- Police seem to shoot
more accurately when more than one officer is firing.
- In nine of 21 solo shootings
the officer missed the target entirely. Relatively few - five - of the
21 shootings were fatal.
- Police who fired when they
were alone also fired fewer shots than when other officers took part.
- The 21 lone officers fired 57
shots, 2.7, on average. The 22 who fired as part of a group shot 129
times, averaging 5.9.
Are Portland police shooting
too much? Twenty shots to kill a mental patient waving a pellet gun.
Thirty-six shots from submachine guns to kill a small-time drug dealer.
Sixteen shots to kill a drunken burglar who held a 12-year-old boy
hostage-and killing the boy in the process.
Police say those incidents are
an aberration. They say they really aren't shooting too much. They say
they shoot only when they have to and Portland has become much more
That may be. But an extended
study by the Oregonian suggests that while police may have been
justified in all those shootings, they are not well trained to use their
guns when the need arises and aren't well equipped to make gunfire truly
an option of last resort.
The Oregonian found;
Under Police Chief Richard
Walker and then Tom Potter, the bureau cancelled all formal training for
two years from mid-1989 to mid-1991. Bureau commanders- under pressure
to fight gangs, drug dealers and growing violence - decided the city
couldn't afford to take officers off the street to put them in
classrooms. As a result, officers went two years with no training in
firearms, police tactics and how to deal with combative subjects. Two
months after he became chief, Potter restored some training - 12 hours
of classes in community policing and cultural diversity. Full weeklong
training resumed last summer.
The Police Bureau provides
little or no special training to help officers deal with mentally
unstable people. It also provides little help for officers to control
fear when it becomes so over-powering that it warps their judgment or
distorts their senses when they have to shoot.
Portland police go 14 months
between firearms qualification tests - longer than allowed by any of the
major police departments queried by the Oregonian. Shortly after the
January 16 accidental shooting of 12-year-old Nathan Thomas, the bureau
said it would propose firearms qualification every six months, starting
The bureau's marksmanship
standards are low compared to many other cities. Phoenix and San Diego,
for instance, won't allow an officer on the street who fails to score at
least 84 and 85 points, respectively, in handgun qualifying tests.
Portland requires only 75 points on a comparable test. A February list
of the Police Bureau's gun qualifications shows that 218 officers,
including Chief potter, shot with such modest accuracy that they
wouldn't have been allowed to carry a gun in either of those cities.
Bureau firearms qualification
lists covering approximately the last two years showed that as many as
27 officers were on duty, carrying guns, although they had failed or had
not taken the required marksmanship tests. Assistant Chief Wayne Inman
acknowledges this happened and the bureau is now checking on it.
Police switched four years ago
to high-capacity semi-automatic handguns so they match the firepower of
drug dealers and gang members. Yet the people they shoot at are nearly
always what Potter calls the city's "walking wounded" - drug users,
drunks and the mentally ill.
The bureau's facilities for
firearms training are poor and likely to get worse. The city will soon
lose access to the outdoor training range at Camp Withycomb. Without it,
police will not be able to train in tactics or drill their "shoot/don't
shoot" skills. The indoor range, which can accommodate only three to
four officers at a time, is greatly restricted by the state because of
the amount of lead vapor in the air.
Money to replace the outdoor
range was cut from next year's budget by the city council, as was a
request for a $67,000 sophisticated computer simulation range that has
won praise by the FBI and other departments. Police officials weren't
aware of the budget cuts until recently and are now fighting to get them
In the last 22 years Portland
police have killed 31 people in the line of duty - nearly two-thirds of
those in the last seven years. But it was seven deaths in a 13-month
period ending this January that caused public concern. Already this year
Portland police have been involved in six shootings, the same number as
in all of 1991. The latest was a week ago when two policemen fired five
shots at a man holding a knife to his chest. The man survived.
Taken individually, the recent
shooting deaths were all ruled by grand juries as justifiable and by
police commanders as unavoidable.
Chief Potter believes the
number of shootings will grow as violence increases and his officers are
forced to deal with more cases involving the "walking wounded."
Taken as a whole, the shootings
do not appear to indicate an agency out of control. But the spate of
shootings do form a clear picture of a police department stressed by a
combination of limited resources, increasing violence and new demands.
It is a department that could be on a path to trouble.
The Police Bureau is not solely
to blame for its training shortcomings.
The bureau is under intense
pressure by politicians, citizens and the media to put more
crimefighters on the street. And given the choice of cops vs. improved
training, bureau commanders and City Hall chose more cops.
Portland police are trained to
fire their first two shots at the chest. If the suspect still is a
threat, the second two are to be aimed at the groin and, if the suspect
still is a threat, the final two to the face.
Sgt. Gary Crane, who manages
Portland's firing range, said police are always having to explain to
people why they don't shoot guns out of people's hands.
"That's Hollywood, that's not
reality," he said. "Nobody can shoot that well."
Each instance of deadly force
is an individual affair, unique in its details and hard for
non-participants to second-guess.
But the public and media began
voicing some concerns after:
- Two policemen shot 22 times
to kill Mari Lyn Sandoz, 21, as the mentally disturbed woman pointed a
pellet gun at them December 4, 1990. She was hit 20 times.
- Four members of the bureau's
Special Emergency Response Team fired 19 shots to kill Michael Lee
Henry, 19, as he held a bank teller hostage on April 13, 1991. He was
hit nine times.
- Three SERT members fired 36
shots to kill Leonard M. Renfrow, 47, a suspected drug dealer who they
said pointed a derringer as the officers served a search warrant in his
home May 16. He was hit 22 times.
- Three policemen fired 16
shots to kill Bryan French, 21, as he held Nathan Thomas hostage on
January 16 in Thomas' Laurelhurst home. French was hit 14 times; thomas
was accidentally hit twice in the head and also died.
It was after the Thomas
shooting that the police launched a study of all its shootings since
1988. One of the things the study looked at was the possible impact of
the higher-capacity semi-automatic handguns.
The bureau found that
two-thirds of the 29 shootings involved one to five shots, five cases
involved six to eight shots and five cases involved 16 to 36 shots.
Thirty-six shots were fired in the Renfrow incident because the three
SERT officers who shot used submachine guns. The shooting was over
But the bureau's numbers that
Potter says point to a pattern of restraint don't tell the whole story.
In seven of the 29 shootings,
officers fired as part of a group. In those group shootings the average
number of shots was 18. The 21 officers involved in the incidents fired
an average of more than six shots apiece. The average result was a
person hit by 12 bullets.
A comparison with four
similar-size police departments suggests, at least, that Portland police
are firing a high number of shots, and maybe more than most departments.
In Portland, there were eight
shootings during 1991 in which 15 officers fired a total of 79 shots.
The average per officer was 5.3 shots, and the average per incident was
Denver police reported in 1991
that nine officers fired 37 shots in six shootings - 4.1 shots per
officer and 6.2 per incident.
The Buffalo, N.Y., Police
Department reported two shootings in 1991 - two officers each firing one
Albuquerque's totals were 12
officers in eight shootings firing 25 shots - 2.1 shots per officer and
3.1 per incident.
Inman said there is no problem
with the semi-automatic handguns and the bureau will continue to support
The Thomas incident also
spurred the bureau to undertake an intensive internal examination of its
deadly force policies, its training and tactics, equipment and
personnel. That report is expected June 1, following a communitywide
forum on deadly force May 30.
Nationally, experts in use of
force say the new level of firepower in the hands of police must be
linked to better training to help officers use it wisely.
Although the Portland Police
Bureau has begun pouring more money into its training division, by all
accounts, the bureau has a major task ahead.
Training officers to make
intelligent, moral, and restrained decisions in less than a second when
someone is pointing a gun in their face is an enormous challenge, said
Charles A. Tracy, chairman of the Administration of Justice Department
at Portland State University.
William A. Geller, a
Chicago-based deadly force consultant for the Executive Research Forum,
"Going to (the new weapons)
without training both in how you handle the weapon and in judgment as to
how and when you use it is irresponsible," he said.
Geller - considered the
nation's top expert on deadly force - said he is not bothered by the
widespread use of semi-automatic weapons, per se, but by the potential
for tragedy in the hands of the inexperienced or improperly trained
"Most people seem to resolve
debate by saying that what's crucial isn't the weapon," geller said,
"but more the policies that govern the circumstances under which you can
shoot and the training as to how to shoot."
Portland's officers are
concerned about the shootings of the past 17 months and are demanding
that training, said Capt. Roy E. Kindrick, head of the bureau's training
"We've learned that officers
have to shoot to stay proficient. They learn confidence," he said. "But
we also need to develop skills to help officers go to cover; we need to
focus on other options rather than just draw and shoot."
"They're just as upset about
all these shootings as the public," Kindrick said.
Geller warns that over-focusing
on gun skills without addressing the other needs of the police could do
a lot more harm than good.
"You need an overall balance in
training," he said. "Training that emphasizes weapon proficiency to the
exclusion of violence-reduction skills, conflict management and so forth
can end up putting such fear in officers that they too quickly resort to
Geller's doubts as to whether
more marksmanship training would have helped the police avoid mishaps
such as the Thomas shooting are borne out by the bureau's own firearms
The officers in the Thomas
incident were, in fact, excellent marksmanship who had scored between 90
and 96 on their last tests.
But the three policemen who
shot were under such stress that none could recall hearing the others
shooting although they stood virtually shoulder to shoulder.
"No officer wants to shoot,"
says Bob Day, a North Precinct patrolman, flipping on his overhead
lights as he hurried to a call in his busy North Precinct district. "You
know you're going to get picked apart, you're going to get dissected and
hashed over for months by people who weren't there."
Day, 24, has never fired at
anybody with the .357 Magnum he wears on his hip, but there's a chance
now. The call is a tavern fight where somebody is whaling away with a
"If he doesn't drop it when we
roll up," the redheaded young officer forewarns, "you're probably gonna
see the gun come out." The man dropped the bat. Portland police draw
their guns frequently but seldom shoot.
More than one-fourth of the 238
Portland police officers who responded to a survey by the Oregonian said
they pointed guns at people at least once a week. A similar proportion
drew once or twice a month. Less than 10 percent said they never drew.
The Police Bureau doesn't keep
track of how often its officers draw and point their guns, but the
newspaper's survey indicates they do so at least 15,000 times a year.
For the most part, the police
pull their weapons as a precaution - making certain kinds of felony
arrests, or maybe entering a house with a search warrant.
More than half of the officers
in the survey said deadly force was directed against them within the
last five years. Most often, the weapon was a gun, either pointed or
Eighty-six percent said they
could have shot someone with full legal justification within the last
four years, but chose not to.
Decisions whether to shoot or
not are so complex, based so much on judgment and circumstances, that
most officers aren't sure themselves why they did some of the things
Gary Crane, the Police Bureau's
range sergeant, still can't believe he didn't shoot a man several years
ago who aimed a shotgun at him. "Something just told me I could get him
to put it down, and he did," Crane said. "I don't know if I made the
right call, or if I was just lucky."
Bob Wilson, a sergeant in the
Drugs and Vice Division who lost a kneecap in a gun battle with a
suspect several years ago, had a similar experience later when he
decided not to drop a guy aiming a rifle.
"Don't try to make logic out of
this," Wilson says, "because there isn't any."
The handgun of choice in the
Portland police Bureau is the semi-automatic. Seventy percent of
Portland police carry them.
"For officer safety, the
automatic with a large capacity magazine makes a lot of sense," said
Donald Van Blaricom, a former Bellevue, Washington, police chief and a
private consultant on law enforcement.
"With the high capacity
magazines, a policeman doesn't take time to reload after he shoots," Van
Blaricom said. He puts out a burst and whatever is in the way gets hit.
They tend to shoot until the target drops, and that has happened not
only in Portland but in every part of the country where they're using
The Police Bureau adopted two
general orders in 1988 that allowed officers to begin using the
semi-automatics, which hold from eight to 18 bullets.
The semi-automatic harnesses
the recoil caused by a shot to automatically reload and recock the
weapon. One bullet is fired for each pull of the trigger.
Semi-automatics were once
shunned by police as being unreliable and susceptible to jamming. But
they gained acceptance in the 1980s as the weapons improved and police
around the country called for a better gun to respond to what they saw
as greater danger on the job - especially the perceived danger from
gangs and their new propensity to arm themselves with semi-automatic or
It wasn't because the
semi-automatic were by their nature more deadly or because they could
shoot faster - technically, a revolver is actually the faster gun.
Instead, it was because the newer guns held more bullets - three times
as many in the case of the Glock - and can be reloaded quickly.
It is in a very real sense, a
gun for combat.
A problem of surprising
dimensions that continues to rattle in the closet of U.S. police
departments is the officer who finds it impossible to pull the trigger
regardless of circumstances. This is a different issue than a decision
not to shoot. It is rarely admitted, let alone faced.
"I know there are a lot of
officers in this department, and in other departments, who can't bring
themselves to the notion of having to use deadly force," says former
Deputy Chief Rob Aichele.
"So they'll find other ways to
resolve situations. Sometimes they'll turn out peacefully and sometimes
Aichele believes that anyone
who puts on a badge gives up the right to be a conscientious objector
"because deadly force comes with the territory."
Yet, Aichele, who once
supervised the Training Division, estimates "there's probably an easy 25
percent, and it could be as great as half of the people on the bureau
who couldn't bring themselves to use deadly force."
If this is, indeed, as
widespread a problem as Aichele believes, few Portland police are
willing to admit it.
Only 1.4 percent of the 236
officers who responded to the Oregonian's survey said they had failed to
shoot because they "just couldn't pull the trigger."
But 51 percent of the officers
polled said they had worked with someone in the last year or so who they
thought might be too hesitant to shoot in a deadly force situation.
Only 16 percent were worried
that the other officer might be too ready to shoot, while the others
cited poor marksmanship or other qualities they found undesirable.
Portland Police Chief Tom
Potter is quick to defend his officers - men and women who he says are
now being forced to deal with problems that everyone else has walked
He points to 125,000 calls a
year where Portland police are dispatched because of an immediate threat
to life. He points to 34,000 arrests a year. And he points to an average
of 7 shootings a year.
He likens police to a firewall.
It used to be that wall of police protected law-abiding citizens from
criminals. Now, more and more said Potter that firewall is "between
people I would classify as the walking wounded in our society - the
mentals, the chemically dependent people, there are literally thousands
of tragedies waiting to happen out there."
After years of getting by,
Potter said, the training division is getting needed money to not only
work on firearms but to train officers on a wider variety of skills to
implement the bureau's No.1 goal of community policing.
The Nathan Thomas shooting
"shook the bureau to its core," he said, "and reinforced the need for us
to move more quickly."
"You can go to any agency and
find problems in one area," he said.
"I think we're far superior to
any other police department in the United States in terms of our
relationship with the community. You have to look at all issues that are
facing the police, all of the training that's required to meet all of
those issues, and then determine whether the training is sufficient or
not or if there are reasons why they can't have more training."
©2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved. A Steve Casey design.