At 6:38 am, 9-1-1 received a call that a middle-aged black man was wildly pacing the street and kicking trashcans. The caller told the police dispatcher that the man, Vernon Allen, was also waving a knife.
According to witnesses, the first responding officer approached Allen, who was standing outside the Cabaret strip club. The officer tried to calm Allen down, but instead Allen apparently grabbed the officer, putting him in a chokehold.
The officer quickly broke free and, almost simultaneously, two squad cars squealed onto the scene. As Allen lunged forward with the knife, three of the four officers fired six shots; all six bullets hit Allen.
So far, this police shooting--the fifth this year, two ending in deaths--has caused only murmurs, largely treated as an unfortunate byproduct of drugs, crime, and homelessness (Allen apparently was homeless; his last known address was a Washington state penitentiary). By the weekend, the story had almost completely slipped off the pages of the Oregonian and garnered little more than a mention on the evening TV news.
Yet the shooting raises important questions about past pledges for improved police training, about the local media's coverage of police activity, and about a pending bill in the state legislature that would open up Grand Jury testimony to the public.
Just over two years have passed since an officer shot Kendra James, an unarmed black motorist in North Portland. In that case, a rookie officer, Scott McCollister, killed a 21-year-old woman after a routine traffic stop. McCollister claimed he feared for his life when the woman tried to drive away. He attempted to stun James with a taser, but after fumbling the weapon, pulled his revolver and shot her in the back. James died an hour later.
Community members were incensed that the officers involved in the shooting were not questioned immediately following the shooting. Instead, the officers gathered at a nearby Appleby's. Many believe they used the time to iron out their stories.
In the wake of the James shooting, the African-American community hosted marches and demanded changes in policing protocols. Prominent leaders like JoAnn Bowman and Avel Gordly helped to form the Albina Ministerial Alliance, a community group that conducted its own investigation into the shooting and provided recommendations to the police bureau. One of the most forceful demands called for revamping the Grand Jury proceedings used to investigate police shootings.
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. (In the James shooting, Officer McCollister was excused from any wrongdoing.)
A year later, another black motorist was shot and killed. The victim, James Jahar Perez, failed to signal before making a left-hand turn. Within seconds of approaching Perez's car, the officers claim to have seen him reaching for a weapon. After shooting him, the police then tasered his dead body. (It was later revealed Perez was unarmed.)
Once again this shooting raised important questions about police training and protocols: Why did tasering follow the gunfire? How did a routine traffic stop turn deadly so quickly? Why did the officers simply not retreat (Perez was parked with his vehicle facing a building and his rear blocked by the squad car)? Those questions remain unanswered.
Although a public inquest was conducted (the first in more than a decade in Portland), it failed to investigate little more than whether or not the officers fired their guns. Again, both officers were excused from any wrongdoing.
But earlier this year, community demands for changing the Grand Jury proceedings finally gained traction when state senator Avel Gordly introduced Senate Bill 301; legislation that would open Grand Jury testimony to the public. That bill received public hearings in mid-March and, coincidentally, last Wednesday, just hours after Allen's shooting, the bill moved out of a subcommittee where it had been stalled.
Although S.B. 301 has broad-based support, the Portland police union has publicly stated its opposition to opening Grand Jury testimony to public scrutiny. In an interview with the Oregonian, Portland Police Association President Robert King said that opening Grand Jury testimony to the public would be counterproductive. "We then become second-guessed through this transparency," he explained.
A Grand Jury investigation into last week's police shooting was scheduled for this week.
A memorial and rally for Allen are planned Friday evening (Waterfront at SW Hawthorne, 7 pm).