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February 24th, 2010 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

“We’re Better Than All This”

And nine other things we’ve learned in the past week about the fatal police shooting of Aaron Campbell

     
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IMAGE: Tim Gough

Hours before the Rev. Jesse Jackson fired up more than 1,000 people packed into a Northeast Portland church last week, Police Chief Rosie Sizer spoke with a few dozen reporters in a half-filled room at the downtown Justice Center.

Sizer was doing damage control on the morning of Feb. 16—more than two weeks after one of her officers fatally shot 25-year-old Aaron Campbell in the back.

The Jan. 29 shooting of an unarmed African-American man was the reason Jackson came to Maranatha Church of God. And it’s why hundreds of angry Portlanders had already rallied downtown to protest years of alleged police abuses and failed leadership.

The chief sought to counter that message with her own set of facts. Posters with bar graphs flanked either side of her podium. They showed sharp dips in citizen complaints and officer-involved shootings over the past five years.

“What I cannot promise is perfect outcomes,” Sizer said. “I cannot promise that our jobs can be done without risk—risk to the officer, risk to the suspect and risk to the community.”

While Campbell’s death prompted hundreds of Portlanders to march for justice, in some ways it was also a surprise for a reason few critics will admit—police have been doing comparatively well in recent years when it comes to use of force. But just as with the police deaths of James Jahar Perez in 2004, Kendra James in 2003 and Jose Mejia Poot in 2001, it only takes one shooting of a Portlander of color to make those statistics moot.

As one of Campbell’s family members told a grand jury: “We’re better than all this.”

The death of Aaron Campbell has created an avalanche of paper (more than 1,000 pages of police reports, grand jury transcripts and other documents), four rallies and a political firestorm that exploded on City Hall and the Police Bureau.

Before stepping back to make sense of the Campbell tragedy, let’s review what are, by now, the painfully familiar facts of the shooting and its aftermath.

Shortly before 4:20 pm on that rainy Friday afternoon, Sherry Stewart called 911 to report that her niece, Adrienna Jones, wasn’t answering the phone in her apartment at Northeast 128th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. The aunt told the 911 dispatcher that Campbell, Jones’ boyfriend, was armed and suicidal following the death of his younger brother from heart disease that morning.

When police went to the apartment, Jones came out and told them Campbell was armed, distraught and maybe wanting police to kill him. He was inside with her three young children, two of whom were his.

After a nearly two-hour standoff in the parking lot of the Sandy Terrace apartment complex, Campbell released the kids and then emerged from the apartment backward with his hands behind his head. But he refused orders to put his hands in the air, and when police warned that they would shoot, witnesses say Campbell shouted, “Fucking shoot me then!”

Officer Ryan Lewton fired six beanbag rounds at Campbell, who began to move quickly behind a car and toward the apartments. Officer Ronald Frashour, who was providing “lethal cover” from behind a police car, then fatally shot Campbell in the back with an AR-15 assault rifle. Frashour later said he feared Campbell was reaching for a gun and heading for cover, and Frashour was trained to aim at the center of the body to stop a threat.

In fact, Campbell was later found to be unarmed. But police would subsequently characterize the death as suicide by cop.

Officers feared to approach Campbell lying motionless behind the car—where he was bitten in the leg by a police German shepherd named Bono, who had been released around the moment of the fatal shot. Campbell’s body lay on the ground for more than half an hour before a special tactical unit arrived. Campbell was pronounced dead at the scene, but authorities kept his body in handcuffs until his autopsy two days later, which the medical examiner’s office says is standard practice.

A grand jury found no reason to charge Frashour with a crime—the same conclusion reached by nearly every Multnomah Country grand jury convened to review fatal police shootings. But this grand jury took the unusual step of blasting the bureau’s response in a three-page letter Feb. 10. “Something went terribly, terribly wrong at Sandy Terrace,” the grand jury wrote. “Aaron Campbell should not have died that day.”

Those are the basic facts. Here are some further conclusions.

1. The shooting probably wasn’t about race.


Reaction from some black Portlanders implies there are cops simply waiting for a chance to pick off an African-American. Jesse Jackson also depicted the shooting as an “execution.”


DEMANDING JUSTICE: The crowd reacts at Rev. Jesse Jackson’s rally in Northeast Portland on Feb. 16. PHOTOS: vivianjohnson.com

But recent Portland police history includes two cases in which white men in similar straits as Campbell have fared no better. Instead, those cases reveal Portland cops have trouble coordinating, communicating and dealing with people of any color in mental crisis.

Police fatally shot Raymond Gwerder in 2005 in Northeast Portland. Like Campbell, Gwerder was reported to be armed and suicidal. A hostage negotiator was on the phone with Gwerder, telling him he wasn’t in trouble and making small talk about his dog, when a police sniper shot Gwerder in the back while Gwerder was standing on the patio of a triplex. A police investigation blamed a breakdown in communication at the scene, and the city paid Gwerder’s family a record $500,000 settlement.

Then came the case of James Chasse Jr. in 2006. Suffering from schizophrenia, Chasse ran from police after allegedly peeing on a Pearl District sidewalk. Following a violent struggle with police, medics at the scene cleared Chasse for transport to jail. But after nurses there refused to admit Chasse, he died en route to the hospital. The city faces a June civil trial in a lawsuit filed by Chasse’s family seeking unspecified damages.

2. Grand juries appear powerless when it comes to police shootings.


When Multnomah County Circuit Judge Jean Maurer agreed to release transcripts of the grand jury testimony on the Campbell shooting, it was a historic first—and a chance to test a notion widespread among police critics. They believe the reason no county grand jury in recent memory has indicted a cop for using deadly force is that grand juries are led along by prosecutors, who work closely with the cops.

The 452 pages of grand jury testimony released Feb. 18 doesn’t outright confirm that theory, but there are passages that could fuel suspicion.

Don Rees and Glen Banfield, the deputy district attorneys who questioned the witnesses, certainly have an easy rapport with police. They crack jokes with cops on at least two occasions. The atmosphere seems to seep into the jury. An unidentified grand juror jokingly offers Officer Ryan Lewton, who shot Campbell with beanbags, a grape from her purse.

But the prosecutors took quite a different tone with Kenny Boyer, a neighbor who witnessed the shooting. Boyer tells the grand jury he believes the action wasn’t justified. Banfield goes on the attack, bringing up seemingly contradictory statements he says Boyer made to police. But Boyer stands his ground. “I’m not going to change my words,” he says. “What they did to him was wrong.”

Some questions from Rees and Banfield seem helpful to the police. When a grand juror begins asking pointed questions of a cop, Rees jumps in with two questions reminding jurors about a text message Campbell sent police from inside the apartment threatening to get his gun.

That drill-down by one grand juror on communication is one of the few times that the jurors hint how they feel about the case. From the questions they ask police, it’s hard to believe they’re the same six people who blasted the police response in an open letter. Before K9 Officer Jeffrey Elias leaves the stand, one juror even asks how the dog that chewed Campbell is doing.

Most of the jurors’ questions are dull and detail-oriented, because their job is a narrow one—to gather enough facts to determine whether a crime may have been committed. And Oregon law gives cops broad discretion in using deadly force, requiring only the reasonable belief that police or others are in danger.

Hamstrung by the law and a narrow mission, grand juries are the wrong place for cop critics to seek justice on police use of force. At most, a grand jury can make its moral outrage felt afterward, as jurors did this month. Or it can provide a venue for others to express their opinions during testimony, as it did for Philip Joseph Mann, who describes himself as the “significant other” of Campbell’s grandmother.

“I feel like when he was laying on the ground and they sicced the dog on him, shooting him in the back, I don’t think—I don’t think that’s the community that we live in,” Mann told the grand jury. “I just think that we all have something better coming than that.”

3. Communication at the scene totally broke down.


The letter from the grand jury criticized police at the scene for “incomplete communication” in the nearly two-hour standoff before Frashour shot Campbell in the back. It was lack of communication, more than anything else, that led to Campbell’s death. And it was entirely avoidable.

Frashour was standing about 60 feet from the place where Campbell emerged from the apartment, providing “lethal cover” for the cops by training his AR-15 assault rifle near Campbell’s door.

“I was aware of the fact that he could just start coming out shooting a gun,” Frashour told police investigators. “I was just really prepared, mentally prepared for that to happen.”


Source: Portland Police Bureau

Meanwhile, Officer James Quackenbush was taking cover in an alcove between Frashour and the apartment, texting and talking with Campbell by phone. Campbell had told Quackenbush he didn’t intend to harm himself, and Quackenbush suggested Campbell come out.

Frashour was told about an early text Campbell sent, threatening to get his gun. But while Quackenbush told the grand jury that the new texts made him hopeful the situation would end peacefully, no one bothered to update Frashour. When Campbell emerged from the apartment, it took Frashour and other officers completely by surprise. And when Campbell started moving back toward the apartment building, Frashour assumed the worst.

“I remember thinking I cannot let him get to hard cover ’cause he’s gonna shoot at us, and he’s protected if he shoots at us from there,” Frashour told investigators. “I knew there was a gun coming out of his waistband. And before he got to the corner of the Volvo, I shot him. I shot him one time.”

Grand jurors noted in their letter they never got to hear from Sgt. Liani Reyna. The DA’s office says she wasn’t called to testify because the grand jury never requested her and she would have had nothing to add—even though it was Reyna who was supervising the scene during most of the stand-off.

Which leads to our next lesson.

4. SERT should have been called.


Portland police have an elite tactical unit specially trained for hostage scenes, standoffs and other situations with a high level of danger for cops and bystanders. The unit is called SERT, the Special Emergency Response Team.

Some cops are convinced Campbell’s chances of survival would have drastically improved if SERT had been called immediately to deal with the crisis. SERT comes with trained hostage negotiators and a wider variety of less-lethal weapons, and its 44 members get biweekly training in dealing with hostage scenes.

“A lot of officers are saying that if two words had been spoken at that scene—‘activate SERT’—he would still be alive,” says one cop, who declined to be identified. But SERT wasn’t called until 13 minutes after Campbell died, when the team was needed to safely approach Campbell’s body.

There’s a history between SERT and Reyna, the sergeant in charge of the scene. Back in 1999, Reyna became the first woman ever to join SERT. She resigned a year later, and in 2002 filed suit against the city claiming sexual harassment by members of the unit. A jury ruled against her in 2005.

Two officers who declined to be identified say Reyna holds a grudge against SERT, which they say may have played into her decision not to activate the team. Reyna denies those claims, saying she has a good working relationship with SERT.

One cop said there’s widespread anger among the rank and file that it’s Frashour who gets vilified by the public, when the more senior cops at the scene should be held responsible.

Sgt. Scott Westerman, head of the police union, says Reyna planned to have police leave the scene once Campbell confirmed he wasn’t going to hurt himself. But that plan was delayed when Reyna was ordered to debrief Capt. Bob Day and Lt. Derek Rodrigues at the scene, Westerman says. Campbell got shot while Reyna was speaking with them.

Reyna remains on duty. Day was promoted to commander of the Training Division after the shooting in what the bureau said was a previously planned move.

Det. Mary Wheat, a police spokeswoman, defended the decision not to activate SERT. She says the call did not involve a hostage situation or a barricaded subject, which would have forced a SERT call-out under bureau policy.

5. Officer Ronald Frashour has a mixed reputation among cops.


Instead of Reyna or Day, protesters placed a mountain of blame on Frashour, including calls for him to be stripped of his badge.

An eight-year veteran, Frashour started as a patrol officer at Northeast Precinct for six years before being transferred to East Precinct in 2009.

Frashour, who lives in Gresham, is generally well-regarded, some cops say. But one officer who requested anonymity said some cops who have worked with Frashour consider him a “cowboy” who’s prone to amp up calls.

In a 2006 arrest, Frashour Tasered suspect Frank Waterhouse after Waterhouse filmed a police search of a North Portland scrap yard and refused to drop his camera. Another officer fired beanbag rounds at Waterhouse.

Sizer made a preliminary finding that Frashour violated policy by failing to warn Waterhouse before Tasering him. But the Independent Police Review Division’s Citizen Review Committee ruled last week that Frashour shouldn’t have used the Taser at all. If Sizer disagrees with the committee ruling, the City Council will make the final call.

Meantime, Frashour is working East Precinct’s Neighborhood Response Team pending an internal investigation of the Campbell case. He gets to carry a handgun, but Sizer took away his AR-15 assault rifle.

“The commanders and people in charge of that scene owe him a huge apology,” the officer says. “He’s become the name associated with this mess.”

6. Aaron Campbell didn’t have to die, but he wanted to.


Campbell’s father, Timothy Douglass, has told WW that even if his son intended to commit suicide by cop, he didn’t have to die (see “Breach of Trust, WW, Feb. 10, 2010).

But based on records from the police investigation, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Campbell wanted to die—and that he saw the police as an ideal opportunity.

The night before the shooting, Campbell was distraught because he believed his younger brother, Timothy Douglass Jr., was about to die from a long-term heart problem. As first reported by WW, Campbell terrified his girlfriend the night before the shooting by putting a gun to his head while he sat on the couch of the apartment. He repeatedly pulled the trigger, but it wouldn’t fire. He told her that if the police killed him, he would go to heaven, but if he killed himself, he’d be doomed to hell.

When Campbell learned his brother had died on the morning of Jan. 29, his girlfriend told police he changed his Facebook status to say that his mother would be burying two sons that day. And when police arrived, several independent witnesses say he told police to “just fucking shoot me.”

When Frashour did so, it ended a life in turmoil. Campbell’s criminal record, which police at the scene had pulled up on their patrol-car laptops, includes a firearms conviction for a 2008 gang-related shooting, six domestic-violence restraining orders for his ex-wife and girlfriend, two scuffles with police and other convictions.

Family members at Campbell’s funeral—a dual service with his brother, their coffins side by side—said he was on the rebound when his life was cut short. Campbell’s mother, Marva Davis, told the grand jury her son aimed to earn his GED and become a lawyer.

“He was changing his life,” Davis testified. “Some of us make mistakes, you know. Some people are bitter, and you have got people who know how to work through the feelings they have.”

7. The expansive record reflects the social media age.


After hearing his younger brother had died on the morning of Jan. 29, Campbell sent a text message to his girlfriend, Adrienna Jones: “RIP to my one and only true brother...I’m NEXTED and will see u very soon. Whats life without you?”

The text message, preserved in police records, was a powerful reflection of Campbell’s state of mind, and also a precursor to the important role texts would play in the unfolding tragedy.

When Campbell learned police were outside the apartment, he texted Jones, who was outside: “Don’t make me get my gun, I aint playin’.” Jones told the cops what Campbell had written, leading police to conclude Campbell was armed.

Next Campbell texted a friend: “The police got me surrounded over here on 125th and Sandy, I’m going to die.”

Officer James Quackenbush began texting Campbell from Jones’ phone, asking if he intended to hurt himself. Campbell responded: “Never...wow u guys text too...u get kudos.”

Quackenbush wrote back: “Thanks Aaron. I appreciate your help. I am truly sorry about your Brother. Can u promise me u wont hurt yourself-Jim.”

“Ur texting me and not callin me that’s real weird Jimmy,” Campbell wrote back.

So Quackenbush called Campbell on Jones’ phone. The connection was awful. Quackenbush couldn’t hear what Campbell was saying, but he told Campbell police wanted to make sure he wasn’t a danger to himself or others.

Quackenbush told Campbell police wouldn’t go inside the apartment and suggested he come outside. It was the last phone call Campbell ever took. He hung up and stepped out of the apartment.

8. Mayor Sam Adams broke his public silence after nearly two weeks only when the national spotlight landed on Portland.


Speaking of social media, what about our city’s unofficial tweeter-in-chief, Mayor Sam Adams?

When he took office last year, Adams took the unusual step of assigning oversight of the Police Bureau to City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. Almost all other Portland mayors have kept the high-profile (and highly volatile) bureau.

The result has been Adams’ almost complete disengagement from police matters. When the Jan. 24, 2009, shooting and suicide outside the Zone nightclub left three people dead and seven injured, Adams—who was still weighing whether to step down in the immediate aftermath of revelations about his sexual relationship with Beau Breedlove—was silent. Last fall, when Officer Chris Humphreys shot a 12-year-old girl with a beanbag gun, Adams again maintained his silence.

And Adams stayed mum for 12 days as the Campbell controversy unfolded. Then he issued a bland three-paragraph statement on his website Feb. 10. It said only that he supported Saltzman’s push to make the grand jury testimony public, and that he would be “closely watching” the results and timeline of the police internal investigation.

The following day, Feb. 11, African-American church leaders rallied 100 supporters on the steps of the Justice Center and called for action from the mayor. But Adams had no public response. Then on Feb. 16, he co-opted a press conference by Chief Sizer to say he was deeply concerned about the shooting and its implications for race relations in the city. He spent more than 10 minutes talking and taking questions from reporters, while Saltzman stood in the corner of the room.

What changed? The Albina Ministerial Alliance had just announced the Rev. Jesse Jackson—and the national spotlight that follows him—was coming to town that night. Suddenly, you couldn’t get between Adams and a microphone when the Campbell case came up.

Adams’ reaction is a testament to Jackson’s continuing clout. But it also speaks volumes about the political powerlessness of Portland’s own African-American community. African-Americans make up just 6.4 percent of the city’s population, and there have been only two black city commissioners in Portland’s history, the last in 1992.

9. The case will land in civil court, and Frashour will almost certainly escape discipline by the bureau.


After the grand jury decided not to charge Frashour with a crime, there are now two ongoing investigations. One is by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department. The other is the Police Bureau’s internal investigation.

The final decision about discipline for Frashour and other officers involved will rest with Saltzman, assuming he’s still police commissioner when the investigation ends (he comes up for re-election this year).

But the police union has regularly prevailed in arbitration cases to overturn any discipline the union’s board considers unfair. And the union boss, Sgt. Scott Westerman, says they will surely fight any discipline for Frashour.

“Based on what I know now, any police officer in the metro area given the circumstances that night would have done the same thing. Not only is it their duty, it was the right thing to do,” Westerman says. “I would have taken that shot.”

That confirms what critics of Portland police have long believed—that the only effective discipline for cops is in civil court. Campbell’s family has hired two firms to represent them in a lawsuit against the city, including that of Tom Steenson, the lawyer already suing the city in the James Chasse Jr. case.

As Philip Joseph Mann told the grand jury, every Portlander has a stake in the case.

“Because if it can happen on 128th, who is to say it is not going to happen in your yard or next door or to one of your friends or families?” Mann told the grand jury. “I think at the end of this, you have a chance to make a statement that we’re better than all this.”


Police shootings are down from nine in 2005 to one last year. Citizen complaints are down 47 percent over the same period, with 405 complaints last year.

To hear Sherry Stewart’s call to 911, go here (mp3).

The Portland Police Bureau employs 33 black officers, or 3.4 percent of the 969 cops on the force. Portland’s overall African-American population is 6.4 percent. And now Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman says some minority candidates are dropping their bids to become Portland cops because of the Campbell shooting.

Following the Campbell shooting, an editorial in The Skannernewspaper Feb. 15 warned readers not to call police if they’re in trouble. “We cannot have faith that innocents won’t get caught in the firing line when trigger-finger officers arrive in force,” The Skanner wrote. “We need to start solving our own problems.”

 
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