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June 4th, 2003 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Anatomy of a Police Shooting

Citizens will now get the chance to dissect Kendra James' death.

     
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An estimated 1,300 people turned out on May 24 in Northeast Portland to protest the death of Kendra James.
IMAGE: basil childers
It's been two weeks since a grand jury declined to prosecute Portland police Officer Scott McCollister for the May 5 fatal shooting of Kendra James, a 25-year-old African-American woman who attempted to drive away from a traffic stop. This week, Mayor Vera Katz is expected to announce a "community review" to examine the shooting. Here are some points that will probably come up:

How did it start? Ostensibly, Officer Rick Bean pulled over the blue 2002 Chevy Cavalier at 2:40 am May 5 on North Skidmore Street because it had not come to a full halt at a stop sign. Undoubtedly the real reason he pulled over the car was that he saw it pull out from the Budget Motel on North Interstate Avenue, where cops suspect drug dealing goes on.

Can they do that? Pretext stops like this one are perfectly legal, under rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

What do the police say? The driver, Terry Jackson, was placed in a squad car after the police realized he had a warrant out for his arrest. Then James hopped into the driver's seat of the Cavalier, hoping to get away. Police say McCollister climbed most of the way into the car in order to remove her. Attempts to pull her out by her hair, and to use pepper spray and a Taser were unsuccessful. James did not get out of the car when ordered, even after McCollister put his pistol to her head and yelled at her to stop. Instead, she threw the car into drive, and it started rolling forward.

Why didn't McCollister simply jump out of the car? McCollister says all his weight was on his left knee, which rested on the driver's seat. His right foot was dragging on the ground, so he couldn't step out on that foot because the car was moving. Meanwhile, the open car door had him wedged in, and he couldn't steady himself with his right hand because it was holding the pistol.

Was the cop's fear justified? His fear was probably real: It appears the car really did run over his right foot, because witnesses reported seeing him limping badly immediately afterward. The police conducted a videotaped re-enactment using Det. Rich Austria as a test subject and concluded that McCollister's fear was well-founded.

Was his fear justified enough to shoot? That's the big question. Two eyewitnesses said the car was moving at a mere walking pace when McCollister fired his weapon. But two others said the gun went off just as the car accelerated. McCollister says he was able to extricate himself an instant after he fired, which suggests that he would have survived uninjured even if he had not shot James.

What about reports that McCollister shot from outside the car? James' boyfriend, Darnell White, and a passerby, Meilani Carruthers, made well-publicized claims that the officer who shot James was several feet from the car at the time. They indicated that it was Officer Bean, who wore a baseball cap and was standing away from the car, who fired the fatal shot--an understandable assumption, since he'd leveled his weapon at James. However, Carruthers' boyfriend, Brician Williams, reported seeing a muzzle flash inside the vehicle, which jibes with the police account. And police say the state crime lab has confirmed that McCollister's gun fired the bullet that killed James.

Why didn't the grand jury indict? First, civilian witnesses and forensic evidence tended to support the police version of events. Second, the burden of proof required for an indictment was especially high because two U.S. Supreme Court decisions grant police officers wide latitude to kill if they feel threatened.

Why does this look like a whitewash? Mainly because Katz and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk decided against holding a public inquest or preliminary hearing, which would have allowed the evidence to be heard. Instead, they went with a secret grand jury proceeding, sparking suspicions that prosecutors went easy on McCollister. Those suspicions may diminish as the public sifts through a 600-page report on the shooting and follows the citizens panel's investigation. Richard Brown, a frequent critic of Police Chief Mark Kroeker and an instructor at the Salem-based Western Community Policing Center, told WW last week that, based on what he's seen of the investigation, "I think they did a good job. I think they asked the right questions." However, Brown also believes McCollister made several mistakes. "I think this is another in a line of police shootings in Portland that could have been prevented," he says.

Will McCollister get fired? An internal investigation is underway, and Katz has reportedly told Kroeker she wants McCollister off the force. She probably won't get her way. The rookie made what veteran cops say were obvious bad judgment calls--such as getting in the car and drawing his gun. But he has not been shown to have clearly violated any rules or policies. Under police disciplinary procedures, that's not enough to get you fired, even when an unarmed woman winds up dead.

 
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