IN THE LAST year, no case has demanded the attentions of Portland’s civilian police oversight office like the Larry O’Dea shooting.
The Independent Police Review (IPR) assigned two of its seven investigators to piece together the morning in April 2016 when O’Dea, the city’s former police chief, mistakenly shot a friend during a camping trip, and the various actions (and inactions) that followed.
And now, we finally know a bit about how the investigation shook out. Last week, the Mercury broke the news that both Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland Human Resources Director Anna Kanwit had found O’Dea violated three city rules after the shooting.
O’Dea brought “reproach and discredit” to the bureau and city by not being more forthright about the incident, they found, and lied to city investigators about what he told his top adjutants at the police bureau about the matter.
“If you were still employed by the police bureau,” Wheeler wrote in a memo to O’Dea dated July 6, “I would terminate your employment.”
Taken one way, the outcome doesn’t much matter. O’Dea retired under a cloud in June 2016, as both an internal city review and criminal investigation played out. While his violations will go into the former chief’s personnel file from nearly three decades at the city, it’s unclear that will hamper him going forward.
Still, the imprint of the O’Dea shooting lingers. As Portland prepares to welcome a new police chief in October, fallout from the case has raised questions of a cover-up, and soured the relationship between the police bureau and the independent office assigned to investigate its officers.
“We had the chief shoot someone and we didn’t have a city investigation for a month,” Constantin Severe, director of the IPR, tells the Mercury. “There have been a lot of consequences that have flowed from that. There are some of these consequences that are going to be with us for a long time.”
O’Dea was camping with friends in remote Harney County on April 21, 2016 when the shooting occurred. The party was hoping to kill ground squirrels that morning, but an errant shot from the chief’s .22-caliber rifle struck his old friend Robert Dempsey.
The authorities were called, and a Harney County deputy’s report suggested that O’Dea appeared intoxicated at the scene, something he has denied. O’Dea told the deputy that he thought Dempsey must have mistakenly shot himself while holstering a pistol. He made no mention of the fact that he was Portland’s police chief, and he went home without being questioned further.
By the time the following Monday rolled around, O’Dea was willing to cop to his involvement. Records show he alerted Mayor Charlie Hales to the incident, and that he then explained what happened in a routine meeting with his four assistant chiefs.
According to a memo Kanwit sent to Wheeler in June of this year—heavily redacted for public consumption—O’Dea left a distinct impression on his assistants that the matter was being handled via proper channels and investigations were under way.
Mike Crebs, then an assistant chief, told investigators he assumed a criminal inquiry was happening. It wasn’t.
Most of the assistants also believed O’Dea had informed the bureau’s Professional Standards Division, which investigates cases of police misconduct, by the time he met with them. He wouldn’t inform Professional Standards Captain Derek Rodrigues about the shooting until after the meeting.
“The overall impression from the investigation is that O’Dea allowed certain assumptions to be made but that he took no action to ensure that important and critical information was shared,” Kanwit wrote.
The result of that obfuscation? A criminal inquiry into O’Dea’s involvement didn’t begin until mid-May 2016, when the Harney County Sheriff’s Office finally learned O’Dea had shot Dempsey (via an interview with Dempsey himself).
More outrageous, neither PPB staff nor Hales’ office bothered to mention the incident to IPR, the appropriate office to investigate misconduct by the police chief. IPR learned of the shooting via a report by Willamette Week on May 20, 2016, nearly a full month after it occurred.
“Multiple IPR staff met with multiple people in the police bureau and this just never came up,” says Severe. “It is confounding. It definitely had an effect on the relationship between the police bureau and IPR.”
As the Mercury noted in a story at the time, O’Dea appears to be the only Portland cop in recent memory who was involved in an off-duty shooting and not immediately placed on leave.
The silence around his gaffe is especially conspicuous given something Kanwit noted in her memo to Wheeler: On April 25, 2016, the same day O’Dea was misleading people about the status of investigations into his own mistake, an on-call Portland cop named Daniel Chastain was arrested for crashing a city-owned vehicle while driving drunk.
“O’Dea had insisted that information about the arrest of an officer for driving under the influence be made public,” Kanwit wrote.
O’Dea was ultimately indicted in Harney County. Following an investigation, a grand jury there found probable cause to charge him with negligent wounding, a misdemeanor. But due to a deal struck with Dempsey, his friend and victim, the case was dismissed and partly blotted from existence (it does not appear in an online database).
Though he’s clear of criminal consequences, it’s still possible O’Dea’s numerous breaches of city policy—which also include lying to human resources and internal affairs investigators looking into whether he properly reported the complaints of a subordinate—could affect his prospects.
Kanwit tells the Mercury that she’d consider releasing the former chief’s personnel file to prospective employers. The state’s Department of Safety Standards and Training (DPSST), which is responsible for the licensure of law enforcement officers, is also looking into O’Dea’s conduct.
“If the chief is found to violate the moral fitness standards of the board it could result in the revocation of his certifications,” says DPSST Investigator Kristen Hibberds. The agency is waiting on more information from the City of Portland before making a conclusion.
In the meantime, questions remain as to why no one told IPR that the police chief had shot someone. Much of that information might come to light when the PPB issues findings in IPR’s investigation of Rodrigues, the professional standards captain who learned of the shooting four days after it occurred. That investigation ended in February|
O’Dea collects an annual pension of $176,229.72.