It’s been 17 years since a Portland, OR., police officer fired a single shot at Kendra James, killing the young woman as she tried to drive away during a traffic stop.
James, who grew up in North Portland, was Black and unarmed. The officer had reached deep into the car to get James out, a decision that the chief at the time criticized.
James put the car in gear. It started to move. Officer Scott McCollister said he lost his footing and feared he would be dragged down the street. He drew his 9mm pistol. The bullet pierced the woman’s left hip and lodged under her right breast.
The shooting galvanized the city’s Black leaders and spurred a movement focused on wholesale police reform that remains just as urgent today, as Black Lives Matter activists— propelled by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis— seek a fundamental rethinking of policing.
“Everything blew,” recalled Rev. LeRoy Haynes, chairman of a group now known as the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, founded in response to the James killing.
The group has gone on to become a leading voice in the effort to transform policing police culture and policy in Portland.
“There was great outrage from the Black community, not only the Black community,” he said. “People came to the march that we organized from all sections of the city.”
Against the backdrop of current demands for far-reaching change, The Oregonian/OregonLive analyzed fatal shootings by Portland police since James died in 2003.
In the intervening years, police have shot and killed 39 more people.
They were suicidal or in the throes of an emotional crisis. Some people, like James, were trying to flee police. In other cases, officers were responding to calls about break-ins, robberies or assaults. Most of those killed had guns or knives. A handful had replica pistols.
Those fatally shot were disproportionately Black.
At least half of the cases involved people with mental illness.
None of the more than five-dozen officers who pulled a trigger in the shootings were ultimately disciplined or indicted by a grand jury, despite attempts to fire or suspend some of them.
Those stubborn and troubling patterns are now spurring the thousands of people who have taken to the streets in Portland in the last two months, saying the names of Black Oregonians killed by police and decrying a criminal justice system that too often harms people of color.
“You can add all the training and this, that and the other,” said Donna Hayes, whose teenage grandson, Quanice Hayes, was killed by a Portland police officer three years ago.
Changing policies and training, she said, doesn’t fix the “warrior” culture in policing.
“They do what they are supposed to do,” she said. “This is the way they were created.”
The city has paid out a total of more than $2.2 million to the families of four people fatally shot by Portland police officers since James’ death in 2003, according to Portland Copwatch, a grassroots police watchdog organization.
“All of this clearly shows there’s no accountability when a police officer kills a community member,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime police reform advocate who became the first Black woman elected to the Portland City Council in 2018.
“I think we could all agree that what we’ve been doing is not working.”
The Oregonian/Oregon Live investigation shows 28 percent of those who died at the hands of police were Black, though only about 8 percent of Portland’s nearly 655,000 residents identify as Black alone or in combination with another race.
Eleven Black people died in the 40 shootings reviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Twenty-seven shooting victims, or 68 percent, were white and two were Latino.
A study by two researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that Portland ranks 208th out of nearly 400 American metro areas in police killings for all races and ethnicities between 2013 and 2017.
The region ranked 56th in the rate of Latinos killed by police and 122nd in the killings of Black people. Portland’s ranking in the study is affected by the inclusion of a half-dozen counties with very small percentages of Black people.
Nationally, Black Americans are killed at a much higher rate than white Americans, according to The Washington Post, which has tracked fatal shootings by on-duty police officers since 2015. Black people account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, the news organization found.
“It isn’t any different here in Portland,” said Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.
Despite efforts to train police and improve policing, she said, the outcome for “the most vulnerable segments of our communities, primarily Black people and people in mental crisis” remains the same.
The death of Kendra James represented a watershed moment in the Police Bureau’s long and strained relationship with the city’s Black community. A grand jury found the shooting was justified. Later, a federal jury reached the same conclusion and rejected the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the James family.
In the aftermath of James’ death, a coalition of community groups and Black leaders pressed Portland police to adopt two dozen reforms addressing what they identified as gaps in police culture, hiring, training, independent oversight, racial profiling and the grand jury process for police shootings.
Progress meeting those calls has been mixed, said Dan Handelman, a longtime police accountability advocate in Portland.
Those pushing for change, for instance, want Oregon’s deadly force statute to include objective standards that define what constitutes a threat to public safety instead of relying on the “reasonable” judgment of the officer at the scene.
That demand — and others including requiring city leaders to ask the FBI to investigate controversial police shootings for possible civil rights violations — hasn’t been met, said Handelman, a founding member of Portland Copwatch.
Oregon lawmakers this month revised the deadly force law, but the amendments fell short of the standards sought by activists.
Yet other policy changes, including bias training for officers, have been adopted but haven’t made a meaningful difference, Handelman said.
“We are still seeing the traffic stop data and the shooting data that reflects over-policing of the Black community,” he said.
Mental Health Issues in Half of Fatal Cases
The Oregonian analysis found that at least 20, or 50 percent, of those killed by Portland police had a mental illness or were experiencing a mental health crisis.
Some suffered from a diagnosed condition or appeared suicidal. Others displayed emotional distress or erratic behavior leading up to their fatal encounter.
Michael Gennaco, a national authority on policing who has studied Portland police practices for more than a decade, said police departments around the country have their own patterns and trends that emerge around their officers’ use of force.
Take Southern California, he said. There, he said, police shootings tend to be associated with criminal activity — such as a suspect firing on police from a moving car — or violent crime.
“That doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in Portland. It seems to be more mental health or (people) under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” he said.
Gennaco has seen signs of improvement in Portland police over the past decade, he said.
“I see encounters where things are slowed down. I see encounters where there is more deliberation, thoughtfulness and planning with regard to addressing the situation,” he said.
“But even when you do some of that it doesn’t mean you will get a result where deadly force is not used,” said Gennaco of OIR Group based in California.
His organization’s most recent report on police shootings in Portland highlighted a problem with what he called the “action reaction principle” in which officers are trained that someone can pull out a weapon before officers can get to their own guns.
“While that may be consistent with physics,” he said, “we are worried about the implication. That doesn’t mean you should be shooting someone before you see a gun. In our view, it means you need to get back, you need to seek cover, you need to be safe.”
As recently as last year, people with mental illness continued to be overrepresented in fatal police encounters in Portland. Of the five fatal police shootings in 2019, three involved people in the midst of a mental health crisis:
- Andre Gladen, a 36-year-old legally blind man with schizophrenia who had used methamphetamine before bursting into a stranger’s home.
- Koben S. Henriksen, a 51-year-old man whose father described his son’s illness as somewhere between extreme bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and who witnesses say was walking in traffic with knives.
- Lane Christopher Martin, a 31-year-old man who threatened a security guard with a knife and hatchet and swung a hatchet as he walked down a busy city thoroughfare. Martin’s family said he experienced a psychotic break when confronted by police.
Gladen was Black; Henriksen and Martin were white.
The Oregonian analysis found that 32, or 80 percent, of the people killed by police were armed with weapons such as guns, knives and in one case a crowbar. Four of the guns were replicas.
Seven people were unarmed. Three were Black, including James. Four were white.
In one instance, police killed a man who emerged from his ex-girlfriend’s apartment holding what the officer thought was a rifle; it turned out to be an umbrella wrapped in a towel.
Few Officers Disciplined
A total of 65 police officers fired their guns in these shootings documented in this story, according to the newsroom’s analysis.
Three were disciplined, but those actions were later overturned in arbitration with the police union.
McCollister, who shot Kendra James, ultimately received back pay for his 5 ½ month suspension. The 2006 arbitration decision also ordered the city to expunge the suspension from McCollister’s record.
Frashour was fired by then-Chief Mike Reese after he killed Aaron Campbell, a 25-year-old Black man who was shot after emerging an apartment complex and reaching for what the officer thought was a gun.
An arbitrator in 2012 found there was “an objectively reasonable basis” for Frashour to believe that Campbell posed an immediate risk of serious injury or death to others. The arbitrator ordered the city to reinstate him with lost wages.
Records show McCollister and Frashour still work as officers with the Portland Police Bureau. Kaer retired in 2016.
A Portland officer hasn’t been indicted for killing someone in 51 years, since an on-duty officer fatally shot his girlfriend’s husband in 1969. The officer, Steven Sims, was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.
“There is just a sense that a cop can kill somebody and never face responsibility for it,” said state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Northeast Portland, a Black lawmaker who has long pushed for statewide police reform and accountability measures.
“It’s a get-out-of-jail card for anything that was done.”
All told, 20 of the 65 officers who used deadly force in the shootings eventually earned promotions. Fifty-six of them currently work as police officers in Portland or other law enforcement agencies in the metro area, state certification records show.
The Oregonian/OregonLive provided Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell with the findings of its analysis and sought comment. In a written statement, Lovell said each shooting involving officers undergoes an extensive internal and external review.
“Even though these incidents are rare, they have lasting effects on families, the community and the bureau,” he wrote in response.
“We have to learn from such impactful incidents.”
In the past decade, Lovell said, the Police Bureau has carried out “major reforms” in areas dealing with mental health, use of force, training, policy, accountability and community engagement.
The bureau, he wrote, is committed to building “community trust through open dialogue and by doing the work required to provide its officers the best training possible so that they can effectively serve the community.”
The Police Bureau and the city remain under a 2014 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice after a federal investigation found police used excessive force against people with mental illness and fired multiple cycles of Taser gun shocks unnecessarily.
The agreement led police to improve crisis intervention and de-escalation training, do a better job of tracking when and how police use force and improve their tracking of complaints against officers.
After 2019 became one of the deadliest years of police shootings in the last decade, no one has died in a confrontation with Portland police in more than eight months.
Still, a growing number of activists, lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates believe the oversight and rules for reviewing fatal shootings by officers are complicated and unfair.
Haynes, of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, said the process “has been unfair to the citizens of Portland, the mentally ill and Black people. It’s a process that Black folks have no trust in. They know the answer before the grand jury ever issues a statement.
“In fact the system has broken down.”
Meanwhile, City Council member Hardesty is leading a push to revamp Portland’s police oversight system, which residents will vote on this fall.
The new oversight board would investigate complaints against police employees, deaths of people in police custody, uses of deadly force and officer-caused injuries, as well as cases of alleged discrimination and constitutional rights violations.
Board members would be allowed to subpoena documents, access police records and require witnesses, including police, to give statements. They also would be allowed to impose discipline, up to firing a police employee.
“We now have a chance to fundamentally change our city’s police oversight system,” Hardesty said.
“It’s long overdue.”
This is an edited and abridged version of the investigation reported this month by Noelle Crombie, a 2020 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow; and Shane Dixon Kavanaugh by the Oregonian/Oregon Live. The complete report is available here. Maxine Bernstein and David Cansler also contributed to this report.