Merle Mikal Hatch was holding a busted, stolen black telephone handset—eight inches long and two inches wide—when he ran at a pack of Portland cops he’d been swearing at and goading from 80 yards away. He clearly wasn’t in his right mind. And he didn’t have a gun.
But Hatch never got any closer than 40 or so feet, dropping when those three officers opened fire outside Adventist Medical Center on Sunday, February 17.
The story of Hatch’s final moments—Portland’s first police shooting of 2013—came out last Wednesday, February 20, during a carefully programmed press conference. The cops released a cell phone video, police radio audio, and surveillance camera stills to help fill in the picture of a death that happened just 12 minutes after the East Precinct first received calls about Hatch.
But, of note, police still won’t say how many shots were fired, what Hatch was doing in Adventist’s emergency room, or whether the cops who shot him had even thought about using less-lethal weapons to subdue a man who kept calling them from behind an SUV to “come play.” Those things will wait for a grand jury hearing expected in the next several days.
“They intentionally kept their distance,” Police Chief Mike Reese said, flanked at one point by his boss, Mayor Charlie Hales, and newly promoted Assistant Chief Donna Henderson. “The situation unfolded very quickly.”
The implied storyline, without knowing why Hatch was a patient at Adventist, was “suicide by cop.” Photos show Hatch, with a black object in his waistband, confronting a security guard. In the cell phone video, captured by a hospital neighbor leaning outside a window, Hatch can be heard shouting various incendiary things at the cops he spotted:
“I’m gonna take hostages, motherfucker. You stupid motherfucker.” “You’re making it fucking hard for me and you.” “You want some? You wanna play? Come on.”
Finally, he takes off, announcing: “Okay. I’m gonna come to you. I’m coming to you, pig. Let’s go. Let’s go.” As he raced closer, the officers didn’t budge. Hatch starts counting while the officers bark out “stop” and “hands up.” By the time Hatch bellows “THREE,” there’s a loud burst of gunfire followed by one more shot at the very end.
The police audio repeatedly describes Hatch’s broken phone headset as a “weapon” and “gun,” even warning after he fell that “the weapon is just a few inches from his right hand.” But Henderson wouldn’t say for sure, citing the grand jury process, whether the officers clearly saw him clutching it.
“We’re very concerned the police shot somebody who was holding a piece of plastic in their hands,” says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. “Maybe the police could have used less-lethal weapons if he was charging at them.”
Handelman, later in the week, offered to produce flashcards for the police bureau illustrating the difference between real weapons and simulated weapons—drawing from several police shootings in recent years in which men were shot while holding things like an X-Acto knife. On Monday, February 25, he said Reese had not taken him up on the offer.
The bureau also trumpeted something it didn’t know when cops shot Hatch: that he was a federal fugitive with a long record who likely robbed two local banks in the days before he died.
Handelman was reminded of officers’ attempts to cover the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr., when witnesses and others were told of drug charges that proved false.
“They didn’t know any of that stuff when they shot him,” Handelman says. “They’re trying to smear his character so that when a grand jury is considering whether police acted lawfully they’ll say, ‘Look. This is a bad guy.'”
The bureau did say it could find no history of mental illness for Hatch. But it argued that medical privacy laws prevent it from saying why he was at Adventist or exactly how long he’d been there before he threatened a guard and ran outside.
The Mental Health Association of Portland grimly notes that most people killed by police, historically, are somehow impaired—suffering from untreated addiction or a brain injury or mental illness.
“These deaths are rare but predictable and are largely avoidable” with better police training, recruiting, and tactics, it said in a statement. “‘Suicide by cop’ is not an accident.”