People's Police Report
Shootings & deaths
"Basically, we shot an unarmed black guy
Portland Police Association (PPA) President Scott Westerman best described the January 29 officer-involved shooting of Aaron Campbell when he told the Oregonian's Steve Duin: "Basically, we shot an unarmed black guy running away from us" (February 4). Campbell, 25, who was despondent over the death of his brother from heart failure earlier in the day, had been communicating with an officer on the scene and agreed to come out of his girlfriend's apartment. Seconds later, Officer Ryan Lewton (#34674) shot Campbell six times with a "bean bag" gun, then Officer Ronald Frashour (#40927) shot and killed Campbell with one bullet from his AR-15 assault rifle. The death of yet another unarmed African American led to protests, marches and community outcry, a scathing grand jury letter, and even some long-needed changes.
Campbell was talking about committing suicide. Officer James Quackenbush (#36875) established a rapport with Campbell on the phone well enough to allow the girlfriend and her children to come out of the apartment safely. Then, Campbell came out. In a communication breakdown eerily similar to two other incidents, a cascade of events led to the shooting. Even though Campbell had his hands up on the back of his head, Lewton was yelling orders for him to put his hands in the air. When he did not comply, Lewton shot the "bean bags," lead-pellet nylon sacks fired from a shotgun with the force of a line drive baseball. Frashour says he then shot Campbell because he thought he was digging in his waistband for a gun, though in reality, he was moving his hands toward the area Lewton had hit. At about the same time, a police dog was released. Sgt. Liani Reyna (#28925), who apparently had taken leadership on the scene, was off briefing higher ranking officers when the shots were fired.
Because the officers feared Campbell had a gun, and he had fallen on his hands, they called for the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT). SERT arrived nearly a half hour after the shooting, at which point Campbell had died from his wounds.
The lack of medical attention echoes the cases of Deontae Keller (1996), Kendra James (2003), Willie Grigsby (2004), James Chasse, Jr (2006) and many others, despite the Bureau's alleged efforts to fix the problem.
The Grand Jury decided on February 9 there was no criminal wrongdoing by the police. They publicly released a letter criticizing the breakdown of communications on the scene, stating they were "outraged" at what happened and "Aaron Campbell should not have died that day."
Community leaders and members of City Council have asked for a Federal Justice Department investigation, which is underway. If the FBI, Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and US Attorney's office agree, they may also open a "pattern and practice" investigation into the Bureau (Portland Tribune, March 4). The Portland Police Bureau's Internal Affairs Division is conducting an administrative investigation into the shooting.
The community response was quick and clear: Aaron Campbell's death was unacceptable, and those responsible need to be held accountable. A series of news conferences, marches and rallies, including a gathering of over 1200 people headlined by Rev. Jesse Jackson on February 16, continued to put pressure on the City's elected leadership and the Police Bureau.
Campbell's death was the fourth police killing of an unarmed African American in the last 8 years: shootings of Byron Hammick (2002/PPR #26), Kendra James (2003/PPR #30), and Jahar Perez (2004/PPR #33) stirred up similar concerns. He was also the third person in five years to be shot in the back by a Portland Police sniper with an AR-15 while they were talking to a police negotiator: Raymond Gwerder was shot and killed in November, 2005 (PPR #37), and Paul Stewart was shot in the head and wounded in August, 2007 (PPR #42), both in similar circumstances to Campbell.
Portland Copwatch highlighted these similarities in a letter to District Attorney Michael Schrunk, as well as the concerns that the grand jury never interviewed Sgt. Reyna or several other witnesses. Schrunk responded, claiming that the jurors never showed an interest in Reyna until after they had voted not to indict Frashour; since Schrunk's team clearly leads the juries around by the nose (and, the saying goes, could indict a ham sandwich if he wanted to), this is a disingenuous claim.
Officer Frashour was previously involved in a use-of-force case where lack of communication led to him using a Taser at the same time another officer used a "beanbag" gun, leading to a jury award of $55,000 for Frank Waterhouse and the Citizen Review Committee finding Frashour out of policy (see CRC article in this issue).
Sgt. Westerman decried the Grand Jury's letter, stating that police purposefully do not let family members talk to people in distress, relying instead on negotiators (Rap Sheet, February 2010). He also said that the reason Frashour was allowed to decide to shoot on his own, rather than, presumably, being in radio contact and awaiting an order, dates back to when Nathan Thomas was shot and killed by officers in 1992 while being held hostage (PPR #5). After that incident, the police assigned officers specific roles so that multiple officers would not take the same action. He describes them as the custody, less lethal, K9 and lethal teams. He asks, do they want a committee to decide when to shoot?
Several protest actions and marches were led by the revived AMA Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, including one that ended with protestors entering City Hall and a face-to-face meeting between Mayor Sam Adams and Campbell's mother, Marva Davis. A new group called (I'm) Everyday People led a march from Pioneer Courthouse Square to Portland State University on February 19. Attorney General John Kroger told the crowd: "We just can't have our community in an endless series of lethal force incidents. If there's not a huge bond of trust between the law enforcement community and the public then we're in real trouble" (KGW-TV, February 19).
For more info or to get involved with the AMA Coalition, call 503-287-0261.
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.