POLICE REPORT URGES CHANGES

From the Oregonian, June 27, 1992 – not available elsewhere online

The Portland Police Bureau should make sweeping changes in the way it trains officers to handle firearms, potentially fatal confrontations and mentally disturbed people, a new study recommends.

Portland Mayor Bud Clark

Portland Mayor Bud Clark

The study comes in response to the accidental death of a 12-year-old hostage killed Jan. 16 in a storm of police gunfire meant for his troubled and suicidal captor. The killing of Nathan Thomas followed five other fatal police shootings the previous 13 months. Four of those each involved 16 to 36 shots.


But “none of the killings,” Chief Tom Potter wrote in the report, “was more tragic” than Thomas’ death.

“We will live with that knowledge for the rest of our lives,” Potter said in the report’s cover letter to Mayor Bud Clark.

While the report casts no blame, the recommendations clearly indicate that police training — especially firearms training — suffered substantially the past two years. During that time the majority of Portland officers started carrying high-capacity semiautomatic pistols and increasingly were drawn into shootings with deranged or drunken people.

The police failure to protect Thomas shook the bureau to its core, spawning a review of 31 police shootings since 1988 and a deep look at problems with police training.

From mid-1989 to mid-1991, there was no formal training for police because bureau commanders elected to keep officers on the street to fight gangs and drug dealers, rather than send them to class to hone their skills. Training resumed in late 1991, but the emphasis was on such things as sensitivity and human diversity and not on basics like firearms skills.

“A very small percentage of the officers’ activities involve the use of the firearm,” wrote Assistant Chief Wayne R. Inman. “But the consequences of the application of deadly force are so severe that a substantial portion of the training emphasis must be on . . . the law, policies, procedures, tactics and supervision involving the use of firearms.”

Some policies OK

The report concludes there’s no need to change the bureau’s basic policy outlining when an officer can and can’t shoot. It also stresses that police are not out of control. Every police shooting was justified under the state laws and the bureau’s policy and only in the case of the Thomas boy did the bureau fail at its primary mission — to protect human life.

But what Potter and Inman conclude is that the bureau needs more — substantially more and different types of firearms training, more training to help deal with disturbed people — and more money.

Some of the recommendations in the report, such as buying an electronic firing range and building a new outdoor range, were planned before Thomas’ death. But those were cut from the bureau’s budget in April, then reinstated a month later.

Other recommendations — such as training to shoot through glass — were made directly out of failures during the seige inside Thomas’s home. There, two officers outside fired their pistols through a window at his hostage-taker, Bryan T. French, 20. The brief standoff with French occurred when it was dark. And police were unable to calm or negotiate with the erratic French, who was drunk, suicidal and held a 12-inch butcher knife tightly to Thomas’ throat.

When three officers inside the house fired on French at close range, they shot 16 times. Fourteen bullets hit French; two hit Thomas.

Not only did the public wonder why the officers had to shoot, but they also asked why so many times.

The high number of shots fired at French was not unique.

In December 1990, two policemen fired 22 times to kill a mentally disturbed woman who pointed a pellet gun at them in a suicide attempt. In April 1991, four members of the Special Emergency Reaction Team fired 19 times and killed a hostage-taker who wanted to die at the hands of police. In May 1991, three SERT members fired 36 times and killed a suspected drug dealer who they said pointed a derringer at them as they served a search warrant. The man was hit 22 times.

The police study said 10 of the suspects in the 31 shootings — including French — appeared to be emotionally disturbed and wanted police to kill them.

Parents’ recommendations

As part of their review, police said they talked numerous times Thomas’ parents, Martha McMurry and Dr. Greg Thomas. The parents also have critiqued the shooting and their recommendations are included in the report.

They specifically asked police:

    *To improve officers’ communication and negotiation skills, especially with the mentally ill or drug or alcohol abusers;
    *To better train officers about when to use deadly force in hostage situations;
    *To review how its special response and hostage negotiation teams are used. Neither was called to Thomas’ house.
    *And, to have shootings reviewed by people outside the bureau.

Police seemed to agree with most of their recommendations — but refuted the need for an outside panel review or public oversight of shootings, saying civilians lacked the technical expertise to deal with such issues.

In a separate after-action report, Capt. Bob Brooks of East Precinct said what officers faced in Thomas’ house was a situation “impossible to win,” a scenario that would have been disregardful in police training as unrealistic and absurd.

But he recommended “greatly improved” firearms training for all officers.

The officers involved in the incident did exactly what they were trained to do, Brooks wrote, and the shooting was appropriate.

Their actions and judgment were “as efficient, caring and reasoned as circumstances allowed,” he concluded. “Their shooting however fell short of perfection — and perfection is that standard in real life and death situations.”

Police lack some skills

In the report, Potter said the bureau’s deadly force training has not given officers the skills to meet trends emerging throughout the country, particularly how to handle emotionally disturbed people, people under the influence of alcohol or drugs and people bent on suicide in a provoked police shooting.

What the chief recommends to fill that deficit are five-hour classes and field exercises over the next three years, classes that would include teaching street officers how to better negotiate with hostage-takers. The bureau has designed a course that could begin in the fall.

The bureau also will continue its plan to increase communication skills training for officers.

Over the next six to eight months, the training division also will study ways officers can fire a minimum number of shots and still ensure officer safety. With the bureau’s use of semiautomatic pistols and its deadly force policy to shoot until a threat no longer exists, “the number of shots fired before a suspect can react to being shot may be increasing,” Inman wrote.

Officers’ firearms proficiency also needs to improve.

Until earlier this year, officers had to score at least 75 percent on firearms tests every 14 months to be qualified to carry a weapon, a requirement among the most lax in the nation. ow, however, the bureau requires qualification every six months.

Friday’s report, however, recommends that as of Sept. 1 officers take firearms tests three times a year — in January, May and September — have night training and train outdoors at least once a year. The qualifying score would remain 75 percent, but the test should include firing in a kneeling position and with the gun supported.

Each officer will be required to shoot a 50-round course twice — double what is now required. To pass, an officer must shoot 75 percent or better the first time.

The most significant change has to do with what happens when police fail on the firing range. If an officer doesn’t pass the first time but does the second, he or she could carry a weapon, but would be required to take remedial training and qualify on the first go-around within 30 days.

Those who flunk on the range in two straight attempts would be put on administrative status and not allowed to carry a gun until they were retrained and could qualify.

Under the old system, police could retake the test until they passed with a 75 percent score, then return to their jobs on the street.

Also under the new policy, the target will be redesigned to make qualifying more difficult.

The bureau also recommended training more officers in the use of a shotgun and requiring that any officer who carries a shotgun will be equipped with solid slugs, in addition to 00 buckshot. The solid shotgun slug is essentially a large non-rifled bullet and can pass through glass, wood or even cars without being deflected. Such a round is commonly used by the FBI and conceivably could have let officers kill French and leave the boy unharmed when French was fired upon from outside the house.

Keep the semiautomatics

Inman’s report also recommends that police keep using high-capacity semi-automatic pistols, saying they are necessary “considering the escalating level of violence and prevalence of high capacity firearms by criminal predators, drug dealers and mentally disturbed persons.”

Nowhere in Inman’s report, however, is there any indication that Portland police are actually facing such a high powered threat with any regularity. Other agencies, notably the New York City police, have resisted changing to semiautomatics like the popular 9mm Glock in the belief that they require greater skills than those possessed by the average officer and that their 17 to 19-round capacity makes them inappropriate for use in big cities.

In 19 police shooting incidents studied by the Police Bureau, officers faced people armed with semi-automatics only three times and never faced someone with a fully automatic weapon. The most common weapons used against an officer who shot were cars, knives and revolvers — in that order.

To help improve shooting skills, Potter has for months advocated buying an electronic firing range called Firearms Training System. The laser video disc-big screen system depicts different shooting situations and helps teach proper judgment, whether to shoot and how to better control the number of shots.

The reports states that city commissioners recently reinstated $67,000 for the system and another $160,000 to build an outdoor firing range at a rock quarry northwest the city. The outdoor range will replace a military one at Camp Withycombe that will close next year.

Money for the training system and firing range had been cut from the bureau budget earlier this year.

Still, the report said, the department lacks $40,000 for pistol and shotgun ammunition needed to meet the increased training recommendations, and $10,000 for a pop-up target system the study recommends buying. Money for that equipment is critical in efforts to increase weapons proficiency, and the bureau should quickly find it, the report concluded.

Also recommended for change is the way the bureau reviews shootings.

Change review system

Now, the commander of the precinct or division or other unit involved in a shooting is responsible for reviewing the incident, regardless of the magnitude or complexity of the shooting.

Most of the time, that works. Many incidents are routine and a captain is adequately experienced to analyze it.

In reviewing extraordinary incidents, however, improvements can be made, the report states.

Many law enforcement agencies now use an internal team of experts to review deadly force incidents. The ad hoc panels dissect and examine all aspects of the shootings and suggest changes in police procedures, training and equipment.

The report suggests the Portland police adopt a two-tiered approach to shootings. Routine incidents would continue to be reviewed by the commander of the officers’ involved. “Exceptional incidents,” such as fatal shootings, would be looked at by a team of police with particular expertise.

Many of the recommendations and conclusions made in Potter’s report mirror conclusions reached by The Oregonian after a four-month study of the use of deadly force by Portland police. The newspaper’s report, published in April, also concluded that police training was woefully inadequate, particularly in the area of teaching firearms skills.

The newspaper report also noted that some officers flunked the annual range test outright, yet were allowed to keep working and carrying guns on the street.

The newspaper report also was critical of decisions by City Hall to cut money from the bureau budget for an outdoor firing range and for the sophisticated “shoot/don’t shoot” laser training system. Money for both was reinstated in the bureau’s budget after the series was published.