Note: Commissioner Randy Leonard posted this statement on his blog. To read the original posting please visit the commissioner's website.
In reading the letter from the Grand Jury that heard testimony on the shooting death of Aaron Campbell by a Portland Police Officer, I was struck by the measured and thoughtful, yet direct tone of the Grand Jury’s message. It was clear to me that the letter did not lay the cause of Mr. Campbell’s death on his behavior, but rather on a lack of basic communication between the officers on the scene and the Portland Police Bureau negotiator who was pursuing a peaceful surrender with a distraught Aaron Campbell.
According to the Grand Jury’s letter, the incident commander who was overseeing the negotiations with Mr. Campbell did not make the officer who fired the fatal shot aware “…that Mr. Campbell had specifically and emphatically said that he was not going to hurt himself or anyone else.”
Also according to the Grand Jury’s letter, one police officer released his K-9 dog in an effort to bring Mr. Campbell down to the ground moments before the fatal shot was fired. The officer that shot Mr. Campbell stated that he was not only unaware of the status of the negotiations, he also was unaware that the K-9 dog had been released to take down Mr. Campbell.
The Grand Jury summarized its concerns regarding Mr. Campbell’s death:
“We feel that his death resulted from flawed police policies, incomplete or inappropriate training, incomplete communication, and other issues with the police effort.”
The Grand Jury concluded its concerns by saying:
“We feel strongly that something must be done to correct this, and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) should be held responsible for this tragedy.”
Sadly, if the past is any predictor of the future the Grand Jury’s wish to hold the PPB responsible for the death of Aaron Campbell is not going to happen.
It shouldn’t be that way this time. This is the second recent shooting death where the PPB has shot and killed a distraught citizen as a direct result of a lack of communication between the shooting officer and the Police negotiator.
On November 4, 2005, Raymond Gwerder was threatening to shoot himself inside of an apartment. While he was on the phone with a police negotiator and cooperating with directions to surrender, he was shot and killed by a Police sniper. The official reports in this case paint a picture of a complete absence of communication between the incident commander, the police negotiator, and the officer that shot Mr. Gwerder.
In 2007, the City agreed to a record $500,000 settlement for the shooting death of Raymond Dwayne Gwerder.
In November 2007, I met with the SERT commander regarding the shooting of Mr. Gwerder. Shortly thereafter I met with Chief Sizer. At that meeting Chief Sizer assured me that the Police Bureau would adopt procedures that would prevent a repeat failure in communication between officers in positions to shoot a suspect and negotiators working to achieve a peaceful surrender.
If the Grand Jury was upset about the Aaron Campbell case, what would their reaction have been had they known about the nearly identical circumstances in the shooting death of Raymond Gwerder just four years before?
Despite the clear description of the problem from the Grand Jury, Police Chief Sizer has responded to the Campbell incident by assuring the public that she now will have mental health experts respond to similar emergency incidents to advise the police during an emergency incident.
That sounds good, but the lack of mental health expertise during the Campbell or Gwerder incident did not contribute to the death of either of those men. A platoon of mental health experts will do nothing to prevent similar tragic deaths if the Police Bureau does not address its failure to communicate in life or death incidents like these.
Gwerder died in 2005 because of a lack of communication between police at the scene. It is indefensible that nothing was done by the Police Chief then to prevent a similar incident. After Campbell became the second victim of this communication failure, it is unconscionable that the Police Chief would suggest that the problem is a lack of mental health expertise. Instead, she should be acknowledging—and remedying—the fatal lack of communication between police officers during emergency incidents.
The Grand Jury made a clear and unprecedented declaration that “…the Portland Police Bureau should be held responsible for this tragedy.” Although I have my own opinion, it is up to Mayor Adams and Commissioner Saltzman to decide how to respond. In my view, they can either repeat history by perpetuating an unhealthy deference to the Police Chief, or they can use this moment to take meaningful action and create a real turning point in the history and accountability of the Police Bureau.