But even then the jurors agreed that Officer Scott McCollister had done nothing wrong in the shooting death of Kendra James.
The verdict from last week has left the James family empty-handed, unable to pursue any further legal recourse. However, while McCollister had previously been excused from any criminal wrongdoing by a Grand Jury, James' death has not been without impact, and the shooting has put into play several powerful changes within the police bureau--measures that could prevent future shootings and bring about more accountability for officers involved in questionable in-custody deaths.
In 2003, just months after the James shooting, the Police Accountability Review Commission (PARC), a LA-based non-profit, released a searing report about the Portland Police Bureau's shortcomings. Succinctly, the report says the bureau has a chronic "failure to learn from its mistakes," including a disgraceful record of questionable shootings and in-custody deaths. Yet, over the years, those deaths have done little to change policies; instead, they come off as bad, reoccurring dreams.
But the James shooting has been different, offering at least some hope that it will force the police bureau to adopt new policies. And, while "policy changes" may seem like a bland exchange for a flesh-and-blood life, they are an important legacy.
For one, the James shooting effectively brought an end to the unpopular two-year reign of police chief Mark Kroeker, who ended up botching attempts at disciplining McCollister. Kroeker suspended the rookie officer for six months--a punishment seen as too lenient by community members and too severe by the police union.
As a result, then-mayor Vera Katz had the political, please-all-sides opportunity to can Kroeker, which also made naming Derrick Foxworth as the new chief nearly undeniable. An African American who grew up in North Portland, Foxworth had been on the short-list as a potential chief for nearly a decade.
The changes stemming from Foxworth's tenure have so far been wide-reaching (and long overdue). He has implemented many of the recommendations from the PARC report, pushing for more officer training and changing how shootings are investigated. One of the main criticisms in the James shooting is that the three officers at the scene were allowed to meet afterwards and, as some have suggested, corroborate their stories to protect McCollister. In subsequent shootings, Foxworth has insisted that the officers must be separated until after questioning.
There have also been more direct policy changes in response to James' death. Under the current rules, a Grand Jury determines whether an officer should face an indictment, criminal charges, or further investigation. Those proceedings are conducted behind closed doors and the records are sealed. No Portland officer has ever been indicted by a Grand Jury--a fact that many police critics believe is the result of the elusive nature of these proceedings.
This spring, state senator Avel Gordly (D-Portland) has spearheaded an effort to change that policy--namely, in the form of SB301, which would open up the proceeding to public scrutiny. According to a spokesperson for the Attorney General's office, there is a good chance this bill will receive a favorable vote before the session ends in July.
Another criticism raised about the James investigation was that cops are allowed to hide behind a state law that states an officer is justified in using deadly force when he fears for his life. McCollister claimed he feared for his life when James tried to drive away, and testified he was worried about being pulled underneath the car.
But now, there is a change afoot. Under proposed policy changes, officers would no longer be protected if they, in part, create the dangerous situation. Those policies could take effect later this summer.