The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office has lost 12 experienced prosecutors in the last year — what a high-ranking lawyer in the office called an unprecedented exodus at a time when gun violence is at record levels.
“We’re becoming overwhelmed,” Kirsten Snowden, a chief deputy district attorney, said Thursday at a news conference to provide an update on efforts to address escalating shootings in Portland.
“Our criminal justice system is simply in crisis,” Snowden said as she joined Mayor Ted Wheeler and federal and local law enforcement leaders in City Hall.
After a record number of homicides in Portland last year, the Police Bureau is on track to exceed the number this year if the cycle of violence continues at the same pace as it has since January.
So far this year, 22 people have been killed in homicides. The city is averaging 29 shootings a week for a total of almost 650 so far this year, according to Police Chief Chuck Lovell.
Snowden said senior-level prosecutors are leaving, partly due to their “crushing caseloads,” exhaustion and burnout.
Snowden relayed what a departing 20-year prosecutor told her: “The feeling in the office at the time I left was that dedicated public service minded people were being ground into the dirt under the crushing weight of exploding workloads caused by staffing reductions.”
The longtime male prosecutor said when he started at the district attorney’s office there were about 100 prosecutors. Now there are 77 or 78, according to Elisabeth Shepard, an office spokesperson.
“We’ve been hiring rapidly as people are leaving,” Shepard said.
But Snowden said most of the hires are new and don’t have prosecutorial experience. While they’re dedicated, smart and eager to learn, “you just cannot replace that experience that’s been lost,” she said.
The district attorney’s office, as a result, is reaching out to see if prosecutors elsewhere want to move to Portland, she said. Snowden also said the office is in talks with county officials about the staffing challenges.
Snowden said a number of factors have contributed to the exodus of lines prosecutors.
“With Covid,” she said, “the courts essentially shut down for a better part of a year and a half. There were very few trials going out. … The jails were releasing a disproportionate number of folks to the street to try and curb the spread of the virus for in-custody folks.” As a result, pending prosecutions had been put on hold, stacked up, resulting in more that have to be resolved at once.
In January, Amber Kinney, a veteran child abuse prosecutor, wrote a resignation letter to District Attorney Mike Schmidt, citing a doubling of her workload in the past two years, among other issues.
While prosecuting gun crimes is the office’s top priority, “we can’t do it without resources,” Snowden said. In the last week, she noted, three prosecutions were initiated involving three different people who had been shot in the face.
Public defense in the state faces even more dire challenges.
This month, Metropolitan Public Defender, one of the largest public defender agencies in the Portland area, announced it would temporarily stop taking on misdemeanor and felony cases due to an unsustainable workload and a recent flurry of resignations. About 150 criminal defendants in Multnomah County lack an attorney, according to court officials.
Earlier this week, the presiding judge announced that the Washington County Circuit would delay arraignments for misdemeanors and low-level felonies for 60 days “or more as needed” for the same reasons.
The Police Bureau also faces a staffing shortage, continuing to struggle to get people in the door as fast as officers are retiring.
Lovell said the Police Bureau is working to restart what has been a dormant recruitment process. On Thursday, the bureau hired seven background investigators to help do personal history checks on people applying to be police officers. The bureau also hired just two officers on Thursday, Lovell said.
No retirees have returned under the approved retire-rehire program that the City Council approved in fall.
There are now 105 vacancies in the Police Bureau, which has an authorized force of 882 sworn officers. Another wave of retirements is anticipated in July, with up to 80 officers becoming eligible.
Lovell said he plans to add detectives assigned to investigate other crimes such as property offenses to help the 18 homicide detectives now on call.
In a month or so, he expects the number of homicide detectives will grow to the mid-20s. Historically, there used to be two teams of five detectives for a 10-member detective unit.
The bureau’s Focused Intervention Team, a team of two sergeants and 12 officers who hit the street on Jan. 19 to deter gun violence, has seized 25 guns and made more than 80 arrests in the past two months, Lovell said.
Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner, once again urged all segments of the city to “come together to break these crippling cycles of violence.”
“Even if we had all the resources we need at the local level, which we don’t, but even if we did, unless the rest of the system is also adequately staffed-up and well-coordinated with the work that we’re doing, it’s not going to be a successful system,” he said.
— Maxine Bernstein
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