"I've got a shotgun right here, inches from my face, and I scream, 'Oh shit, gun,' and start to retreat," says Sergeant Scott Westerman. "I'm 10 to 15 feet away when he looks out at me, starts to turn the gun around—that was a serious 'oh shit' moment—and I fired, and he ended up dying on his doorstep."
By this point in our conversation, it's clear that Westerman, who took over as the new president of the Portland Police Association last Saturday, November 1, is no stranger to the challenges faced by his fellow officers on the street. A cop here in Portland since 1991, Westerman has shot and killed two suspects in the line of duty, both of whom, he says, had shown "signs of going downhill" psychologically in the days before their encounters with him.
In this particular instance, which happened in 2000, the suspect had started a fight with a stranger in Hillsdale, days earlier. He then threatened a cable guy with his shotgun in retaliation for trying to cut his service off. The other suspect had called 911 in 1996, claiming she had been poisoned, only to turn around and shoot a paramedic and then attempt to shoot Westerman. He shot her first.
"I wrestled with her for the gun for what felt to me like a minute and a half, two minutes," he says. "But it turned out to be a matter of seconds. The first thing her boyfriend said when he found out was 'I bet she pulled that gun on them, didn't she.'"
For Westerman, both cases are examples of how officers are often called to intercede in dangerous situations where society's other safety nets have failed. He is pleased that the bureau has instituted crisis intervention training (CIT) to help officers better deal with those experiencing psychological breakdowns—but he's also skeptical.
"I feel sorry for the first CIT officer to get involved in a shooting," he says. "I think the public has this expectation that it's going to solve things, but there's nothing in the [James] Chasse incident that CIT training would have helped. And there's nothing in my two, either. There are circumstances beyond our control where the use of force is just necessary."
Unlike his notoriously crabby predecessor Robert King, Westerman—who is still wearing braces after he knocked his two front teeth out while chasing a suspect in December 2006—has an affable demeanor that softens his no-nonsense talk. He says he wants to re-engage Portland's "silent majority" who still support the police, for example, and that he is looking forward to working with new Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman, saying the two have a "natural respect for each other." But affable or not, there's no doubt he's just as focused on fighting for the interests of his fellow officers as King was.
Over the next four years, Westerman is looking forward to renegotiating the cops' contract with the city in 2009, hoping to include pay jumps for officers after seven, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years, instead of the existing five-year pay plateau. He says it's necessary, so that officers from around Oregon are more attracted to working in Portland. He wants to make changes to the requirements that force officers to work back-to-back shifts without sleeping when the city has required them to alter their schedule to attend training or show up for a trial. Most controversially, he also wants to challenge the city's Use-of-Force Review Board.
"The [union] contract says an officer will be disciplined in a manner less likely to be embarrassing to the officer," he says. "But we have this board where an officer is called in front of citizens and other officers to justify their actions. That's a contract violation, and for those officers who've been through it, it's horrendous, it's demeaning, and it's embarrassing."
That's a fight even King didn't wage. Perhaps ambitious, more than affable, is the appropriate word for Westerman's new tenure. It will be interesting indeed, to watch as it unfolds.