A Multnomah County Grand Jury has cleared two Portland State University (PSU) officers of criminal wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of Jason Washington.
Washington, 45-year-old African American Navy veteran, was shot outside an off-campus bar in the early hours of July 29 after trying to break up a fight, according to bystanders. While attempting to intervene, Washington’s personal handgun allegedly fell out of his belt holster onto the sidewalk. When a pair of PSU officers saw Washington reach down to retrieve his weapon, they shot him. Washington died on the scene.
The grand jury decision, called a "not true bill," means jurors believe both Officer James Dewey and Officer Shawn McKenzie acted lawfully "in self-defense and/or defense of a third person," by shooting Washington.
Washington is the first person to die at the hands of a PSU police officer since campus officers began carrying firearms in 2015. His death sparked protest among many in the PSU community—both students and faculty—who had long fought the university's decision to arm its police force.
"With completion of the Portland Police Bureau investigation, we are now moving forward with separate reviews of the shooting and campus security by independent experts," wrote PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi in a media statement sent shortly after the verdict was announced. "The security review will result in recommendations to enhance safety policies and procedures, including the issues around an armed campus police force."
According to Shoureshi, that review process will be be conducted two out-of-state investigative contractors. The OIR Group—an independent police and government oversight firm—will investigate the shooting, relying on the same information the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) presented before the grand jury.
The purpose, Shoureshi said, is for the sake of Portland State community and the board. "We want to have an independent assessment of the whole incident, and begin to see what else we should be modifying," he said in an afternoon press conference.
Another firm called Margolis Healy will conduct another review that "will serve as a road map" for updating campus safety policies and procedures. That includes reevaluating the PSU Board of Trustees' decision to arm campus police officers four years ago. Shoureshi says he currently "has no stance" on the decision to arm campus police.
The public will be able to comment on these changes at the upcoming October 4 PSU Board of Trustees meeting and in public forums held by Margolis Healy later in the fall.
Today's verdict was the result of a two-day grand jury hearing. Like all Multnomah County grand jury trials, the transcript will be made public after ten days, assuming that neither officer submits a protective order requesting to keep the documents private. Shoureshi said both officers, who have been on paid administrative leave since July 29, will soon return to work, but "focus on office work."
Update 4:45 pm:
Washington's family has responded to the verdict in a statement sent through their attorney.
"Although my family and I are disappointed the PSU officers will not face criminal charges, we appreciate the hard work of those serving on the grand jury," said Michelle Washington, Jason's widow. "We want those responsible for the death of my husband to be held accountable. We will always remember and love Jason and know he was needlessly killed while attempting to keep the peace."
Multnomah County Commissioner and city council candidate Loretta Smith has issued a statement in support of Jason Washington's family. Smith is calling for PSU to disarm its police force.
"Jason was a husband, a father, a brother and a friend to many. He served his country honorably in the military. His death was a tragic loss for our community. As the grand jury returned the decision not to indict, I must once again call on Portland State University to reconsider their decision to arm campus police.
At a time when black and brown men continue to be a target for law enforcement, it's critical that we arm our police with more than just guns. We must train those sworn to protect us with racial sensitivity and implicit bias training. We must focus on ways to deescalate.
I renew my pledge to make sure we have better trained policing at the City with an emphasis on a community policing model. Portland can do better."
Smith's opponent in the November council race and former NAACP president Jo Ann Hardesty also called for the disarmament of PSU officers in her response to the verdict:
"When the grand jury process clears police once again for killing a community member, no one — especially communities of color — can believe that if they had taken the time to ask police, they would know they were helping not exacerbating the situation.
This process is predictable and consistent when police shoot and kill community members.
Now I look forward to President Rahmat Shoureshi keeping his promise to conduct his own independent investigation and to engage the PSU community in making improvements to the PSU police force (including but not limited to disarming them) so that the community and PSU students and faculty can have one place in the city of Portland where they are not fearful of being killed by someone who has sworn to protect and serve."
Representatives with PSU Student Union (PSUSU) called the verdict "deeply unjust."
"Jason Washington was simply an innocent civilian breaking up a fight, and given this it is evident to us that he was a victim of racial profiling from PSU police," write PSUSU in a Facebook post. "This is why we do not, and have never wanted armed police officers on PSU’s campus." The union will hold a rally on Monday, September 24 at the PSU Park Blocks to protest Washington's death.