Misconceptions about shooting do a disservice
Police don't 'shoot to kill,' nor was the chain of events started by the victim's failure to pay bus fare
Monday, May 14, 2001
Misinformation following the tragic shooting death of Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot has compounded the sentiments and heightened the level of anger and hurt in a community that has many questions and concerns.
Two of them have been exacerbated by the media, including an article in The Sunday Oregonian ("Hundreds decry police shooting in Portland," May 6).
The first piece of false information is that our police have a "shoot to kill" policy.
Portland Police Bureau officers are trained much like those in any other law enforcement agency; they are trained to "stop a deadly threat." There is a distinct difference between the two, because an officer's goal is not to kill, but to stop the deadly threat.
Even after being shot, an emotionally charged person may continue to advance. That is why officers are trained to shoot at the central body mass, the largest part of the human body and the area that gives the best chance of stopping the threat as quickly as possible.
Other factors also influence this training. Studies have shown that when human beings are threatened, their body actually goes into survivor mode, which includes blurred vision, decreased fine motor skills and almost a tunnel-like vision. These factors all influence the ability to control a firearm -- and this is the case for a police officer, just like any other human being.
Portland Police Bureau officers train extensively on firearms and must qualify three times a year. Many officers are expert marksmen. But it doesn't change the fact that when threatened, they will experience these physical effects. So when officers must use deadly physical force, they rely greatly on their training. If police officers were trained to shoot suspects in the leg, for example, and they missed, their own lives and possibly the lives of those they are trying to protect would be directly threatened. Movies and television have greatly contributed to the myth that police can shoot like heroes in old Westerns, such as shooting a gun out of someone's hand.
When a person becomes a police officer, he or she swears to protect human life. To use deadly physical force means the officer might take a life, something that is foreign and horrific to us. These decisions are not entered into lightly, and the officer must comply with an extremely detailed General Order on when physical deadly force should be used.
In the case of Mr. Mejia, the officers first used all forms of less-lethal tools available to them: voice commands in Spanish and English and physical methods including the baton, pepper spray and the less-lethal beanbag weapon. Mr. Mejia, armed with a metal bar, advanced on officers, who were trapped in front of a locked door. Having exhausted other means, an officer fired in defense of a fellow officer's life.
The second prevailing misconception is that Mr. Mejia was arrested because he was 20 cents short on his Tri-Met fare. This is simply untrue.
The driver flagged down a police car because, he said, Mr. Mejia was being disruptive. Mr. Meija was arrested after attempting to assault the responding officer. It is not clear whether Mr. Mejia was having an epileptic seizure or suffering from some other mental disorder.
Though the use of excessive force during this arrest is under Internal Affairs investigation, the arrest was made because of Mr. Mejia's behavior -- not because he didn't have the fare.We also should not forget the officer who fired rounds that resulted in the death of another human being. This highly regarded, decent officer and his family will forever be affected by this tragic event.
I have agreed to participate in public forums or multi-agency reviews of this incident. This incident was unique in that it encompassed the Portland Police Bureau, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, local mental health agencies and Tri-Met. Questions are raised; answers need to be given.
I have pledged to do what it takes to aid this process. I am reviewing every stage of this incident to determine what improvements need to be made in policy, procedures, training or technology. This tragedy has shaken the community, and it is imperative that people understand the facts and are not misled by false reports or wrong information.
-- Written by Mark A. Kroeker, Portland's police chief.