Last week, Portland Police shot and killed yet another man. The usual descriptors for victims of police violence apply here: Person of color. Homeless. Mentally ill. Possibly drug-addicted. He didn’t sit down when he was told to. He ran away instead of complying with verbal orders. He was “armed” with a box knife, which carried with it a death sentence. He was shot multiple times and died on the scene.
Any time something like this happens, a deliberate and concerted public relations campaign is kicked into gear within the Portland Police Bureau. They’ve had a lot of practice at it, and there are rules to be followed. This year’s most egregious example of police violence, the execution of 17-year old Quanice Hayes, provides us with a clear outline of how these rules are put into practice:
- Rule #1: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting appear justified, it will be released immediately. That’s why, when Quanice Hayes was killed in February, the police were quick to release a former mugshot (which was not public record because he was a minor) in addition to a photo of the replica handgun he had allegedly been carrying the night before he was shot. That’s why they released every sordid detail of his alleged behavior before he was confronted by police. That’s why, when rumors started spreading that Hayes had been shot in the back, police immediately released a statement saying that he had been shot three times in the chest. Because these pieces of information bolster the police’s version of events, there is no restriction on when they can be released.
- Rule # 2: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting appear unjustified, it will be withheld pending the completion of the investigation. If the police’s initial statement is wanting for details, journalists and citizens are informed that the information cannot be released due an “ongoing investigation.” That’s why we had to wait until the Grand Jury transcript was released to learn that Andrew Hearst, the officer who shot Hayes, didn’t even see the replica handgun on Hayes’ person before he shot him to death. In fact, Hayes was not even carrying the weapon – it was found in a nearby flower bed. This information was only released after the officer had been acquitted of all charges – almost six weeks after the shooting itself.
- Rule #3: The media will do your dirty work for you. This is why, soon after Hayes was killed, headlines referred to him as a “man.”(They have since been changed) This is why they posted his mugshot next to a photo of that replica handgun with every headline, despite having no information from the police as to the role of that replica in the incident itself. This is why they dutifully reported the police’s version of events before the grand jury transcript even came out. This is why we didn’t see a single editorial in a major Portland publication critical of the police’s conduct in this situation despite the intense public outcry, which involved protesters repeatedly shutting down City Hall meetings.
So what does PPB’s conduct in the Hayes shooting tell us about their likely conduct in this latest incident?
Here’s what we know about the night in question: Someone called 911 on Johnson because he was behaving erratically at the Flavel St. MAX station. Police responded, confronted him, and soon after he ran away from them. They pursued him, but what happens next remains murky. From PPB’s official statement:
As Officer Ajir and Deputy Ajir arrived, Johnson ran from the officers — first westbound on Flavel then back eastbound before running northbound on the MAX bridge over Johnson Creek.
Officer Ajir was in close proximity to Johnson when Johnson displayed a utility knife prompting Officer Ajir to fire his handgun multiple times, striking Johnson. After Johnson was down on the ground, additional officers arrived and approached Johnson with a shield for officer-safety, then began rendering immediate medical aid until paramedics arrived. Paramedics determined that Johnson was deceased. A utility knife was recovered from the scene.
Reading closely, the word that immediately jumps out from this statement is “displayed,” which was chosen very deliberately. Saying that Johnson “displayed” the box knife is vague enough to elicit a variety of images in the minds of the public, but innocuous enough to encompass a variety of largely harmless motions as well. Rule #1: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting look justified, it will be released immediately. Because of this, we can assume that if Johnson had drawn, pointed, or otherwise threatened the officers in question with his “utility knife,” there is an approximately 100% chance that the police would have mentioned it in their official statement. The fact that they chose the word “displayed” tells us that none of these things actually happened.
Rule # 2: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting appear unjustified, it will be withheld pending the completion of the investigation. This is more difficult to assess. In order to do so, it is important to note which questions the department’s statement did not answer. Namely, where on Johnson’s body was the utility knife “displayed,” and what the fuck does that even mean? Even more importantly, how far was Officer Ajir away from Johnson when he decided to fire his weapon? Put another way, at what distance did he determine that this box knife was such an imminent threat to his own life that Johnson’s life had to be sacrificed to save his own? The fact that we don’t know the answers to these questions likely means one thing: The answers do not display the officer’s actions in a positive light. We will only find the answers to these questions once the officer has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Rule #3: The media will do your dirty work for you. This rule was on fine display here. The Oregonian, Portland’s paper of record, led with the following passage in their initial reporting (emphasis mine):
The man who died in an officer-involved shooting Wednesday in Southeast Portland threatened the officer who shot him with a utility knife, prompting the officer to shoot, police said.
The first headline for this piece – which has since been changed – also said that Johnson “brandished” the box knife before he was shot. Of course, there is absolutely nothing in the official police statement saying that Johson “brandished” the knife or “threatened” any of the officers with it. The statement was deliberately vague, because the Portland Police Bureau understands fully that many local reporters are nothing better than stenographers for the powerful, who share their belief that those who reside at the bottom of society lack a sort of basic humanity. The police obfuscated in their initial report because they knew The Oregonian would do the rest of their dirty work for them.
The reason for this public relations strategy is clear: Every American knows the generic fairy tale of a typical police shooting: Our brave police officers were responding to a situation involving a human who, for a variety of reasons, did not deserve to live. These brave officers responded to the situation using the utmost restraint until they feared for their lives and the lives of their fellow officers, and only then responded with lethal force. Immediately after a shooting, the police selectively release information, and the media and will fill in the blanks well before the full story sees the light of day. Kill, rinse, and repeat.
We all know what will happen here. Officer Ajir is getting a paid vacation, at the end of which he will be cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed back on the street. Mayor Wheeler, Chief Marshman, and City Council have done their jobs as they see them; and their message to every officer on the street is loud and clear: You can kill with impunity. We’ll have your back.