SAYING SORRY, this time, wasn't so hard.
In a rare move, and one with potentially costly legal implications, Police Chief Mike Reese and Mayor Sam Adams both apologized on behalf of a veteran police officer who mistakenly loaded live rounds into a beanbag shotgun that he then fired at a 20-year-old mentally ill man—a mix-up that could have left the man dead.
"I want to be clear about this," a somber Reese said during a news conference Friday, July 1. "Using lethal rounds in less-lethal situations is a terrible mistake. We don't know how it occurred, but we know it should not happen. It is not a part of our training protocol."
Adams, who took over as police commissioner in May 2010 and named Reese as chief when he did—used similarly blunt language.
"I'd like to apologize to the person who was injured by this mistake," Adams said. "I praise good work by our bureau, but I also said we'd need to be more forthcoming about when we make mistakes."
As of Tuesday, July 5, police had yet to release more information about the June 30 shooting—the fourth time a Portland officer fired a live round at someone, inadvertently or not, in 2011. In two of those shootings, no one was hit. In another, a 67-year-old homeless man, Tom Higginbotham, was killed.
The shooting is Portland's 10th overall since January 2010, and the ninth involving someone mentally ill—a spike so troubling the US Department of Justice is investigating how Portland police officers use force.
Dane Reister, a Portland cop of 15 years who last made headlines when he cited a journalist merely for filming him in 2008, was placed on administrative leave. The man he shot, William Kyle Monroe of Bremerton, Washington, was listed in fair condition Monday, July 4, still recovering from wounds he suffered when five buckshot pellets struck his hip.
The Oregonian, citing Washington court records, says Monroe has struggled with mental illness since at least 2010. Monroe's relatives have not returned messages from the Mercury seeking comment.
Police said 911 callers reported Monroe menacing children at Southwest Portland's Lair Hill Park and that Monroe also had a pocketknife. When cops caught up with him outside Caro Amico, an Italian restaurant near SW Naito Parkway and Barbur Boulevard, he reportedly wouldn't listen, and tried to flee, prompting Reister to fire what he thought were beanbag rounds. Reister, instead, fired four buckshot rounds and ejected one more from his weapon's chamber.
Only after Monroe was shot, police said, did officers realize he was seriously injured. Police have not said whether Monroe threatened them with his knife.
"It's such an obvious, inexcusable mistake that there's no room for any justification of it," something that could wind up costing the city big bucks in court, said one attorney familiar with use-of-force cases who asked not to be named. "But there is some difference with Adams, at this point, and the chief, being willing to admit some wrongs."
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch says he can't remember the last time Portland police brass spoke so proactively—especially in light of what could be a lawsuit.
"Saying you're sorry automatically admits there's something wrong," he said.
Police, meanwhile, have offered precious few details about the mix-up, promising an investigation but also pledging to build the error into future training programs.
At Friday's news conference, Training Commander Bob Day showed off the differences between a less-lethal shotgun, covered in orange plastic and marked "LESS LETHAL," and a regular black shotgun. He also brought in the different rounds the guns fire—lethal red and blue shells, and clear yellow shells that contain sock-like beanbag pouches.
Only 220 officers out of nearly 1,000 are trained to use the bureau's 115 beanbag shotguns. Reister was first certified in 2002, officials said, and was re-tested three times a year. The guns are kept at precinct headquarters and checked out by officers as needed. Reister's shotgun, clearly marked as less-lethal, was the only one at the scene, Reese said.
Day said officers who use less-lethal ammo are trained not to mix it with regular ammo. They also are trained to make sure the gun is empty upon checkout and to make the same inspection when they check it in. They are taught to load the shotguns in their cruisers at the start of a shift.
Asked whether Reister could have seen or felt a difference between the two kinds of rounds after firing them once, let alone the next three times, Day said that was theoretically possible. The live rounds kick harder, and there's a difference between the spray of buckshot vs. the sock of the beanbag. But Day also said that in the fog of an encounter, detecting that difference isn't necessarily a "realistic expectation."
Tom Archambault, a Florida-based police consultant who specializes in less-lethal weaponry, says ammo mix-ups have happened before, usually in high-stress situations. But he also says they're rare—and totally avoidable. He teaches police agencies to have two officers, not just one, check whether less-lethal guns are loaded, and unloaded, properly—something Portland should consider changing.
"So you never make a mistake," he said. "It's a training issue."