By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner
Around 10:30 p.m. on August 14, Michael Justin Evans became the latest casualty in a years-long series of bloody encounters between Portland-area police and persons with mental illness or addiction.
Evans, 23, was killed by one of the two Gladstone police officers dispatched to the home he shared with his grandmother, Judie K. Reich, in the 300 block of West Fairfield Street, after reports that Evans was tearing the residence apart. Soon after their arrival, either Officer Steve Mixson or Officer Christopher Spore fired multiple rounds at Evans, who police say was armed with a knife. Witnesses said they heard four gunshots.
Evans’ father, who was nearby, heard the shots and hurried to the scene, where he saw Michael’s body on the front lawn.
He started screaming. “The cops shot my son! The cops shot my son!”
To Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, it was grimly predictable.
Renaud has been cataloguing deaths at the hands of Portland-area police (see elsewhere on this site for a list, plus background information).
Early on in the process, Renaud recognized a pattern: Since at least the early 1980s, in 170+ documented cases, virtually without exception, the people who are shot by police (fatally or nonfatally) are those with a mental illness, an addiction problem, or both.
The latest death is no exception.
Michael Evans struggled with mental illness and substance abuse. His short life included trouble with the law, suicide attempts and erratic behavior. There were also attempts to get help: he joined AA at age 14. Those who knew him say he could be scary. But overall, friends remember him as a nice kid.
One of Michael’s friends, Jim Reynolds, told The Oregonian the cops knew Evans’ history, and he wonders why they didn’t take it into account.
“I don’t know why they had to shoot him four times,” said Reynolds. “They knew he was a mentally ill kid.”
The overkill of shooting four times — or continuing to shoot a person who is already dead; or going straight to lethal force when the situation could be handled other ways; or shooting a person who is unarmed, or who is surrendering — has, unfortunately, become a familiar part of police response to people with mental illness and addictions.
Aaron Campbell was shot in the back, unarmed, as he tried to surrender. Keaton Otis was shot so many times that another officer arriving on the scene thought it sounded “like World War III.” Jack Collins was shot and killed as he shuffled forward in a daze, holding a knife he had been using to harm himself. Anthony McDowell was shot dead as he came out of his house in a “surrender” position, his rifle held over his head. Thomas Higginbotham was coming out the door, holding a knife, but with a blood alcohol content so high it’s difficult to imagine him wielding it — but police didn’t wait to find out. James Chasse was just standing on the street, not committing a crime or suspected of one; even so, police confronted him, chased him, knocked him down, and while he lay on the sidewalk, they kicked him, Tasered him, and beat him so badly he died soon after, in the back of a patrol car.
Those are a just a few.
Renaud points out that when officer-involved shootings involve exclusively persons with mental illnesses and/or addictions, these are people with disabilities — a federally protected class.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year launched an investigation into whether there is a pattern of conduct on the part of Portland police that violates the civil rights of persons with a mental illness.
For Michael Justin Evans, dead before he had much of a chance to live, it hardly matters. Or you could say it was the ultimate civil rights violation.
Officers Mixson and Spore are on administrative leave while the case is investigated.
And Dean Evans mourns his son.