Investigators from the Marion County Sheriff's Office process the scene of a shooting in the Four Corners area of southeast Salem on March 24, 2021 (Courtesy/Marion County Sheriff's Office)
Levi Herrera-Lopez lives just a block from the southeast Salem elementary school where a 17-year-old was fatally shot in late March.
He said shootings have long been a concern for residents in the Four Corners area, mostly working-class families who take pride in their homes. An increase in recent months has him and other neighbors playing a grim game, trying to decide when they hear a loud noise if it is a car backfiring, fireworks or another shooting.
“Every day there’s something that sounds like a gunshot,” said Herrera-Lopez, who is the executive director of Mano a Mano, a nonprofit that provides health outreach, help with food, and family and youth development programs.
That was especially true in January, when the number of confirmed shootings – instances when police find a shell casing or an injured person - nearly tripled in Salem in a month. While the Marion County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have precise data, the agency saw a similar uptick in shootings early in the year, concentrated in areas of east Salem just outside city limits - including the Four Corners area.
Salem police confirmed 30 shootings in January, up from 13 in December.
From January to March, Salem police investigated 205 reports of shots fired, confirming 49 shootings. Last year, there were 133 confirmed shootings for the year. Not all of the gunfire hit a person. Sometimes police find shell casings near cars or buildings.
The risk to community safety caused Salem police to focus on gathering intelligence, making arrests, building new contacts in the neighborhoods impacted by the shootings and adding patrols to deter shootings.
Lt. Treven Upkes, Salem police spokesman, said the final months of last year, police were tied up with responding to Capitol protests. He said that subsequently there was a flare up of small groups intent on committing violence against one another.
“One shooting happens and then retaliation and they continue to grow and fester. That’s just typically what it is,” he said.
He said the shootings often seem to be tied back to groups in disputes over money, whether related to owing debts or drug deals.
Upkes said Salem police don’t focus on the idea of “gangs” because there’s no legal enhancement for gang-related activity.
“There may be some gang thing where they like to present themselves as gang. There’s no point for us to deal with it as such. These people are shooting at these people. The motive is inconsequential to us really,” he said.
Upkes said police have had a hard time tracing the clear information about what’s happening on the streets, so they piece together their assessments with circumstantial evidence.
In March, a 17-year-old was shot and later died in a marijuana deal gone bad in the Four Corners area, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said. Four Corners is outside Salem city limits. The Sheriff’s Office said it did not have data on recent shootings readily available and that pulling that information would cost $60.
Sgt. Jeremy Landers, sheriff’s office spokesman, said that in early April deputies and patrol and probation officers worked overtime to find people with outstanding warrants and pull cars over to get a handle on the Salem-area violence.
He said during one stop on April 2, deputies found four people they believed were involved in the recent shootings.
“I do not have the information immediately available about who was arrested, other than a notation they were all parole and probation clients,” he said in an email.
During the extra patrols Landers said there were 17 field contacts, 11 traffic stops, three arrests, three cite and arrests and two driving while suspended citations.
Landers said there are layers of explanation behind any shooting, but typically it’s drug or gang related.
“These aren’t random acts. The people involved know each other,” he said.
Landers said it’s important for citizens to report things when they see them and let law enforcement know if they captured a shooting on video.
Upkes said police made new contacts in the neighborhoods most affected by the shootings, mostly northeast and east Salem, made arrests, and the number of confirmed shootings began to decline.
In February and March there were 20 confirmed shootings, down from 43 in December and January.
Herrera-Lopez said the explanation that police were busy with protests early in the year didn’t make sense to him. He thinks the pandemic has intensified violence because people are under greater stress and have more free time.
“Isolated issues coming more to the surface because there are more people with more free time, especially with the younger kids, the under 18 crowd,” he said. “When you have a lot of people with free time on their hands to get into trouble and also access to guns, that’s a pretty bad combination.”
Many of the shootings within Salem city limits so far this year were concentrated in a triangular area bordered by Northeast Portland Road, Northeast Silverton Road and Interstate 5.
That is Salem’s only racially or ethnically concentrated area of poverty as defined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Herrera-Lopez said extra police patrols and targeted enforcement can stem an immediate surge in violence. But more long-term investments in the neighborhoods where shootings have become too regular - not just more police.
“If that’s the only support we get when there’s a spike in incidents, it’s not very strategic,” he said.
The Four Corners area lacks sidewalks and street lights in many places, and east Salem, particularly south of Center Street, has few public parks. A more livable neighborhood would have more people gathering in public, serving to deter crime, Herrera-Lopez said.
More youth programs are needed, he said, including programs not based at schools where some teens already feel disconnected.
“In terms of providing positive activities for youth and families, that’s definitely something that’s needed in this area,” he said.
Herrera-Lopez said he too often sees people writing off east Salem as overrun with criminals or dangerous, which can lead to a perception that the neighborhoods aren’t worth investing in.
“Even though this is happening in the neighborhood, I don’t want it to be the way that our part of town is seen all the time,” he said.
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