To many observers, including some longtime cops, the police killing of 28-year-old James Jahar Perez last Sunday looked more troubling on its face than the controversial death of Kendra James last year.
Both James and Perez were black, unarmed, and pulled over in North Portland following petty traffic violations.
But unlike the James shooting, in whichshe tried to drive away with an officer partly in the car, there was, as of Monday night, little hint as to why Perez was killed.
At press time, here's what's known: After pulling over Perez, there was a brief struggle. Apparently Officer Sean Macomber fired his "taser" stun gun; Officer Jason Sery, meanwhile, fired three bullets, killing Perez, who remained seated in his car.
Did Perez reach for his seatbelt and cops mistakenly think he was pulling a knife? Was Sery startled by Macomber's taser? Did Perez reach for Macomber's gun?
"There are a lot of good questions that are out there," concedes police-union president Robert King.
Tuesday morning, Mayor Vera Katz called for a public inquest to answer some of those questions. State Sens. Avel Gordly and Margaret Carter note that in 1985, after an officer killed a black man with a choke hold, District Attorney Mike Schrunk held a public inquest, a process Gordly says gave the public "some assurance of investment in the truth."
Gordly, a former parole officer, says training also is key. Many cops complain that they are trained mainly in how to shoot. They receive far less training in non-lethal measures such as communication and hand-to-hand combat.
Oregon cops, including those in Portland, receive less training than the national average, according to former Portland detective John Minnis, who heads the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. There's time only for "basic fundamentals," he says, which is a "major concern."
"If you don't teach [non-lethal] options, you ultimately get what you're training for," Minnis says. "That, I think, is the fundamental problem."
Finally, there is the issue of racial profiling: Why, according to statistics compiled by the city in 2001, are blacks 2.6 times more likely to be pulled over than whites?
Four years ago, a chief's advisory committee defined racial profiling as using race as the sole basis to stop someone, in effect giving officers broad discretion to make decisions using race as one factor among others. Elsewhere, policies have been proposed that do more to discourage race-based traffic stops.
In Portland, says Carter, the basis officers use to pull people over seems "much too subjective."