FOR THE FOURTH time in nearly 20 years—maintaining a perfect record for the controversial Portland Police Association (PPA), but sparking new warnings about long simmering community outrage—a Portland police officer fired for the inappropriate use of deadly force has been told he ought to have his old job back.
On Friday, March 30, a state arbitrator ruled that Ron Frashour—the officer who fatally shot a distraught Aaron Campbell in the back in 2010—did what any "reasonable" police officer would have done and didn't deserve the dismissal handed to him later that year by Police Chief Mike Reese and Mayor Sam Adams ["Fire Frashour? Done," News, Nov 18, 2010].
Jane Wilkinson, in a ruling that relied heavily on civilian witnesses but also police training instructors, argued Frashour was justified in thinking Campbell was reaching for a weapon in his waistband when he fired the fatal shot from his AR-15 sniper rifle. Campbell, who wasn't armed, was actually reaching out in pain after another officer hit him with beanbag rounds.
"This was a very tragic case, one where the Monday-morning quarterback has the clear advantage when divining what went wrong," Wilkinson wrote in her 73-page decision (PDF).
The likelihood that an arbitrator would overturn Frashour's dismissal had been building for months. Although the city settled a federal lawsuit with Campbell's family for $1.2 million this February, two separate state agencies sided with Frashour in disputes with the city last year.
As the Mercury reported exclusively, the Oregon Employment Department disagreed with city officials that Frashour should be denied unemployment benefits ["The Check is In the Mail," News, Feb 16, 2011], and then the state agency that certifies cops in Oregon, the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, ruled Frashour should remain eligible for police work ["Almost Within Reach," News, March 3, 2011].
But whether and when Frashour winds up with his badge back remained a very open question as of Tuesday, April 3—and the issue might not be settled for several more months. In a first for Portland, Adams and Reese have vowed to challenge the arbitrator's ruling—despite a clause in the city's police union contract that calls any such decisions "binding."
Adams' office has asked the city attorney's office to research its options, with the dispute likely to head before the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB) and then, maybe, into the courts.
"It's uncharted territory for us," says Adams' spokeswoman, Caryn Brooks. She was speaking hours after a short news conference on Monday, April 3, in which Adams acknowledged the major hurdles looming over a challenge but also that "our principles" over the appropriate use of police force "are worth fighting for."
The ERB's chairwoman, Sue Rossiter, laid out one possible scenario for the Mercury. She said the city could choose to ignore the arbitrator's ruling, forcing the PPA to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the ERB that the city could then litigate all the way to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Another option could see the city directly appealing the ruling on narrow procedural grounds. PPA President Daryl Turner declined to discuss Adams' intentions with the Mercury.
Community members and police accountability advocates, meanwhile, will be watching closely.
At a massive rally on the front steps of city hall on Monday, April 3—punctuated by shouts of "justice" but also "murderer"—Dr. T. Allen Bethel of the Albina Ministerial Alliance (AMA) Coalition for Justice and Police Reform warned that some in the community might not be able to keep a lid on their anger.
The ruling "is a short fuse on a keg of powder that's about to explode," he said.
Police accountability advocate JoAnn Hardesty said that "if the City of Portland can't fix this, it's going to be a long, hot summer." And in what could be an interesting wild card, Occupy Portland also attended the rally and declared Frashour's reinstatement one of its issues, too.
The AMA has long sought to push the city into doing away with binding arbitration in police discipline cases—citing a long history of cop dismissals in Portland that always, inevitably, are overturned. Bethel, in an interview the next day, said his group has yet to decide precisely where it will press next—but he did say police training will loom large.
Wilkinson's ruling put heavy stock in testimony from bureau training instructors, all of whom directly contradicted Chief Reese and said Frashour did precisely as he was taught. She also listened to a police psychologist, Bill Lewinski, who earns a living by traveling from city to city and defending cops in shooting cases.
"They've got to do something," Bethel said. "There's a serious problem when you've got rank-and-file officers going against the chief and commissioner, saying it's one way when their superiors are saying it's not."
Asked at his press conference what he would do to prevent the same dynamic from playing out in a future arbitration, Mayor Adams said only that he remains committed to "continuous improvement."
Attorney Tom Steenson, who represented Campbell's family in the federal lawsuit, said the bureau has "lost control" of its members and union. He said it's not right that the bureau's teachers are part of the same union as their students and demanded a federal takeover of the bureau's training division.
"They're teaching officers they can use force any time, in any way, on anyone they want to," he said, "and they could get away with it."
PORTLAND'S TEFLON COPS
2006: Lieutenant Jeffrey Kaer fatally shoots Dennis Young, but wins his job back in 2008.
2003: Officer Scott McCollister fatally shoots Kendra James and is later suspended for six months. An arbitrator eventually orders him reinstated, with back pay.
1993: Officer Douglas Erickson shoots 22 bullets at Gerald F. Gratton Jr., claiming he thought Gratton might take hostages. He's fired—a first for a cop using deadly force—but then reinstated. "In a way I was sorry, because I had serious doubts he would be a good police officer," arbitrator Martin Henner told the Mercury in 2011. "If you train a police officer to do something, and he does it, you can't fire him for doing what he was trained to do."
1985: Officers Richard Montee and Paul Wickersham are fired for selling T-shirts that say "Don't Choke 'Em, Smoke 'Em." (They sell them on the same day as the funeral for a security guard, Lloyd "Tony" Stevenson, who'd been choked to death by another Portland cop.) Montee and Wickersham are reinstated but still suspended for six months.
1981: Officers Craig Ward and Jim Galloway, while off duty, decide to dump some dead opossums on the porch of a black-owned business. They are fired, and then reinstated—after a police-union-led protest march.
Sources: Portland Copwatch, Mercury reporting