Should visitors to Portland be afraid? Not really.

Crime is at a higher level now than it was before the pandemic, but in 2022 it is decreasing toward more normal levels

October 3, 2022 5:30 am

The Oregon State Police provided security during the opening day of the Legislature on Feb. 1, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Earlier this month I sat with several friends at a sidewalk table at a coffee shop just south of downtown Portland. The scene was nearly identical – same businesses, same kind of traffic, human and vehicular – as when we’d met in the same place several years before. It looked friendly, prosperous and safe. 

I remarked that I’ve heard of concern from people outside Oregon about wandering into that super-dangerous city of Portland, reflecting an image that the city was at best slowly recovering from its status as a burned-out shell, a reinvention of 1982-era Beirut. 

My friends said they’d heard the same, sometimes from people in other parts of Oregon. They, like me, did not see Portland that way.

Travel Portland, whose job it is to encourage people to visit the city, has a page on its website addressing questions such as “Is Portland, Oregon, safe to visit? What’s it like in downtown Portland right now? Is violence on the rise in Portland?” These questions (with answers) are posted because people are inquiring.

This has some significance in this political campaign season, as talk of crime may rise again to become a larger piece of the end game leading up to November elections. And it prompts the question: How much of the high emotion about rising crime is actually justified in Portland and in Oregon?

There is always a certain amount of crime, and crime tends to be higher in places where populations are concentrated. Crime and the right way to deal with it always is a legitimate subject for political campaigns. But it easily becomes overwrought, and voters ought to put the realities of crime in perspective.  

Local Portland news reports (and discussions of crime in Oregon overwhelmingly focus on Portland) over the last year have contributed to the anxiety. There was this in the Oregonian in July: “Portland’s homicide rate jumped 207% from January 2019 through June 2021, the largest increase compared to five comparable cities, Minneapolis, Atlanta, San Francisco, Denver and Nashville.” (That came from a report by the California Partnership for Safe Communities.)

The homicide rate unquestionably has risen, and the city has responded to it with $6 million for a new police program and help from nonprofits. The Wall Street Journal commented, “Oregon’s largest city has had 56 homicides as of Aug. 16, seven fewer than it had at this time last year but far above its average for the past two decades.”

Let’s back up. 

A whole lot about our society was shaken up by the Covid-19 pandemic, and crime rates were among them: There’s pre-pandemic – as in 2019 – and the times since it so dramatically changed social life. Crime rates nationally (even internationally) jumped in 2020 and remained high the next year. The Brennen Center for Justice noted in one study, “crime rates changed dramat­ic­ally across the United States in 2020. Most signi­fic­antly, the murder rate – that is, the number of murders per 100,000 people – rose sharply, by nearly 30 percent. Assaults increased as well, with the rate of offenses rising by more than 10 percent.” 

Nationally, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, the number of homicides fell by 2% between the beginning and middle of this year compared to the same span in 2021.

And broadly rates have been easing down. Portland’s rate is still higher than the average over the last couple of decades, but that’s not a reasonable comparison; to do that, you have to factor in the pandemic bump.

Across all major crimes, according to police reports, Portland crime has risen a little in recent years but not a lot.

The Brennan Center added this: “These increases in crime rates are seri­ous on their own terms and should not be trivi­al­ized. Nation­ally, though, they do not return us to the high crime rates of the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 2014, the national murder rate plummeted by more than 50 percent, from 9.8 to 4.4 killings per 100,000 people. By compar­ison, the murder rate for 2020 stood at around 6.5 — a rate last seen in the late 1990s but still well below the high point of the last quarter century.”

And it concluded: “First, recent crime increases do not fit conveni­ently into any polit­ical narrat­ive. Second, it is vital that we look for creat­ive solu­tions to national prob­lems.”

Crime is at a higher level now than it was before the pandemic, but in 2022 it is decreasing toward more normal levels. 

Here’s some more of what Travel Oregon – which is intended to promote Portland but also offer useful information – said: “In February 2021, the Major Cities Chiefs Association issued a report noting that 63 of 66 major cities saw at least one violent crime category grow in 2020. Among cities of comparable size, Portland generally experiences violent crime at somewhat lower rates.” 

Before my outdoor visit with friends, I spent several hours touring around Portland, looking for overall impressions of safety in the city. I did notice some change in the homeless community – mainly that it is more scattered now than a few years ago, less downtown-centered but still about as substantial. But I did not get an impression of Portland as a notably, or specially, dangerous or damaged place, not a lot different than most large cities. 

And it’s certainly not a burned-down, destroyed shell. 


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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.