THREE PORTLAND COPS shot and killed an emergency room patient outside Adventist Medical Center last Sunday, February 17—unloading their weapons only minutes after answering reports of an armed man wandering around in the hospital's parking lot.
The dead man was identified as Merle Hatch, a 50-year-old escaped federal prisoner with a history of drug problems and a bank robbery rap. An Adventist spokeswoman said Hatch had threatened to shoot an employee before bolting into a parking lot—though she didn't respond to a question about whether he actually showed a gun.
It's the first shooting by Portland officers since September—and the first fatal one since July. And the unfolding investigation will stand as the first real test of new Mayor Charlie Hales' promise of a "culture change" for a police bureau being sued by the feds over its use of force.
But as of Tuesday, February 19, officials were saying little else about what happened—besides identifying the three cops involved and giving a basic timeline that confirmed just how rapidly everything unfolded.
Asked if anyone had actually found a gun, or even a replica gun, police spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson said no further information about the shooting would come out until detectives finished their interviews. He also declined to confirm a front-page Oregonian headline that reported Hatch was definitively "armed."
After police shootings last year and in 2010, the bureau hardly waited to break similar news, trumpeting the discovery of replica handguns within hours. The departure in Hatch's case may be telling.
"I can only confirm the information that I released," Simpson told the Mercury, "which was that we responded to the report of an armed man."
Also significant: No one would comment on whether Hatch was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of his shooting. Adventist has an inpatient psychiatric facility with a 24-hour intake center.
Most of the people shot by Portland cops in recent years have either been battling addiction issues or enduring some kind of mental health crisis. The two often go hand in hand.
In an awful bit of irony, two of the cops who savaged James Chasse Jr. in 2006 were headed to Adventist when he died in the back of their patrol car ["The Tragic Legacy of James Chasse Jr." News, Feb 6]. A documentary about Chasse and the lies that followed his death, Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse, premiered in Portland just two days before Hatch was killed.
Hatch died close to 9:30 pm on Sunday—about the time neighbors at an apartment complex across the street from Adventist heard a burst of gunshots, then silence.
"I put my shoes on, ran out the door," Edward Dass said, "and then I heard someone say the 'suspect was down' about five minutes after."
The police bureau said several cops from nearby East Precinct showed up at 9:24 pm "on the report of someone in the courtyard armed with a black handgun." Later, 911 dispatchers heard that the man pointed a gun at a security vehicle.
Officers immediately tried to kickstart their crisis intervention planning—calling in mental health workers from Project Respond, asking for the bureau's airplane, bringing in police dogs, and putting medical personnel on notice. But it was for naught.
As more and more cops flooded in, three of them somehow "encountered" Hatch, yelled at him (AKA "gave him commands"), and then shot him until he fell. The cops did immediately manage to crawl over with a ballistic shield to Hatch's corpse—one bright spot after years of complaints that officers would let shooting victims lie on the ground for hours without anyone seeing if they needed help.
Once homicide detectives finish poring over what happened—standard practice any time cops use deadly force—Hatch's case will head to the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office and be reviewed by a grand jury.
The bureau on Monday, February 18, did at least identify the three officers who shot Hatch: Sergeant Nathan Voeller (12 years with the bureau), Officer Andrew Hearst (three years), and Officer Royce Curtiss (seven years).
Curtiss has previously been accused of racial profiling ["Racial Stop Gap," News, June 30, 2011]. Voeller, a defensive tactics instructor and an early recipient of crisis intervention training, was one of the cops who shot David Earl Hughes in 2006.
Voeller, as the Mercury noted on Blogtown, was prepared to publicly back Ron Frashour, the cop fired over the fatal 2010 shooting of Aaron Campbell. If a civil trial in the Campbell case had gone forward, Voeller would have testified that cops don't need to see a gun (Campbell was unarmed) if they think someone's going to shoot them.
As Voeller said in court papers: "They are trained they need to be preemptive."
— Nathan Gilles contributed to this report.