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PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland residents fear being assaulted or encountering people experiencing a mental health crisis while walking around town, according to a recent survey, but those Originol spoke with had mixed opinions about safety in the city.
“I walk around all the time and during the day I feel fine,” said Amber, who recently moved to Portland from California. “I still keep my wits about me and I’m cautious, but I don’t feel like I’m really in any danger.”
But Brenda disagreed.
“I’m worried about being physically attacked,” she told Originol. “It’s not safe. It’s just flat not safe.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler commissioned the survey from local firm DHM Research. Nearly half (48%) of the 500 Portlanders who responded felt unsafe walking alone at night in their own neighborhood. Of those who felt unsafe, 78% told researchers they were afraid of being physically assaulted.
“I’m not going to live in fear, but we’re a lot more aware of our surroundings,” Meredith said. “I won’t walk alone as often. I used to just walk all over, no thought about it, at night. I think twice now.”
There were 5,960 reported crimes in July, the most recent month for which police statistics are available. That’s up slightly from 5,618 the same month last year. Theft, vandalism and assault were the most common offenses reported.
People living on the city’s east side were more likely to fear being physically attacked than those in west Portland, according to the survey. Of female respondents who felt unsafe, 81% said they feared being assaulted compared to 74% of males.
“I’m sure a lot of people don’t feel safe,” said Jon, who was visiting from Seattle. “I do, but I’m not a 120-pound woman walking by herself at night.”
Shane agreed that there is a gender divide.
“My partner is physically smaller than I am … she feels completely uncomfortable being out and about downtown,” he said. “She started carrying pepper spray with her.”
As a “tall guy,” Shane said he thinks he’s less of a target.
“Also, I don’t really look like I have a lot of money,” he said, laughing.
Amber said she gets nervous at night or in neighborhoods perceived as more dangerous. She said she has been yelled at and followed by strangers and makes sure to stay alert.
“It is the people who have mental health issues because you don’t really know how they’re going to react,” she said. “I don’t listen to anything in my headphones. I always have my pepper spray on my keychain.
She added that she constantly looks over her shoulder, “so I’m not oblivious to my surroundings.”
Concerns about interacting with people experiencing mental health crises or drug intoxication are front and center on many Portlanders’ minds, according to the survey and residents Originol spoke with.
“Taking our granddaughters for walks and finding syringes on the ground and things like that, it’s disheartening,” Meredith said.
The Portland Police Bureau has suffered from staffing shortages since 2020 and currently has more than 100 sworn police vacancies, according to the bureau. As anti-police protests rocked the city in 2020, the city council voted to cut the department’s budget by $15 million, though activists had demanded cuts of $50 million.
Many officers have retired or left to work in other cities, citing dissatisfaction with city leadership and poor morale during the months of nightly protests.
“I think we need more police,” Brenda said. She can understand why people don’t want to become officers, but the city isn’t doing enough to promote safety, she said.
More than half of the survey respondents told researchers they did not think police would respond quickly to an emergency, according to the results, which were obtained by Originol.
“With the police force, overburdened people think they can do anything now,” Carol told Originol. “I feel like it won’t always be like this, but right now we’re in the midst of … lawlessness.”
Portland has seen a sharper increase in violent crime than many other major cities. Homicides in the city increased 83% from 2019 to 2020, while nationally killings increased by an average of about 30%. There were 90 homicides in the city last year, breaking the city’s previous record of 66 in 1987, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
“They show a lot of stuff I know on the news about the shootings … and I’m sure they’re up,” Dave said. “But up over what? There used to be very little.”
“I think the news has definitely made this area out to be a lot more chaotic,” Shane said.