Finding a strategic solution to chronic neighborhood crime

Note: To protect the identity of the individual in this story, the District Attorney’s Office is using an alias.

Edward’s cases kept coming in.

His crimes kept escalating. Criminal mischief. Disorderly conduct. Harassment. Intimidation. Robbery. Assault.

In a three month period, Edward generated 11 criminal cases.

“Something needed to be done,” said Multnomah County Senior Deputy District Attorney Nathan Vasquez, who supervises the Neighborhood and Strategic Prosecution Unit. “This one individual had a substantial impact on our community. Business owners knew about him and they were rightfully concerned about the increase in criminal behavior. The officers at Central Precinct could only do so much. Ultimately, we knew we needed to come up with a strategic prosecution plan.”

Many of the cases the Neighborhood and Strategic Prosecution Unit handles involve individuals who are without a permanent home, who have mental illnesses, or who have an addiction.

In Edward’s case, he was homeless, had a mental illness and used drugs to self-medicate.

“That’s not uncommon at all,” SDDA Vasquez said. “We often see homelessness intersecting with mental illness while simultaneously overlapping with addiction issues. When you have a situation like that, it takes an enormous amount of community-based resources to help the individual, and that’s something the District Attorney’s Office is fully committed to.”

Senior Deputy District Attorney Nathan Vasquez

Senior Deputy District Attorney Nathan Vasquez

SDDA Vasquez pulled all of Edward’s files to conduct a case analysis. What he found concerned him. The facts in Edward’s most recent cases showed someone needing intervention. One case involved Edward approaching two women, yelling at them and then poking one of them in the face using a plastic fork. Another case involved Edward threatening to stab a person in downtown.

In February 2019, an African American woman had just finished lunch and was walking downtown when she was confronted by Edward. He yelled racial slurs and spit on her coat. When he was taken into police custody, Edward continued to spit on the officer.

“In meeting with [Edward] and his defense attorney, he presents as someone who is, when he is on his mental health medication, vastly different than the one depicted in all these police reports. When he’s receiving treatment, he’s someone completely disassociated with all criminal activity,” SDDA Vasquez said.

Earlier this month, Edward appeared before Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller and changed his plea as part of a global resolution that affords Edward treatment while holding him accountable.

“When the state ultimately weighed this case, we saw an opportunity for [Edward’s] growth,” SDDA Vasquez said. “Using the information we learned – and taking into account [Edward’s] willingness to do right – we were able to craft a long term plan that has many benefits to the community and himself.”

One of Edward’s victims addressed the court about an encounter with him.

“I’m from Portland,” she said proudly. “I’m very familiar with the city. I love this place. I’m going to be here for the rest of my life.”

She told the court that she never feared walking downtown.

That all changed one day when she and her friend were headed to dinner along West Burnside Street.

“Last year, I was chased by a person who was armed with a knife,” she told the court. That person was later identified as Edward.

Neither she nor her friend were physically harmed but the emotional trauma left a deep scar.

“This morning, as I was walking here to court, I was at a stoplight waiting to cross the street and there was someone standing there. Someone who was clearly dealing with some kind of mental health issue, possibly on drugs and talking to themselves. Suddenly, I was overcome with fear,” the woman told the court.

“A year ago, I would have never thought twice about that person,” she said.

SDDA Vasquez and the Victim Assistance Program for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office spoke with all of the victims and law enforcement about the pretrial discussions. All of them expressed a desire for Edward to get treatment but wanted some form of accountability for his actions.

“It was definitely a shock to come in this morning to see this person and to see how different he is,” the victim said of Edward in court. “He’s a completely different person when he’s getting help.”

Judge Waller, who presides over Multnomah County’s Mental Health Court, explained the change of plea process to Edward and confirmed the he wanted to go through with giving up his right to a trial.

Edward said yes.

Then he shared his story.

“The last couple of years have been the worst couple of years in my life,” Edward said.

Diagnosed with bi-polar at age 16, Edward told the court that he was delusional and had been couch surfing for years.

He described being “crippled” by the cycle of drug abuse, mental illness, jail, treatment and homelessness.

“For the last 10 years, I’d go to jail, I’d go to the hospital and I’d get out and do the same [expletive] again,” Edward said. “I’m really tired of it. I’m going to be around 30 when I get out of prison and I want to be a successful person in life.”

Judge Waller explained that the sentence she would impose would do several things: it would provide leverage, motivation and sanctions to ensure Edward had some sort of accountability.

She sentenced Edward to two years in prison. He will be eligible for time he’s already served, good time and work time and alternative incarceration program opportunities.

Once he’s out, he will be under intensive formal probation through Multnomah County’s Mental Health Court Program. This includes regular check-ins with the court, probation officer and treatment. The program will strive to seek Edward and others housing and employment because it recognizes housing and employment are two of the cornerstones to a person’s foundation to success.

“We sincerely hope that Edward will be able to benefit from the great programs that this court has to offer in Mental Health Court,” SDDA Vasquez said.

The core mission of the Neighborhood and Strategic Prosecution Unit is to work with the specialized law enforcement teams in Multnomah County that focus on livability issues. In Portland, the Neighborhood and Strategic Prosecution Unit works closely with each of the three Neighborhood Response Teams and in Gresham with the Neighborhood Enforcement Team.

“Our unit is hyper focused on identifying solutions to chronic criminal behavior and coming up with solutions that limit the impact the criminal justice system has on a person while also ensuring some level of accountability for the crimes that – in many cases – have caused real harm to individual community members,” SDDA Vasquez said.


Contact: Brent Weisberg, Communications Director

Phone: 503.988.6567