Rest in peace, Keaton Otis

by Jenny Westberg

Keaton Otis was just 25 years old when he died on May 12, shot by police after a routine traffic stop in Northeast Portland.

He was the third victim of a police shooting in Portland this year. In the latest tragedy, Officer Christopher Burley was wounded. Thankfully, he is expected to return to work next week. Keaton Otis was not so fortunate.

Otis had a mental illness. So did the other two people killed by police in the first half of 2010. So did most of the individuals who have died at the hands of Portland police over the last several years.

Portland Tragedies Mount

Otis’s death came only a day after the city agreed to pay $1.6 million to the family of James Chasse, a Portland man with a diagnosis of schizophrenia who was beaten to death by police in 2006. It came less than a week before a memorial service for Jack Dale Collins, who also lived with mental health challenges and was shot to death by police on March 22. It was just months after Aaron Campbell was shot in the back by police responding to a crisis call. And it followed a series of similar deaths, including those of Deontae Keller, Richard “Dickie” Dow, Jose Meija Poot, Kendra James, and James Jahar Perez.

Some Portlanders were stunned. “We lost another? So soon?”

Others think it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

Traffic Stop Turns Deadly

On May 12 around 6:20 p.m., gang-enforcement officers headed out after a break to patrol the streets. Officer Ryan Foote spotted Keaton Otis driving a silver Toyota Corolla on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He noticed that Otis was a young African American man, wearing a hoodie and slouched in the driver’s seat.

Otis had not broken any laws at that point, but Foote thought he looked “kind of” like a gangster and decided to check his license plates – even over the objection of his partner, Officer James Defrain, who asked, “Are you seriously going to run that plate?”

From that point things went crashing downhill.

Escalating Response

Officers saw Otis changing lanes without signaling, and they turned on their lights, sirens and air horns. Otis, however, did not immediately pull over. Police Chief Mike Reese later said this “heightened officers’ concern.”

The situation escalated when Otis twice pulled over, then drove away again. Police called for cover and four police cars boxed in Otis’ vehicle. Officers ordered Otis out of the car, but he became angry, swearing at them. Police suspected – correctly, it turned out – that he had a weapon.

Officers grabbed at Otis, clamped his wrist in a pain-compliance hold, and fired their Tasers and stun guns. Otis, however, managed to remove a gun from his glove compartment, and shot Officer Burley between the legs. Police opened fire. They kept shooting, firing so many rounds that another officer said it “sounded like World War III.” They shot 32 times. Twenty-three of the bullets hit their mark.

Parents Were Desperate

Keaton’s mother and stepfather, Felesia and Joseph Otis, told detectives their son was diagnosed with a mood disorder, but had stopped taking his medication. They tried and failed to get their son treatment. In desperation, they even turned to extremes, trying to have Keaton committed to the hospital.

Will Hall, a Portland therapist and mental health advocate, understands how parents feel when their child is in trouble. However, he cautions against the assumption that forced treatment is the solution.

“The Otis family is right,” Hall says. “More services and support are needed for families and individuals. The mistake here is to view this as either do nothing or force people into the hospital.

“Reaching for expanded commitment looks like a quick fix, but it isn’t. Rounding people up in mental hospitals is not a magic solution; forced commitment can traumatize people – I know, it traumatized me. It can drive people away from care, lead to a revolving door and create worse problems in the long run.

“We need good holistic and community-controlled voluntary services for families and individuals in distress, to support people before they reach the crisis point. We don’t need a return to the asylum mentality of the 1950s.”

Another Loss

Yesterday at a press conference, Chief Reese defended officers’ actions, including the 32 gunshots. A grand jury found that the police had not exceeded their authority. There was no criminal liability.

But a family lost a son.

In a city where police seem almost casual with their use of deadly force, people with mental illness or in crisis are most at risk.

And to many Portland mental health advocates, it feels like they barely get the chance to bury one of their brothers or sisters before it’s time to close the casket on the next.