SHELTER Jason Petersen was arrested for sleeping in this SE Hawthorne alcove on Feb 1, less than three weeks before he was killed. Doug Brown

Last week, a 32-year-old man named Jason Petersen was shot and killed in East Portland.

Police say Petersen, who was homeless and wrestling with schizophrenia, confronted Charlie Win Chan, owner of Golden Key Insurance, on February 20. He was upset Chan had thrown away some belongings Petersen had left in front of the SE 82nd business.

After an altercation in Chan’s workplace, police say the insurance agent met Petersen in the parking lot armed with a gun. Chan fired a single, fatal shot. He has not been arrested or charged with a crime.

The incident has emerged as another sad tale in the city’s struggles to shelter a growing homeless population. But it also highlights ongoing shortcomings in connecting vulnerable people with mental health services: Despite efforts from Petersen’s family and very recent police contacts that might have steered him toward treatment, the man was on the streets the day he died.

Petersen’s death has also spurred frustration.

“Why haven’t the police arrested this man for murder?” Jason Renaud, of the Mental Health Association of Portland, says of Chan. “I think it’s largely because this is a person with mental illness. I can’t think of another time when someone was shot in cold blood, who was not armed and was not committing a crime, that charges weren’t filed.”

Petersen’s younger brother, Justin, has other questions.

He describes his family’s fruitless efforts to get Petersen treatment, and wants to know why it was so hard to get his sibling help.

“We’ve called judges and police officers,” says Justin Petersen. “We’ve tried to call [other] people and they said they didn’t think that he needed to come in that badly.”

It was that way for years, Justin Petersen says, as his brother slowly withdrew from the joyful disposition of his youth and wound up on the streets. The only help, he said, came after his brother was arrested in Idaho, committed to an institution, and diagnosed with mental illness. For a time afterward, Jason Petersen was living with family in Tigard, and holding down a steady job.

“He was doing good for a long time and showed signs of being the old Jason,” Justin Petersen says.

But when the cycle lapsed last year and Petersen wound up back on the streets, local authorities weren’t as keen on getting him before health professionals. Less than three weeks before the encounter that ended his life, Petersen had a run-in with cops that could have led to a hospital stay.

The man had been sleeping for weeks in alcoves of various businesses on SE Hawthorne, according to a police report obtained by the Mercury. He wore multiple layers against the winter weather, and carried two bags containing his possessions. He became angry—to the point of threats—when people asked him to move along.

“He was biligerant [sic], verbally abusive calling me a fucking bitch, cunt, fat, to leave him the fuck alone... and on and on and on,” Portland Police Officer Kerri Ottoman wrote of a January 31 encounter with Petersen, who was sleeping in an alcove outside of Crossroads Trading Company, near SE Hawthorne and 37th.

It wasn’t the first time Ottoman had seen Petersen—she’d warned him against sleeping in the doorway of a nearby Fred Meyer three weeks earlier—and it wouldn’t be the last. On February 1, Ottoman and another officer once again rousted the man from the Crossroads doorway, grabbing him the moment he “exposed his arms” and putting him to the back of a police cruiser.

(Shown a picture, employees of area businesses said they didn’t specifically recall Petersen, noting that homeless people frequently bed down on that stretch of Hawthorne. Neither did the owner of the building where Petersen was arrested, who called police on Petersen and told the Mercury his death was a “bummer.”)

Ottoman would have had a choice after the arrest: Would the uncooperative and hostile Petersen be sent to jail, or would his behavior merit a hold at a local hospital, which might have been able to reconnect him with the medication he’d ceased using?

The officer opted for jail. Prosecutors charged Petersen with second-degree criminal trespass and he was released. He never showed up for court, as he hadn’t for past cases.

Justin Petersen, who had grown accustomed to tracking his brother’s whereabouts by searching the internet for new mug shots, caught wind of the arrest too late.

“By the time we saw it, he’d already been let go,” he says. “If they would have called us, we would have gone down there to pick him up. They just don’t even care.”

Since his brother’s death, Justin Petersen has considered ways to raise awareness about what he believes are Portland’s lacking resources. He’d like to start a foundation in Jason Petersen’s name to benefit mental health care.

In the meantime, the city has a new resource. On February 2, one day after Jason Petersen was arrested on Hawthorne, the Unity Center for Behavioral Health opened near the Rose Quarter. With 102 inpatient beds and psychiatric emergency services, the center is a new frontline in Portland’s struggle to address mental illness.

The Unity Center isn’t accepting transfers directly from law enforcement for weeks yet, according to spokesperson Amber Shoebridge. But it is currently accepting transfers from local hospitals, meaning if Ottoman had deemed Petersen fit for a mental health hold, it’s possible he could have ended up there.

“Our care navigators create and coordinate ongoing care plans for continuing treatment, with the goal that every individual walks out the door with a recovery plan already in motion,” the center’s website reads. 

Portland police spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson tells the Mercury officers struggle to juggle their options for addressing people with mental illness. “There are certainly no shortage of encounters just like that in a given day,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of options [for help] that are long-term.”

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That’s something Renaud, of the Mental Health Association, agrees with, though he says the focus should be on Chan’s fatal shot.

“What should have happened is irrelevant—this happens every day,” says Renaud, of what he says are the region’s insufficient support services. “We know how to do this better. We choose not to do it better.”

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