The City of Portland is likely to pay a record $500,000 to the family of Raymond Gwerder this week—a man shot in the back without warning by a police sniper while he was on the phone to a hostage negotiator in November 2005.
The news broke in a press release sent out last Thursday, November 8, by civil rights attorney Tom Steenson. The city council was slated to finalize the settlement via an emergency vote—which means no public discussion will take place—this Wednesday, November 14. It will be the biggest settlement ever paid out in an officer-involved shooting.
On November 4, 2005, Gwerder, 30, was "drunk and despondent," holding a handgun in the backyard of a friend's house where he had been staying on NE 118th, when a police officer trained in crisis intervention managed to get through to his cell phone. As Gwerder was talking with the negotiator, and about to go inside the house, he was fatally shot in the back without warning by police sniper Leo Besner.
Besner claimed his fatal shot was justified because of danger to Gwerder's neighbors, but Steenson argued the police had failed to evacuate nearby neighbors over the 90-minute period before the shooting. Evidence has also emerged that Gwerder was denied medical attention for over 20 minutes after being shot—an act that could have possibly saved him. Gwerder was also Tasered as he lay dying ["Left to Die?" News, July 12].
The commander on the scene that day, East Precinct Commander Mike Crebs, told investigators that when Besner shot Gwerder, "The shot just came outta nowhere, I thought we were talking to the guy."
Police union boss Robert King accused Steenson and the Gwerder family in the Oregonian newspaper last Friday, November 9, of "attacking a good and experienced officer," and of "flaunting" the settlement with their press release the day before.
King was also quoted by Oregonian reporter Tom Hallman Jr. saying Besner had never been involved in a shooting before—which is untrue. Besner was put on paid leave in 1999 following his involvement in the shooting of Robert Lynn Smith. He also shot an un-named man in July 1999, according to the city's Police Assessment Resource Center report on officer-involved shootings, which does not name victims.
King told the Mercury on Friday, November 9, Hallman had misquoted him. "What I said," King clarified, "was that Leo has never been involved in a shooting while he's been on the SERT [Special Emergency Response Team] team. Leo's been on the team for eight years and has never been involved in a shooting. But somehow that got changed to 'He's never been involved in a shooting.'"
King said he had talked to Hallman and that he had agreed to print a clarification or correction as soon as possible, but the Oregonian's website still featured the alleged inaccuracy on Monday, November 12, and Hallman did not return a call for comment by press time.
Previous settlements involving Besner have already left city taxpayers with settlement tabs totaling about $1 million for the cases in which he has been involved.
"We remain gravely concerned that after so many complaints about Besner and my brother's death at his hands, Besner still not only roams the streets of Portland, but with a badge, an arsenal, and apparently the unending support of his department," said Gwerder's sister, Bobbie Jo Clark, in a statement through Steenson.
"We can only hope and pray that no other person will suffer the loss of a loved one in the future due to the city's failure to terminate Officer Besner," she added.
Mayor Tom Potter deferred comment on the settlement to City Attorney Linda Meng, who also declined comment.