City settles Raymond Gwerder shooting: $500,000

From the Oregonian, November 9, 2007. Not available elsewhere online.

The city of Portland is set to pay a record $500,000 settlement in connection with a 2005 fatal shooting in which a 30-year-old college student was shot in the back by a Portland Police Bureau sniper following a 90-minute armed standoff.

Any settlement more than $5,000 must be approved by the City Council, and the matter is on next week’s council agenda. If approved, it will be the city’s largest payout in connection with a police shooting.

“There have been higher settlements where someone died in police custody, or in other police matters,” said Becky Chiao, with the city’s Risk Management Program, the city department that deals with suits against the city. “In terms of an actual police shooting, this is a record.”

Raymond Gwerder, who was suicidal, had threatened to shoot police if they came inside a Northeast Portland triplex. While outside the home, and on the phone with a police negotiator, Gwerder was shot by Officer Leo Besner, who was armed with a .308-caliber rifle.

Besner told investigators that he saw Gwerder appear to aim his gun as if “hunting” for something. He said he feared that if Gwerder went inside the triplex, he’d harm a mother and her two children in an adjoining unit. Yet several police supervisors told investigators that they would have preferred having Gwerder inside the home, rather than outside where officers could be his target.

A Multnomah County grand jury reviewed the police shooting and found no criminal wrongdoing by Besner. However, several of the grand jurors later said the police lacked an overall strategy and they wondered whether Gwerder would still be alive if it had been handled differently.

A police investigation revealed a breakdown in communication between members of the hostage negotiation team and members of the bureau’s Special Emergency Reaction Team who surrounded the home.

Mike Crebs
, a precinct commander in charge of police operations that day, told investigators later, “The shot just came outta nowhere . . . I thought we were talking to the guy.”

“It was a flawed police operation,” said attorney Tom Steenson, who represented Gwerder ‘s estate and filed the claim. “He was shot in the back at the same time he was cooperating with police.”

Steenson sued the city on behalf of the family, and an agreement was negotiated.

Steenson announced the settlement in a news release. That brought a response Thursday from Robert J. King, president of the Portland Police Association. King sent out his own release, saying that Steenson used his release to attack a “good and experienced” officer and to “presumably flaunt a settlement.”

In an interview, King said that Besner has been a member of SERT for eight years and undergone extensive training and participated in high-risk searches.

“He’s demonstrated restraint and professionalism,” King said. “He’d never been involved in a shooting before, and shot because he believed it was necessary to defend life.”

King said Besner was the only person able to observe Gwerder , who King said was pointing a gun and that it “was up and ready” to fire in a residential area. King said that Gwerder “at every step of the way” said he would kill police officers and “refused repeated direction to put the gun down and engage in dialogue.”

In a statement released by Steenson, a friend of Gwerder ‘s said that he was a “bright, young man who was just experiencing a moment in his life where he really needed some help.

“Ray had the kind of solid integrity where you could always trust him to do the right thing, no matter what,” said Molly Aleshire, who was also his roommate. “He was one of the most insightful and intuitive people I’ve ever known.”

Steenson said that Gwerder was heard to cry out in pain after being shot, but police failed to provide him with medical care, leaving him lying on the ground for 20 minutes and refusing to allow paramedics to treat him.

“The most important lesson for the city out of all this,” Steenson said, “is that steps need to be taken to have a better command structure and communication between people at a scene such as this.”

King said that Gwerder ‘s actions “made the outcome inevitable.”