Caught Off Guard: Cops Knew Nicholas Davis Was Sick, Didn’t Expect an Attack

From the Portland Mercury, July 23, 2014

Within moments of encountering Nicholas Glendon Davis early June 12, it was clear to two Portland cops the man probably had a mental illness.

The wide-eyed 23-year-old was “spinning” between agitated and calm, Officer Robert Brown testified before a grand jury that would eventually clear him in the man’s death. Davis made reference to being Russian, and called Brown and another officer, Matthew Nilsen, “Nazis.”

But the officers and three witnesses who happened to be driving by when the interaction turned tragically fatal say the encounter on Southeast Portland’s Springwater Corridor appeared calm and under control—until it wasn’t.

Transcripts of the grand jury investigation into Davis’ death—released by Multnomah County prosecutors Friday, July 18—don’t offer much new information on the events that led Brown to shoot Davis in the heart. But that testimony does make clear that the officers knew they were dealing with a troubled young man, yet were caught off guard when Davis became a threat.

Brown and Nilsen were called to the Springwater near SE 104th around 6 am. A man named Loren Kurth told cops he’d been searching for scrap metal near Johnson Creek when Davis, who family and friends say lived off the trail, chased him away. Kurth left his bike behind and wanted it back. He called the cops (the Mercury first reported this version of events on July 2, after speaking with Kurth’s girlfriend, who also lives off the Springwater).

“He had real wide eyes,” Brown testified of Davis. “He said he was Russian, and that all Russians need to be under surveillance…. He seemed real jittery, looking around.”

Davis struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia from a young age, family and friends have told the Mercury. He spent years in the Oregon State Hospital, his mother says. He had medications, but hated how they made him feel. He’d been living near the Springwater, off and on, for years, a friend said [“Before the Crowbar,” News, June 18]. Some of that information would have been available to Brown when he ran Davis’ name through the police bureau’s records system.

The officer prides himself, he testified, on his ability to read people. But it took him by surprise when Davis lifted his shirt to reveal something metal—what the officer at first assumed was a gun. Both officers backed away, but Brown didn’t realize there was a guide wire behind him, attached to a utility pole. He fell backward.

By the time he looked up, Davis had a crowbar raised menacingly, witnesses say, though accounts differ on whether he approached Brown.

“He’s coming right up on me,” Brown testified. “And I know I shot twice.”