For the third time this year, a Portlander with a history of mental illness has met an untimely death in a hail of police gunfire.
The death of 25-year-old African American Keaton Otis last Wednesday, May 12—just hours after Mayor Sam Adams took over the police bureau and appointed Mike Reese as the new chief—put the shaken-up police bureau to the test.
Though the mayor and chief promise a new, transparent ethos at the bureau, community advocates are skeptical that anything except the names of those in charge has changed.
Otis’ death occurred when a traffic stop near Lloyd Center turned into a heated confrontation. Otis was driving near Lloyd Center at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, when for some reason he attracted the attention of the Hotspot Enforcement Action Team (HEAT)—a police squad that patrols the area looking for gang violence.
Otis made several un-signaled turns, say officers, and sped away when HEAT tried to pull him over. When officers boxed him in with two police cars on NE 6th and Halsey, Otis stopped at the curb and, according to police and a witness, began shouting obscenities at the officers who approached his car. The officers then Tasered him twice, but according to their account the Tasers did not stop Otis from reaching into the glove compartment, pulling out a gun, and shooting Officer Christopher Burley in both legs.
Three fellow officers “returned fire,” killing Otis.
Christina Lais happened to be smoking a cigarette on her front porch when the incident occurred on the street outside her house. She caught the entire encounter in a grim video via her iPhone.
“The cops Tasered him a ton and he was shouting and screaming back,” Lais wrote to the Mercury. “Then one shot was fired and then a whole shit-ton of shots were fired. ”
Burley was quickly sent to Legacy Emanuel Hospital, where he is expected to make a full recovery. Otis’ body, meanwhile, lay on the sidewalk for several hours while Mayor Sam Adams and Chief Mike Reese checked out the scene.
It was Reese’s first day on the job: Mayor Adams had just appointed him chief six hours earlier, after the mayor announced he was firing Chief Rosie Sizer, taking over the police bureau from Commissioner Dan Saltzman, and embarking on a promised new era of transparency and improved community relations.
“I can certainly say that my first day as chief of police was eventful,” summed up Chief Reese on Thursday morning, May 13. Reese said he was grateful the officers on the scene were still alive.
“I’m proud of their actions and their response,” he continued.
“This was a heartbreaking scene to see: a young Portlander dead on one of our sidewalks,” said Mayor Adams at the press conference, adding that he was not passing judgment on the officers.
“This shouldn’t happen in my city, this shouldn’t happen in Portland,” he said, promising that the investigation of the shooting would be as transparent as possible.
The Albina Ministerial Alliance, an influential group of black spiritual leaders who Adams met with soon after the shooting, called a press conference on Monday, May 17, to demand a “transparent, swift, and fair” investigation of Otis’ shooting.
“We have a growing problem in the Portland Police Bureau that won’t go away,” said the Reverend Doctor LeRoy Haynes. Referencing the extreme delay the police had in investigating the in-custody death of James Chasse, Haynes added: “Let’s hope this isn’t another three-year process.”
Jimmy Jimenez, an 18-year-old high school student from East Portland, knew Otis well.
“He was a calm, loving person,” said the skinny teen. Jimenez said he didn’t know why Otis would have been carrying a gun. “He always told me not to mess with guns. Either you kill someone or get killed.”
Though Jimenez said that Otis was not involved in any drug or gang activity, on his MySpace, Jimenez and a friend pledged to “smoke a blunt” in memory of Otis.
Otis’ parents released a statement later in the week mourning their son’s death and stating he had a “mood disorder.” In February, Portland police officers fatally shot Aaron Campbell and shot and killed homeless man Jack Collins in March, both of whom also had a history of mental illness. [“The Life and Death of Jack Dale Collins,” News, April 1]
At a memorial service for Collins, coincidentally scheduled for this week at Saint Francis Church, Pastor Valerie Chapman spoke to a small group of mourners lining the church’s wooden pews.
“We are gathered here as a diverse community motivated to see that people who struggle find help,” she said, “rather than an untimely end to their lives.”