The June 12 Police Shooting of Nick Davis was Complicated

From the Portland Mercury, June 18, 2014

The crowbar-weilding assailant described in local news accounts wanted badly to have a picnic.

Nicholas Glendon Davis
harangued his best friend about it; the friend, Brandon Mitchell, put it off.

That is, until Sunday, June 15—when Mitchell sat alone on a busy stretch of the Springwater Corridor, feet from where a Portland police officer had fatally shot his best friend three days before. He was staring at a memorial to 23-year-old Davis.

Nick Davis

“I made a sandwich,” Mitchell said, gesturing to a white plastic grocery bag by his side. “I just kind of came here out of respect.”

Accounts of this year’s third officer-involved shooting have been stark and spare, dictated by the language of police bureau press releases. Cops say Davis assaulted a man on the morning of Thursday, June 12, and that he attacked responding officers with a three-foot crowbar near where the Springwater Corridor crosses SE Foster. One of the officers, Robert Brown, tripped and fell as he backed away from Davis, the cops say. And when Davis kept coming, Brown shot him in the chest.

That blunt retelling of events is necessitated, in part, by the demands of an ongoing investigation. But it also glosses over the many factors at play in Davis’ young life before the shooting, according to Mitchell and others: long stints of homelessness, struggles with mental illness, the bewildering prospect of losing a new possession.

“He was never a violent person,” Mitchell said. “He was scared of living out here.”

Mitchell is 21, and had known Davis since the third grade. Court documents suggest Davis suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Mitchell said mental illness combined with family troubles put Davis on and off the streets from the time he was 18.

Mitchell fondly recalls the spirited friend of his youth, the guy who bought a car and stocked it with a new stereo even though he couldn’t drive. Davis was a regular fixture in Mitchell’s life up until the shooting, even during the years of Davis living near the Springwater and elsewhere. He’d stop by Mitchell’s mother’s house all the time, seeking help or looking to chat.

On the day he was killed, Davis was reveling in a new purchase: a bicycle. He just didn’t realize the bike he’d bought was stolen property.

“He was tired of walking,” Mitchell said. “He’d bought a bike with money from his mom.”

Shortly after 6 am, on June 12, Mitchell believes Davis came across the bike’s rightful owner, another homeless man who demanded his property back. A fight broke out.

Police won’t say much about the altercation, but spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson confirms, “It sounds like there may have been a bicycle involved.”

The man protesting his stolen bike called the cops, reporting a robbery. Officers approached Davis a short distance away, on the Springwater. According to police, the conversation took a turn when Davis picked up the crowbar.

“He probably didn’t know what to think,” Mitchell said, describing his friend as childlike. “He’d just gotten a bike, and all the sudden it was being taken from him.”

Of course, Mitchell’s characterization is as colored as the cops’. He says Davis never used weapons, and stayed out of trouble. Court documents suggest that’s not quite accurate.

In 2011, Davis’ mother’s caregiver, a man named Steven Wayne Hall, got a restraining order against Davis.

Hall said Davis broke into his home and assaulted him repeatedly, including an incident where he threatened Hall’s life with a knife (which Davis had also used to cut himself). When Hall fled the house, he said, Davis began ranting to himself. Police found the young man lying on the kitchen floor. He was taken to a mental health facility.

A few days before the incident, Hall said Davis had “dug a huge grave-like hole in the backyard.”

“I have tried to help him in the past, but he is becoming more [and] more dangerous,” Hall wrote in his petition for the restraining order. “Even his best friend, Brandon, has noticed this. His mom is afraid he is suicidal.”

Davis spent time in the Oregon State Hospital, court records show. He had medications for his condition (Mitchell said Davis hated how the drugs made him feel), and indicated to court officials that he drank and smoked pot.

Davis shows up in a few more minor Multnomah and Clackamas County court records, including dismissed charges for harassment and interfering with a peace officer, and an outstanding warrant stemming from an alleged theft at a Walmart.

Mitchell acknowledged he hadn’t heard about that theft. It surprised him his friend hadn’t come clean about it, he said. But no event in Davis’ past comes close to answering Mitchell’s questions about the June 12 shooting, the very questions police detectives and a grand jury will explore in coming weeks: Was it necessary?

Just before a sudden, violent rainstorm on June 15, Mitchell stooped to re-arrange some sparkly pinwheels he’d placed at the memorial for his friend, and smoothed out the old photos he’d printed for display. And he repeated a thought he’d voiced again and again in the last hour.

“Officers are trained to disarm people,” he said. “They’re trained to subdue people. The very first option they did was to just pull the gun.”