Four civilians shot by Portland Police; Fifth dies in fire

It is sadly appropriate that in the last three months while a Mayor's work group to improve police oversight was deliberating on whether civilians should be able to review investigations of police shootings and deaths in custody (see article), Portland Police have been involved in five incidents involving the shootings and deaths of civilians.

Two emotionally distressed men were shot by police in August. One was 71-year-old George Waldum, who was killed on August 23. The other, Lawrence Ramirez, 50, was shot after he called 911 from his own home late at night August 25th. He was accused of pointing a gun at police, though reports state a gun was found in his home, not taken from Ramirez.

Waldum had argued with a worker who had come to disconnect his cable, and said he was going to get a gun. Officers arrived and Waldum allegedly confronted them with a shotgun at the door; Officer Scott Westerman shot and killed him.

If Westerman's name sounds familiar, it is because in 1996 he shot and killed Patricia Sweany, a distraught woman, after she got into an altercation with an EMT. While there has been no indication that Westerman has been given Crisis Intervention Team training, which would give him the skills to de-escalate situations involving people who appear to be mentally ill, he was given a "Meritorious Service Medal of Valor" award by the Bureau in late 1997 for shooting Sweany (see PPR #14).

It seems that Officer Westerman thinks that shooting to kill is the most efficient way to deal with civilians who do not act in a "normal" way. We hope his actions will not be further reinforced by another award.

After police criticized the neighbors who were quoted in the media for questioning the police tactics, a neighbor wrote a letter to the Oregonian explaining that the community had been helping Waldum (September 11). The neighbors had been observing his "deteriorating condition", mowing his lawn for him, and contacting his family regularly. Perhaps if police had gone to the neighbors, they could have talked Waldum out of brandishing the gun.

Days later, Ramirez, 50, was shot in the elbow by Officer Kurt Sardeson. Ramirez is one of the rare citizens shot by police who has lived to bring action against the city. On the night in question, he called 911 a few times, but didn't speak to anyone. He told the Oregonian (August 28) he was feeling depressed and had been drinking. Police say they forced their way into the apartment and Ramirez confronted them with a gun; he says he opened the door and was shot. He has retained an attorney who contends that Ramirez does not own a gun. Furthermore, Ramirez was not charged with a crime, indicating that the police lack evidence of impending or actual violent behavior on his part.

A third distraught citizen, 20-year-old Daniel Brink, was shot by Officer Paul Kennard on November 6. The Oregonian (November 8) reports that Brink had threatened suicide, and after his grandmother called police he confronted her with a knife. The article states that after police arrived, Brink "approached the officers in a threatening manner," was shot, and ended up in critical condition at the hospital. Well, at least he didn't try killing himself, right?

On October 2, police from six jurisdictions chased a man­who was suspected in a shooting at a MAX station­into an RV sales lot. The suspect, 19-year-old Justyn Gallegos, allegedly fired one shot at police, and was hit 10 times from bullets fired by Portland officers Lawrence Keller and Scott Johnson, Troutdale officer Joel Wendland, and Gresham's Timothy Taaca (Oregonian October 6). Gallegos died of his injuries.

The third person to die in an incident related to Portland Police was Ollie Russell, age 73. Apparently, Russell became distressed in the middle of the night and fired shots out through his bedroom door, "hitting his 26-year-old step- granddaughter in the shoulder." (Oregonian, October 12). When police arrived, they surrounded the home and fired in tear gas. In a scenario reminiscent of Waco, a fire erupted in Russell's bedroom. According to police-friendly coroner Karen Gunson, the fire killed Russell by asphyxiation (Oregonian, October 13). Fire inspectors said that there were "no ... potential sources of ignition in the bedroom, such as heating or electrical appliances, or tear gas canisters that the police Special Emergency Reaction Team fired into the house." While they didn't state what did start the blaze, they blamed Russell. As usual, we will have to wait to see what the investigation turns up.

Grand juries found no wrongdoing in the Waldum case (Oregonian, September 8) and the Gallegos case (Oregonian, October 20). While the "official" story exonerates the officers in every shooting,* the public wants to be reassured that these investigations are not tainted, biased, or incomplete. The majority of the Mayor's police oversight task force has recommended that PIIAC be given the power to review these investigations regardless of who conducts them. Even the Oregonian has called for a change in the procedure regarding investigations into police shootings (August 26 editorial: "Inquests serve public, police").

Furthermore, it is time for Portland to fully educate all its officers in Crisis Intervention training and end every possible encounter without firing a shot.

* Officer Douglas Erickson was fired for shooting at Gerald Gratton 23 times in 1993; he was re- instated after the Police Association forced the City to arbitration.

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