In this installment of our Gun Stories series, we hear from law enforcement officers about the weapons that have become synonymous with modern police work.
William Smith is an Iraq war veteran who’s now with the Gresham Police. He’s the sergeant in charge of the East Metro Gang Enforcement Team. His work day is informed by guns or the possible presence of guns.
“We’re actively seeking individuals who we know to be violent offenders. Most of them are on post-prison supervision or some type of parole of probation. A lot of them — and we know it — are armed, and we know those gang members are out there committing crimes.”
Smith commands a team of five gang enforcement officers. But he usually patrols without a partner. On this evening, he pulls up into the parking lot of an apartment complex. Three men in their 20s and 30s sit in a parked Toyota SUV.
Smith sizes them up. He notices the way the three are sitting there, in the middle of the day. The car is backed into the space — the only one in the parking lot positioned that way.
“That’s a carload of gangsters,” Smith says.
As they stare at him, Smith steps up to their car, smiles, and asks to see their IDs. Smith gets back into the car, and enters them in his mobile data computer.
At first, I’m not sure how he can be so sure about these guys. Then, in a few seconds, their records pop up. Each has a history, but it’s the man in the driver’s seat that gets Smith’s attention.
“Oh yeah, he was arrested 2011, that means he was wanted by another agency — arrested for alcohol, disorderly conduct…trespass, assault, robbery, fugitive, narcotics possession, weapons carrying.”
And the man’s listed as having a suspended license. But because the car’s not moving, nothing illegal’s going on. Smith can’t arrest him.
Smith says he’s got the feeling somebody in that car has a weapon.
“I’m at a tactical disadvantage, there’s three guys I know to be gangsters sitting in that car. I can’t see their hands or anything. One of those times you definitely think you’re outgunned.”
Keeping his movements easy and understated, he gets on the radio to see who’s nearby.
The three men are still staring at Smith.
He smiles again, returns their IDs, and takes a slow lap around the parking lot. Five minutes later, the SUV’s gone. Smith and other officers will try again to search them next time they see the SUV.
Smith says it’s obvious to him some of the people he interacts with don’t have the same respect for guns he has.
“I can remember one day, it was the summer. It was probably 4, 5 in the afternoon, a lot of pedestrian traffic, a lot of vehicle traffic. This is 183rd and Stark. There’s gangsters running down each side of the street shooting at each other. Within minutes of that call coming out, there’s a shots fired call at 181st and Burnside, which is just around the corner. And then a few minutes of that coming out, there’s a shots fired call at 179th and Oregon. And that was probably all within the span of about 15 minutes. You had every cop in Gresham there, you had Multnomah County deputies there. These guys, they didn’t hit anyone. How that happened. I don’t know. Sometimes I just don’t know how.”
But — and he’s adamant about this — Smith’s been working in Gresham for 15 years and he says gun violence has diminished. He points out the uniform crime statistics and other indicators show things have quieted down a lot. His shifts are a lot less eventful than when he started. At least until the next call comes in of “shots fired.”
Then everything is lights and sirens and speed.
“I hate running lights and siren. It’s not fun anymore,” Smith says.
Captain Kevin Layng can say what it’s like to have fired on someone, with lethal consequences. He manages the Patrol Division of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s office.
“In 1990, my partner and I had responded to a domestic situation, where the new boyfriend of a young lady had moved into her house. Some friends came over and he met them at the door with a handgun and said ‘Get out of here or I’ll shoot you.’ We tried to do some research before we got there, they had no telephone. Nobody knew who this guy was. We had to go basically, surround the house and knock on the door. When we knocked, after about a minute. This man yanked the door open, brought a pistol up and started firing.”
With bullets flying past his head, Layng fired back, and hit the suspect, who died at the scene.
“There’s not a whole lot of decision making that goes into that. Your training tells you what to do. That’s exactly what the two of us did. I’ve never second guessed myself about whether that was the right thing to do.”
Layng says because so much of what happens in patrol work plays out on short notice, his deputies intensively critique the situations they find themselves in. And while he considers firearms only one kind of force, he can’t imagine being out there without guns as well as Tasers and other tools.
The split-second decisions police make when guns are in play aren’t any easier in rural places.
When Davis Washines was growing up on the Yakama Nation Reservation in the early ‘60s he says many people had guns.
“I remember even high school kids would pull into the parking lot, and have the gun rack. If it was duck hunting season they’d go duck hunting soon as they got out of school. It was no big deal. Because everybody understood at that time it was for a specific purpose, to go hunting.”
As Washines grew up, he went to work for the Tribal Police. He says when he took the job he had to reconcile his outlook on what it means to point a gun at another person.
“Because in our belief, you take a life, you inherit that person’s transgressions, whatever that person did onto yourself.”
Ultimately, Washines says he came to feel that his responsibility to protect life meant sometimes having to use a firearm. He says his family made sure he grew up with a strong faith. It turned out, he’d need it.
Over the years, drugs and automatic weapons spread to the reservation, Washines became painfully aware things were changing. Eventually, when he became chief of tribal police, he worried about sending officers to patrol backcountry where they might see armed men guarding marijuana grows. And he was still out there occasionally on patrol.
He recalls one incident on Yakama Reservation land.
“I remember we were tracking these two individuals had stolen a truck. They has wrecked. We were tracking them in the snow. And just by coincidence we took different route, and came up upon them on the backside. When we got on top of this little hill. They were waiting for us. And they had rifles. They were pointed in the direction that we’d be coming around the turn.”
In the moment, Washines says he was only thinking about making the arrest. He and his partner snuck up on the suspects, and jumped them, weapons drawn.
“When everything was done, and I realized what their intention were. I remember how I felt at the time. I felt very angry. So we were just fortunate we outsmarted them that time. We got the jump on them.”
Washines estimates that in 30 years of enforcing tribal law, he’s drawn his weapon perhaps thirty times. He considers himself fortunate in that he was never in a situation where he had to pull the trigger.
Many of the sources for this series came to us from OPB’s Public Insight Network. You can share your perspective on our “Gun Stories” tumblr page, and hear all of the features in this series by visiting opb.org/gunstories.