Police tactics in standoff baffle jury

From The Oregonian, November 24, 2005. Not available elsewhere online.

“You’re not in trouble. We want you to get help. That’s why we’re here.”

— Hostage negotiator Rae Klein, trying to persuade Raymond Gwerder to put down his gun shortly before he was shot

Raymond Gwerder      November 12, 2005 - February 4, 1975

Raymond Gwerder November 12, 2005 - February 4, 1975

Several Multnomah County grand jurors who reviewed the police fatal shooting of an armed, suicidal man Nov. 4 said they were disturbed by a lack of communication among uniformed police, tactical officers and a hostage negotiating team.

Raymond Gwerder, drunk and despondent and looking through the sights of a handgun in his friend’s backyard, was on the phone making small talk with a police negotiator about his dog when a trained police sniper shot him in the back, jurors said.

Gwerder was opening the back sliding door and was about to go inside his friend’s home when a sniper fired a .308-caliber bullet into his left shoulder blade, they said. The jurors said the hostage negotiator, who was out of sight about two blocks away speaking to the man by phone, didn’t know that Gwerder was outside the Northeast Portland triplex. She was telling Gwerder to put his gun down and remain inside.

Meanwhile, a sniper with the Portland Police Bureau’s Special Emergency Reaction Team, was watching Gwerder from a home directly behind the triplex. He told investigators and jurors that he was worried that if Gwerder went back inside the triplex, he would harm a mother and her two children who hadn’t been evacuated from an adjoining unit.

The hostage negotiator was still on the phone with Gwerder, trying to establish a rapport with him by asking him about his dog. She did not realize police had shot Gwerder for at least 20 seconds. “Hello? Hello?” the negotiator kept asking. “Raymond, are you there?”

Juror Jerry Martin, a 68-year-old retiree, wondered whether the standoff could have ended differently. “I think if there had been better communication between all the officers involved, this might not have resulted in a gentleman being shot,” he said.

Juror Dan Arquilevich, 35, said, “There was an extreme lack of communication between the hostage negotiation team and SERT, and a glaring lack of overall strategy.”

The seven jurors shared their concerns with the Multnomah County district attorney’s office. The jury listened to testimony from noon to 9 p.m. last Thursday and deliberated for about 25 minutes before voting 6-1 to find no criminal wrongdoing by police.

“It was frankly highly frustrating to hear all the things that could have been done better to save this man’s life” Arquilevich said, “but in the end, we as jurors had a very narrow duty to determine if criminal charges were appropriate.”

The jury said Gwerder clearly made some very poor choices: Gwerder ‘s blood-alcohol level was .31, more than three times the legal limit for driving. His friends said he suffered from long-term depression and suspected he was trying to drink himself to death; police suspect he was trying to die from police gunfire.

The jurors praised the hostage negotiator’s efforts, having listened to a tape of her approximately six-minute phone conversation with Gwerder. But they said she wasn’t given enough time to work with him.

“We felt the hostage negotiator was great,” said juror Elizabeth Skorohodov, 34. “We just wished there was a way the SERT officer could have known, in real time, what was being said between her and the victim.”

Deputy District Attorney Ethan Knight, who presented the case to the grand jury, will be sharing the jury’s concerns with the Police Bureau, District Attorney Michael Schrunk said Wednesday. “They have work to do,” Schrunk said, referring to the police.

Police inquiry planned

Police Chief Derrick Foxworth said an internal investigation will examine officer communication, tactics and whether police followed bureau policy. But no one in the bureau would comment Wednesday about the jurors’ remarks.

The following account of what occurred is from jurors who heard nine hours of testimony from police, Gwerder ‘s friends and neighbors.

The incident began when Gwerder, 30, who was staying with a couple in their Northeast Portland triplex, called the wife at work. He said he had been drinking and found a .45-caliber Glock handgun in the couple’s bedroom. She tried to calm him down and offered to come get him, but when he refused to put down the gun, she decided to call 9-1-1 to get him some help.

She kept him on her cell phone while she dialed the emergency number from another phone about 2:15 p.m. The first uniformed officers to arrive at the triplex in the 1300 block of Northeast 118th Avenue saw Gwerder holding a gun, pacing in the backyard of the middle unit. Gwerder talked to other friends and family by cell phone, and he told them that if police came into his house, he’d shoot them.

A police officer trained in crisis intervention got Gwerder on the phone, but their conversation didn’t last long. The bureau called out its Special Emergency Reaction Team and Hostage Negotiation Team. As SERT officers were getting into position around the triplex, hostage negotiator Rae Klein got Gwerder on the phone.

Negotiation by phone

Sitting in a van at least one or two blocks away, she tried to persuade Gwerder to put down the gun. She was telling him police didn’t want anyone to get hurt: “You’re not in trouble. We want you to get help. That’s why we’re here.”

Gwerder lied to the hostage negotiator several times, claiming that he was inside the home, and that another person was with him. The hostage negotiator also testified to the grand jury that she thought Gwerder was inside the triplex and was unaware he was in the backyard.

“The hostage negotiator is basically talking blind. I didn’t get the sense she was getting regular updates from the field,” Arquilevich said.

Officer Leo Besner, the sniper who shot Gwerder, testified that he did not know that Gwerder claimed someone else was in the home with him, jurors said.

“You’ve got their SERT team, the hostage negotiators and the regular uniformed Portland police out there,” Martin said. “They all seemed to be on different radio frequencies and didn’t seem to be communicating.”

The Police Bureau said the different police teams do use different radio channels, but the supervisors of each team are responsible for sharing information and making sure it gets passed between their officers. The SERT lieutenant and the hostage negotiation team’s lieutenant are both with the precinct commander, who serves as incident commander, in a mobile command post, coordinating the police strategy, said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, the police spokesman.

Man fired a shot

Besner, who was standing at a window inside a house behind the triplex, saw Gwerder sitting in the backyard, aiming through the sights of his gun, appearing to be “hunting” for officers on the other side of a fence. About 3:53 p.m., Gwerder fired a shot, but it’s unclear where he was aiming. The bullet wasn’t found. Besner radioed to see whether officers were positioned in the yard north of where Gwerder was located but got no response.

At least seven minutes passed before Gwerder stood and headed back into the triplex with his gun. Besner testified that he felt compelled to shoot him because he thought Gwerder could fire shots through the wall of the unit and harm the mother and children next door.

After the shooting, police evacuated the woman and two children in the adjacent triplex unit through their garage. Some jurors said they thought police could have taken the family out much earlier.

Other SERT officers went into the woman’s unit to get a view of Gwerder . They saw him lying motionless in a pool of blood and his gun was about three feet away. A team supervisor ordered one of his officers to fire his Taser at Gwerder to make sure he was not a threat before they moved in closer.

The bullet fragmented inside Gwerder ‘s body and traveled through his chest. He was dead at the scene.