Illustration by Jon Sperry

WITH SHARP WORDS for the Portland Police Bureau over its handling of their son's death by police rifle last January, the family of Aaron Campbell filed a federal lawsuit last week against the city, the cop who gunned him down, and three other officers present when he died.

The Mercury has learned the wrongful-death suit, filed in Multnomah County on Wednesday, November 3, comes just two weeks before Police Chief Mike Reese and Mayor Sam Adams are expected to announce a final decision on discipline in the case.

Campbell was killed outside his Northeast Portland home on January 29. He was believed to be suicidal and carrying a gun, but emerged unarmed from his apartment only to be fired at with a beanbag shotgun. When Campbell flinched, reaching to where he was hit, Officer Ron Frashour shot him with an AR-15 rifle.

A grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing, but it did rip the police bureau over its training and use of force—especially Officer Ryan Lewton's decision to fire the beanbag rounds.

The case echoes other high-profile officer-involved deaths involving unarmed, mentally ill men, and Campbell's family is being represented by the same attorney, Tom Steenson, who won a $1.6 million settlement from Portland over the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr.

"We have watched the grand jury and Police Use of Force Review Board actions unfold," Campbell's parents, Marva and John Davis, said in a statement. "From observing these events, it has become clear that a lawsuit is the most effective way to make public all of the facts."

Neither the mayor's office nor the police bureau would comment on the lawsuit. Steenson also declined to comment, pointing only to the complaint.

The grim timeline of Campbell's shooting, as laid out in the legal paperwork, reads as a devastating indictment not only of Frashour for shooting an unarmed Campbell with an assault rifle, but also of the police bureau itself.

The complaint alleges that Lewton fired without reason. It also accuses Sergeants Liani Reyna and John Birkinbine, in charge at the scene, of failing to call in tactical officers and negotiators and take other steps to deal with Campbell safely—even though Campbell had been communicating with another officer when he emerged from his apartment.

While Frashour is reportedly facing dismissal, the other three are said to be facing only suspension—a possibility advocates have decried.

The complaint also takes issue with the police bureau's oversight and training procedures—particularly those concerning the use of excessive force and the safe handling of someone who might be distraught or mentally ill. Frashour, it notes, had been the subject of previous complaints.

"As such," the complaint says, "that history constitutes an official practice of Portland and its police bureau to support, condone, encourage, acquiesce in and ratify the use of excessive force, including deadly force."

Police reform advocates, especially those who are the most outspoken over the bureau's astonishingly high number of fatal run-ins with the mentally ill, have long charged that the bureau's culture is as much to blame as heavy-handed officers.   

"They set up a situation where a machine gun was brought out," Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association told the Mercury back in September. "[Frashour] does not point that thing without a lot of people thinking that was a good idea."