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February 27th, 2013 ANDREA DAMEWOOD, AARON MESH | News Stories
 

Saved by the Cell

In airing a police-shooting video, Portland cops are learning the art of media self-defense.

news2_3917NOT PHONING IT IN: Chief Mike Reese and the Portland Police Bureau say their plan is to release information in officer-involved shootings to the public as soon as they can. Mayor Charlie Hales says he’s “reinforcing” that strategy. - IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
When he ran for mayor, Charlie Hales promised he would change the culture of a Portland Police Bureau known for controversial shootings and violent treatment of the mentally ill.

But when police shot and killed a federal fugitive outside Adventist Medical Center on Feb. 17, Hales showed one way he’s making that change: by encouraging the cops to take charge of their own story.

It was Hales’ office that urged the police Feb. 20 to hold a press conference to premiere a cellphone video they had obtained of the shooting, taken from a nearby dormitory window, that shows Merle M. Hatch cursing officers before charging them.

“I think [the police] are being a lot more open about things,” says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. “I give credit to Mayor Hales for sticking to what he said he was going to do: more transparency.”

The police’s first accounts of their killing of Hatch had all the hallmarks of the troubled officer-involved shootings before it. 

The first police press releases said officers gave commands to Hatch—a patient at the hospital who they were told had a gun—then shot him. The heat grew more intense Feb. 19, when The Oregonian reported Hatch didn’t have a gun.

But the police had already found the person who shot a video while canvassing the dorm of Walla Walla University’s Portland campus, a nursing college associated with Adventist, the day after the shooting.

They showed it to the mayor on the morning of Feb. 20—immediately after the 48-hour waiting period for involved officers to confer with union lawyers. Detectives decided releasing it wouldn’t jeopardize the investigation. 

Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson tells WW the bureau had intended to send out the video with an email press release.

“We disclose what we can, when we can,” Simpson says. 

But sources in City Hall say Hales’ office urged the police to go further in publicizing the video to knock down a growing narrative in the news and social media that the shooting might have been unjustified.

Hales says he is providing “reinforcement” to Reese’s strategy of releasing information faster. “Let’s get it out,” Hales says, snapping his fingers. “That will be our standard. If you’re doing the right thing, transparency is your friend.”

One day after The Oregonian story, Hales and Chief Mike Reese invited reporters to the 15th floor of the Justice Center and, after Simpson switched off the lights, played the video.

It shows Hatch running about 200 feet toward officers. “I’m coming to you then, pig!” he yells, then counts to three as officers order Hatch to stop. When Hatch reaches three, they shoot him. 

“The video really helped to comfort the public that the officers were doing their jobs,” says Baruti Artharee, Hales’ chief policy adviser on public safety.

The facts of the shooting were still the same. But the video made the officers’ reaction seem different.

“It gives the public a little window into what they’re thinking right then,” Simpson tells WW. “He’s sprinting at them, screaming at them. It helped shape the public perception of the facts.”

Since Hales took office in January, the cops have faced more problems. Reese took criticism for not firing Capt. Todd Wyatt after complaints he had inappropriately touched female employees. And bureau services director Mike Kuykendall resigned after sending text messages calling another officer a Nazi.

Within 24 hours of the video’s release, the media frenzy ground to a halt—and the Police Bureau had its first public-relations victory in a while.

Artharee’s office had been barraged with calls after the shooting. Since the video was released, Artharee says, he hasn’t received any.

Saltzman, who oversaw the Police Bureau during the 2010 fatal shooting of Aaron Campbell, says Hales’ approach will be tested by the cops’ instinct to close ranks in less defensible killings.

“There will be other situations that look a lot worse than this,” he says. 

 
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