Portland Enlists National Guard in Drug Battles
Pistols and shotguns ready, 10 members of Portland’s elite Gang Eradication Team emptied out of an unmarked van to serve a search warrant on a suspected drug house the hard way--at the end of a battering ram.
One of seven raids executed in the rundown northeast section of Portland on Friday, it is a routine repeated with grim regularity by police departments in drug-plagued towns and cities across the country. But in one way, this raid was different.
While Portland city and Oregon state police officers dug out contraband and questioned suspects, two self-conscious young men waited for them in front of the house. They were armed and they wore Gang Eradication Team jackets, but they were not police officers.
They were soldiers from the Oregon National Guard.
Beset by plentiful drugs and violent gangsters from Los Angeles, Portland thus became the first big city to call in the National Guard to assist civilian police in drug raids and curfew enforcement in crack-soaked neighborhoods.
Already two other cities, Chicago and Tacoma, Wash., have said they also want to tap the National Guard to assist local police. As in Portland, the aid would be arranged under a $40-million federal pilot program that for the first time makes the National Guard available for civilian drug interdiction.
All 50 states--as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands--have applied to use local National Guard units for aerial surveillance, cargo inspection and other interdiction efforts designed to stop large-scale drug trafficking, and some of that work is under way.
But Oregon is the first state in the program to deploy troops on city streets, according to Lt. Col. James Ragan of the National Guard Bureau in Washington. It is an unusual non-emergency breach of a traditional American separation between military and civilian law enforcement.
May Not Make Arrests
The program, approved by Congress last November, allows the Guard to be employed in nearly any anti-drug police action short of arresting suspects and handling evidence. When the program was discussed, advocates said troops could patrol borders and beaches or fly helicopters to locate marijuana patches.
In Portland on Friday, about 15 armed Oregon National Guard personnel, most with military police experience, were spending their annual two-week training period backing up civilian police in the field, and booking and guarding suspects at the East Precinct Station until they were transported to jail.
Some people have asked for even more--Richard Brown of the Portland branch of community oriented Black United Front suggested stationing armed Guard units in front of known drug houses--but federal law forbids such action without a formal declaration of emergency. And Gov. Neil E. Goldschmidt emphasized when he approved Portland’s request for help that he would not accept the symbolism of soldiers patroling his state’s largest city.
“Under no circumstances,” he stressed, “will you see guardsmen in combat fatigues on the streets of Portland.”
The National Guard personnel who accompanied police on raids last week wore jeans with T-shirts or sport shirts. Police jackets, side arms and bulletproof vests distinguished them from casual bystanders who collected near the houses being raided.
Crime Shocks City
Despite Goldschmidt’s image fears, it is not surprising Portland became the first city to use the National Guard in its door-to-door war against drugs and the recklessly violent young gangsters who sell them. An explosion of drive-by shootings and related crime in the last two years has shocked this city, which likes to view itself as a livable alternative to the troubled urban areas along the West Coast.
Since Jan. 1, the State Youth Gang Strike Force has tallied 313 gang-related shootings, including 115 drive-by attacks. No one has been killed, but 26 were wounded. Lt. Bernard A. Giusto of the Oregon State Police Department’s Special Operations section said all the assaults occurred in Portland, chiefly in the same few neighborhoods in the city’s north and northeast sections.
Such numbers may not be in the same league with Los Angeles, where 257 residents were killed in gang-related shootings last year (and where National Guard help has not been sought), but it is enough to put a bloody stain on the image many of greater Portland’s 1 million residents have of their city.
Portlanders are so unnerved by gangsters--mainly the Crips and Bloods from Los Angeles, whose members wear distinctive colors and have been known to kill innocent people unlucky enough to wear red or blue in the wrong neighborhood--that the Portland Police Bureau enjoys solid public support.
“Things are out of hand,” said Brown, the black community leader, who accompanied police and guardsmen on two raids Friday. “People are afraid to go out in the streets, they’re afraid to wear the wrong color clothes. . . . I support (anti-gang task force work) 100%.”
Leaders Visit L.A.
Some of the support for police was generated by a trip several community leaders made to gang-infested sections of Los Angeles.
“They came back with a very clear picture of what they didn’t want to have happen (here),” Portland Police Bureau Detective David W. Simpson said. “There is not support for everything the bureau does, nor should there be, but there’s a lot less resistance (to strict policing) than you might expect. They have seen how bad things can get.”
Members or affiliates of several drug-dealing Los Angeles street gangs are known to have infiltrated a number of large Western cities where the lack of competition has meant bigger profits with fewer hassles.
Portland, however, has the biggest problem. It is home to more than half of the 1,900 gangsters and affiliates thought by police to operate in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada. Portland police believe their city has nearly 700 drug houses--almost one drug house for each of its 750 officers.
The resulting abundance of drugs is blamed for the relatively high rates of other serious crimes. For example, Portland, a city of 450,000, has the third-highest number of bank robberies of any city in the nation.
Bank Robberies Up
“Bank robberies are up, and the primary reason for those bank robberies is drugs,” Police Chief Richard D. Walker said.
The sheer numbers have prompted the city to forge strong alliances with the state police, suburban police--and now the National Guard.
“The thing is so pervasive, so overwhelming, that we must work together,” Walker said. “We can’t afford to waste time fighting turf battles anymore.”
Simpson said Portland has been uniquely attractive to Los Angeles gangsters in part because it is simply closer to Southern California than, say, Seattle, but more importantly because Portland has had an acute lack of jail space.
“If you get a citation for something that you would go to the slam for in any other city, it doesn’t take a real brain trust to figure out that this is a good place to sell drugs,” he said.
Building New Prisons
The state has started a vigorous prison construction program while transferring Portland drug prisoners to suburban jails to await trial or serve time. At the same time, Portland authorities have sought federal charges--and harsh federal prison terms--for repeat offenders and high-volume traffickers, especially those shuttling between Portland and Los Angeles.
Even with federal and community support, police here say law enforcement alone will not solve Portland’s drug problem any more than it will do so anywhere else.
“We certainly haven’t solved the problem, and I don’t think we (alone) ever will,” said Simpson, the Portland detective. “This is a social phenomenon, a social problem, and it will require a social solution.”