Family Questions Police Shooting

From The Oregonian, August 23, 1994

Shortly before police shot and killed Janet Marilyn Smith on Sunday, the mentally ill young woman stood alone outside her apartment, screaming for help.

One hand clutched at her beloved gray Siamese cat named Blue. In the other, Smith held a 6-inch-long knife. And she was screaming, as if wounded, “Help me! Help me!”

But when a neighbor tried to help, the 28-year-old woman yelled at him to get away. She started walking toward the nearby Gresham Fred Meyer store where she would die.

Police said that the woman refused to put down the knife even after being sprayed with Pepper Mace and that they had no choice but to shoot her after she lunged at three officers.

Police said she was aggressive and threatening. Smith’s family said she was a small, scared woman desperately looking for help.

They said she was stalked by a former boyfriend and was becoming increasingly paranoid. In the past week she called friends and family members asking for help. She complained her medication made her sick and was treated at Providence Medical Center four times in the last 10 days.

“I can’t see why on Earth they had to shoot her,” said her cousin, Sheryl Matilton of St. Helens. “They could’ve handcuffed her, taken her to a hospital, hit her with a billy club, a stun gun, something to hurt her, but they didn’t have to shoot her.”

Police fielded angry calls from the public Monday asking the same questions. Sgt. David Lerwick, spokesman for the department, said the officers did what they were trained to do and didn’t have time to use any other method of defense.

Lerwick said police are not trained to wound their attacker but to “stop the threat, to stop the advance.”

“What if he missed? She was within five feet, not standing still, charging the officer,” Lerwick said.

“Your target is normally the center of mass,” Lerwick said. “You want to make sure when you fire your weapon the bullet strikes its intended target. On a person, that’s the torso.”

Lerwick refused to reveal the officer’s name until Tuesday, saying the officer needed time to recover. The officer, an experienced member of the force, is on administrative leave while the Multnomah County district attorney’s office investigates the shooting. The last time a Gresham police officer fatally shot someone was 10 years ago.

Police arrived at the Fred Meyer at 2497 E. Burnside Road shortly after 1 p.m. to find Smith sitting in an aisle, holding her cat and her knife. Three of the five police officers walked toward Smith, asking her to drop her knife. Instead, she stood up and walked toward them.

When she ignored the officers’ warnings to stop, the officers sprayed Pepper Mace in her eyes. One officer shot when she lunged at them.

An autopsy showed Smith died from blood loss due to two gunshot wounds to the chest.

Janet Smith’s relatives gathered Monday at the apartment she shared with her grandmother. The Siamese cat slept on an open phone book in the dimly lit living room. A bottle of Tums and a pack of cigarettes lay next to a glass cup full of matches emblazoned with the Fred Meyer logo.

The family learned of the shooting by seeing a report on it on television.

“I called around everywhere. I wanted to go see her. I thought she was hurt,” her grandmother, Mary Smith, 73, said. “I called the police, the jail. She was nowhere. I began to think maybe she was dead.”

The family didn’t want to talk about her illness, or the medication she’d been taking since her early adulthood.

Janet Smith came to Portland in 1973 from Loleta, a small Northern California town 10 miles south of Eureka. A member of the Yurok American Indian tribe, she attended Lincoln High School in Portland but dropped out around the 10th grade. She’d worked at various clerk jobs around Portland, including a Fred Meyer store in North Portland.

She and her grandmother recently moved to Gresham from North Portland to find a quieter, safer life. But police were called to Janet Smith’s apartment three times the past two months, Lerwick said. But he said he didn’t know the reason for the visits.

Ironically, Matilton said she believes her cousin went to Fred Meyer to get help from police. She said police rescued her once when she was locked inside a house by her former boyfriend. That time they took her to Providence Medical Center.

“Maybe that’s why she wanted attention,” she said. “They’d rescued her from a bad situation, probably basically that’s what she wanted this time.”