Portland Police Chief's Shifting Account of a Shooting Could Cost Him Dearly

Chief Larry O'Dea is under state investigation for shooting a hunting buddy. Here's what's at stake.

On April 21, Portland Police Chief Larry O'Dea shot a rifle, as he had many times in decades of hunting.

But the .22-caliber bullet he fired, at about 4:37 that afternoon, tore into the back of a friend who had joined him to shoot squirrels in Eastern Oregon's Harney County. The man had to be air-lifted to a Boise hospital after the incident.

But it's what happened next that may kill O'Dea's career.

Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward says when O'Dea first informed his agency of the incident April 22, he said it was "a self-inflicted accidental shooting."

Ward says he only learned May 16 that O'Dea, 53, had fired the bullet. That same day, the shooting was referred to the Oregon State Police for criminal investigation.

But Portland Mayor Charlie Hales knew O'Dea had shot his friend far earlier. A spokeswoman for Hales told WW that O'Dea had informed the mayor of the incident three weeks earlier, in an April 25 phone call.

Yet the shooting only became public when WW broke the story May 20. Hales said there was no reason to disclose the incident publicly and defended his chief.

"Larry O'Dea is a great chief who is heartsick over hurting a friend," Hales said May 20.

But the questions—about what O'Dea did, how he handled the aftermath, and whether he misled investigators—now imperil the chief's career, two years after Hales named him chief of the Portland Police Bureau in April 2014.

O'Dea declined requests for interviews, citing an internal bureau investigation as well as the state investigation.

There's a a lot at stake for the chief, the mayor and the Police Bureau. The repercussions could hit O'Dea in three ways.

First, there's the question of whether he committed a crime in the incident.

The scope of the Oregon State Police investigation is unclear, but it's a misdemeanor under Oregon law to "negligently wound another" with a gun. Conviction can cost a hunter his license for 10 years.

It's unusual for one Oregon hunter to shoot another. There was only one reported incident in 2015, and O'Dea's was the first reported this year. (The shooting didn't dull O'Dea's appetite for hunting. Records show that on May 16, the day the Oregon State Police began its criminal investigation, O'Dea applied for new hunting licenses for antelope, deer and elk.)

Second, the choice not to tell the public—or the Police Bureau's rank and file—could undermine O'Dea's authority. "This incident has compromised the integrity of the Police Bureau," Portland Police Association Daryl Turner said in a statement.

The revelation comes in the midst of Hales' efforts to negotiate a new contract with the police union—including a possible end to the rule allowing officers to wait 48 hours after a shooting before speaking to investigators. It's one of Hales' last chances to burnish his legacy before leaving office Jan. 1.

Finally, if O'Dea lied to Harney County sheriff's officials or allowed his friends to do so, he's in violation of a key Police Bureau rule.

"The integrity of police service is based on honesty and truthfulness," the police rulebook says. "Members will not make any false statements to justify a criminal or traffic charge, or seek to unlawfully influence the outcome of any investigation."

Past punishments for officers caught lying have ranged from suspension to termination.

On May 24, Hales bowed to pressure and placed O'Dea on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the various investigations.

"There are ongoing internal and external investigations related to this incident," says mayor's spokeswoman Sara Hottman. "The mayor is awaiting their outcomes before reaching any conclusions about apparent contradictions."