center and Salem Keizer Coalition for Equality, can’t alone take on the challenge of curbing gun violence. 

“They don’t have any extra money to do these things,” he said.

He recalled a story of a teenager from Woodburn telling a probation officer that he was interested in entrepreneurship. The officer then took the teen to the Latino Business Alliance, where he was surrounded by business leaders and entrepreneurs. 

“He was not intimidated,” Gonzalez said.

He said that when he spoke less than a year later at the Salem-Keizer School District’s youth leadership conference, he saw the young man attending.

“It’s working, little by little,” he said. “But I think we just have to be careful when we involve these organizations that we don’t bring them our problems and expect them to solve the solutions without any more money.”

Salem City Councilor Jose Gonzalez discusses demographics of Salem in the wake of a new report showing sharply increasing gun violence in the city (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

The report included the researchers’ recommendations on how Salem and Marion County officials can curb such violence. One suggestion was intervening in the lives of gang members.

The sheriff’s office operates both Marion County’s jail and community corrections, which manages people on probation and post-prison supervision.

Hunter said his agency has two probation officers who track information about gang members and help them build life skills both while they are incarcerated and after they are released into the community.

He said those probation officers are rarely in the office and spend most of their time in the hotspots identified in the report “trying to work through those situations and trying to be mentors.”

“This is not a problem that we can arrest our way out of. We have got to engage the community. We have got to find the partners,” he said. “This is the data coming out. Let’s start the conversation. Let’s get everybody involved in the conversation, but this is going to be a continued process.”

Womack said his agency’s lack of resources has forced him to consider its priorities. 

“Is our priority people being shot and killed in our community? Then we’re going to have to really invest in that area and in those people at the expense of other things unless we increase our capacity,” he said.

School Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said that while teen violence appears complex and unmanageable, “supported youth employment” is a proven solution.

She said teens that have high-quality mentors and earn a wage “that justifies and respects their time” are far less likely to become involved in gangs, crime and violence.

“This is actually a solvable problem if we could find ways to pull resources and collaborate across all of the sectors represented in this room,” she said.

As Salem schools are preparing to lay off hundreds of employees and cut contracts and employees to balance the district’s budget, Castañeda said she has heard resoundingly from the community that safety is a priority.

“That matters a lot as we contemplate the reductions that are coming,” she said. “We’re not living in a moment that allows us to treat safety issues as elective anymore. The only real decisions we have before us is how we prioritize the actions we take based on urgency and the likelihood that they’re going to yield the kind of results we expect.”

Andrea Castañeda, Salem-Keizer School District superintendent, shares safety issues at local schools during a Salem City Council work session on gun violence (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.