Portland Officer Leo Besner, who has cost the city at least $852,000 in tort claims or jury awards since 2003, is among five officers to be promoted to sergeant on Thursday despite lingering questions regarding his fitness as an officer.
Bobbie Jo Foster, sister of a man shot in the back by Besner while on the phone with police negotiators, and others have written to the mayor and chief in recent weeks, urging them to rethink the promotion.
Foster’s brother, Raymond Gwerder, died when shot by Besner in November 2005. Among those joining Foster in expressing concern are Jessie Cornett, Gwerder’s best friend and former city council candidate, and Portland Copwatch.
“Besner remains a danger to the very public he is sworn to protect,” Foster wrote Nov. 30, and cited her brother’s case, as well as other cases in which she argues Besner demonstrated tactics unsuitable for a rank-and-file cop.
“I would like to encourage you and the Police Chief to send a clear message to the public that Besner’s brand of violence will not be tolerated much less rewarded.”
Regardless, Chief Mike Reese said Monday Besner will be among five officers handed a sergeant’s badge Thursday. The bureau already has promoted six officers off the current sergeant’s promotional list, and Besner is next, having ranked seventh on a written exam and oral interview. The chief has the discretion to pass over an officer, but has chosen not to, he said.
“We have a clear-cut promotional process. Officer Besner did very well in that process. Whenever we deviate from that process, we end up as an organization getting ourselves into trouble,” Reese said Monday. “This is a civil service process. We’re not going to deviate from that unless there’s a justifiable reason to do so.”
The chief said Besner has been an acting sergeant at North Precinct for months, and previously at Southeast Precinct. His commanders said he was doing “exceptionally good work,” Reese said.
The chief also said he didn’t find anything in Besner’s disciplinary record that gave him pause. He said he considered Besner’s history of tort claims and costly jury awards, but they didn’t sway him.
“Certainly, officers get involved in controversial incidents and sometimes it’s the nature of the incident itself, and sometimes officers get blamed for things that are outside their control,” Reese said. “We get sued frequently, unfortunately. Tort cases aren’t necessarily an indication whether we’re doing a good job or not.”
The chief said Besner’s shooting of Gwerder — which cost the city $500,000 — fell within policy, yet there was a significant breakdown in communication between the hostage negotiation team and the Special Emergency Reaction Team. Besner was a sniper on the SERT team but is no longer.
Among other incidents: In September 2009, a Multnomah County jury awarded three men $175,000 in damages for the way Portland police officers — one of whom was Besner — treated them in a downtown parking lot. The three men described 40 minutes of terror in which they were pulled from a car at gunpoint while officers searched the vehicle, before being released without charges.
One of the plaintiffs testified that Besner punched his groin twice as police checked to see if a handgun one of the men was carrying was stolen, even after the man with the gun told police he was “carrying” and showed them his concealed handgun license. Besner said he acted based on experience with shootings downtown involving suspects who got into fights after clubs closed, then retrieved guns from their cars.
The city also paid out $140,000 in 2003 after Besner and another officer questioned and threw to the pavement a 15-year-old girl who, while waiting for a bus home from school in Old Town, reached into her friend’s pants pocket to remove a soda bottle.
“In several of those incidents, Besner wasn’t the sole person on scene,” Reese said. Besner told The Oregonian last year that he was more likely to be involved in claims because he has worked in high vice areas and actively goes after suspects.
Cornett, Gwerder’s best friend, praised Reese for calling him back on Monday to discuss the shooting, but he’s still disappointed about the promotion.
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch drew a parallel to Officer Ronald Frashour.
Frashour was recently fired after he had fatally shot Aaron Campbell in the back in another case of poor police communication. Earlier, in August 2008, Frashour intentionally drove into a silver Honda to stop what he thought was a reckless motorist, injuring the driver, but had failed to verify it was the suspect’s car — a red Honda with a different plate. And in 2005, he used a Taser on a man videotaping police action.
“Considering that Officer Ronald Frashour was just fired after three inappropriate uses of force — it’s amazing that Besner continues to patrol our streets, much less that the Bureau would consider promoting him,” Handelman said.