Keaton Otis
  • Keaton Otis
Somehow this escaped the Twitter conversation accompanying this morning's OPB mayoral debate: But candidate Charlie Hales, in attempting to burnish his public-safety bonafides, made a stunning gaffe in describing the May 2010 police shooting of Keaton Otis that couldn't have come at a more awkard time.

Hales referred to Otis—without mentioning his name—merely as a "gang member" who shot Officer Chris Burley "in the leg." Otis, of course, was anything but a "gang member."

He was a young African-American man in a mental health crisis who'd been trailed by gang detectives and pulled over apparently because he was wearing a hoodie and was slouched in the driver's seat of his car. Police say Otis fired two bullets, hitting Burley, as the stop exploded into a standoff, but he was also struck by 23 bullets. (The officers involved were all cleared by the city's Police Review Board last fall.) Almost since the day Otis was killed, the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform has been holding up Otis' death as an example of racial profiling.

Hales' mistake came as an aside. Hales was talking about how he'd done a ride-along with Burley, as well as other officers, to illustrate his concerns over gang violence in Portland. But while it's been some time since Otis' death, his name remains front and center in the accountability community.

On Monday, in front of City Hall, protesters denouncing an arbitrator's decision to reinstate Ron Frashour (the cop who shot Aaron Campbell) also invoked Otis' name, along with Trayvon Martin's, in raising questions about the worth of police accountability and cultural sensitivity in Portland.

Hales' campaign, when I rang them up, offered to have Hales call me this afternoon to talk about what he said and what he meant.

Update 1:30 PM: "I'm sorry if I offended anybody by not knowing all the particulars," Hales tells me, also saying "we should clarify that" and that he doesn't have "encyclopedic knowledge" of every police shooting. Even after going over the particulars, Otis' case—and the resulting outcry over profiling—didn't really ring a bell with Hales.

He says he was only trying to make the point that Burley, even after being shot, maintained an "impressive attitude about reaching out to young people. ... That's an attitude I want to see in the bureau."

Still, his mistake upset some community leaders who expected a prospective police commissioner to have known more about a shooting that need not have happened at all if Otis had either gotten help beforehand or hadn't been pulled over because of something like his hoodie.

"He should have checked his facts," says JoAnn Hardesty, a former state lawmaker and member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform.

Burley, who was providing backup for the gang detectives who initially thought Otis was "suspicious" because of his clothing and the fact that he was driving a car that didn't "fit," has since become close with Otis' mother. He told KGW a year after the shooting that "Keaton didn't have to die." If only he'd gotten treatment sooner.//

Listen to the whole debate at OPB's website, or watch it on TV Friday night.