IN EARLY 1997, Steven Gomez was playing with a shotgun in bed when he mistakenly shot his wife. A police officer in Portland's East Precinct, he was placed on paid administrative leave immediately as the bureau sorted out what had happened.
The following year, another off-duty Portland police officer, John Kuechler, went to a high school football game in Sandy. While trying to stop a fight after the event, Kuechler shot a man in the neck. He was given a mandatory three-day paid administrative leave, and ordered to undergo counseling.
Nearly a decade later, off-duty Sergeant Greg Stewart shot through the front door of his home in a Scappoose subdivision, killing a drug-addled man holding a gun outside. "Stewart remains on paid administrative leave, a routine step pending the outcome of the investigation," a story in the Oregonian reported days after the shooting.
Shootings by off-duty police officers are a rarity in Portland. Over the last two decades, these are the only three examples sources could identify of cops shooting people while off the clock (there's at least one additional instance involving a dog being shot). The incidents all have marked differences from each other, but in every case there's a constant: The officer in question was placed on leave as the police bureau looked into what happened.
Now, of course, there's an infamous fourth shooting to tack onto the list. On April 21, Police Chief Larry O'Dea was on a camping trip with friends in Southeastern Oregon when he mistakenly shot a friend named Robert Dempsey in the lower back. The group had been sitting in lawn chairs, shooting at ground squirrels.
At this point, it's hard not to see the mistake ending O'Dea's three-decade career in the Portland Police Bureau (PPB)—particularly since evidence emerged last week that he was likely intoxicated when he fired the shot, and lied to a Harney County deputy about how Dempsey was injured. O'Dea is eligible for retirement, which would give him a way to leave city employment relatively painlessly.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, though, it's worth looking at how the treatment of O'Dea's costly gaffe differs from every other off-duty police shooting we've been able to find: O'Dea wasn't immediately placed on leave, as has been standard practice in other cases. That's a big deal in a police bureau that talks about all officers upholding the same high standards.
"The rules of the Portland Police Bureau, the policies and procedures of the Portland Police Bureau, apply to everyone across the board, whether it be the chief of police or the newest recruit," says Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, the city's rank-and-file police union. "That's the way it should always be."
While other cops were taken off the job immediately after shooting someone, O'Dea was told not to come to work on May 24—almost exactly a month after the PPB's Professional Standards Division quietly began investigating his errant shot.
"Each of those is a little different from one another, and different still than the chief's reported incident," PPB spokesperson Sergeant Pete Simpson said when asked about O'Dea's treatment compared to other officers'. "But I don't know of any instances where a person who has shot a person, on- or off-duty, was not placed on administrative leave. Bear in mind that I can only go from memory."
To be clear, there is no rule mandating that officers must be placed on leave after shooting somebody. The city's administrative rules say bureau directors "may" put employees on leave for up to 60 days in the case of an investigation that could result in their being fired.
"The decision to place an employee on administrative leave is discretionary," says Portland Human Resources Director Anna Kanwit. "Placement is up to bureau directors, or if it involves a bureau director, then the decision is made by the commissioner in charge, in this case the mayor."
Mayor Charlie Hales, the city's police commissioner, didn't just buck convention by not ordering O'Dea off the job while everything got sorted out. He didn't even bother to let the public know it had occurred. Only after Willamette Week reported the shooting on May 20 did the mayor's office acknowledge it had known about the incident since April 25.
Hales' chief spokesperson, Sara Hottman, has said the mayor's office followed routine by not announcing the conduct of an off-duty cop who hadn't been arrested or charged with a crime. Even if that's true for some off-duty conduct, it hasn't been the case in off-duty shootings. And in no other incident that we could find did it take charges, or an arrest of the cop, for that officer to be placed on leave. In fact, O'Dea was allowed to report to work every day, keeping up appearances as if nothing had happened.
And there's another questionable facet to how the city handled news of O'Dea's shooting. Simpson says internal affairs was made aware of the incident on April 25, just like Hales. The bureau didn't launch an internal investigation until May 23.
While O'Dea freely admitted his role in the shooting to Hales—and presumably informed Crebs of it as well—no one bothered to tell Harney County investigators O'Dea was the shooter.
According to an incident report that surfaced last week, the Harney County Sheriff's Office had no indication O'Dea was the shooter until May 14, when a deputy learned it from Dempsey, the victim. A glassy-eyed O'Dea had claimed directly after the shooting that he was off opening a fresh drink when he heard his friend begin groaning as if he had been shot, the report says.
That's not what O'Dea told Dempsey.
"Mr. Dempsey informed me that his friend Mr. O'Dea called him after the incident and was very emotional and apologizing for shooting him," the report reads. "Mr. Dempsey said that is when he found out that Mr. O'Dea shot him."
Harney County immediately turned the investigation over to the Oregon State Police. The Oregon Department of Justice has since launched an investigation, as has the city's Independent Police Review.
But Harney County authorities would have learned of O'Dea's involvement a lot sooner if Portland cops had mentioned it. Asked about why they hadn't, Simpson responded only that he was unaware of any direct contact between the PPB and Harney County Sheriff's Office, other than a "courtesy email" he sent the office containing the statement he'd released to media when the shooting became public.
All of this has rankled those who have dealt with how Portland typically punishes their cops. Remember the incident we mentioned earlier where an off-duty cop shot a dog? That cop was John Hurlman, and he took a voluntary two-week leave following the 1997 shooting.
"What really gets my goat here, is that he kept this quiet for ONE MONTH!!" Hurlman's wife wrote on Facebook following the O'Dea shooting, according to the Oregonian. "If an officer had a 'negligent discharge' with a hunting rifle that endangered the life of a friend, he would have been pulled out of his assigned duty."
CORRECTION: This story has been altered to reflect that police didn't begin an investigation into the O'Dea shooting immediately, as we initially stated. The bureau learned of the incident on April 25, but didn't launch an investigation as required by agency directives until May 23. We regret the error.