The family of a Josephine County man shot and killed by Oregon State Police troopers in 2015 announced they had settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the state for $1.6 million and an apology.
Troopers Heather West and Gregor Smyth shot and killed Robert Box, 55, after they were dispatched to his house for a reported assault.
The lawsuit alleged Smyth and West violated standard operating procedures and their training by failing to make a tactical plan for contacting Box before arriving at his house. David Park, an attorney representing Box’s wife Bernadette, said in a press conference on Tuesday that officers in these situations will typically call the subject and ask them to come outside to speak with them.
“We had several troopers…who would have confirmed that’s the standard operating procedure,” Park said. “In fact, Trooper Smyth had actually done that himself on a prior engagement when he was alone and responding to a domestic disturbance call.”
The lawsuit further alleges the two troopers trespassed onto Box’s property when they snuck onto his land without permission.
“Hailing Mr. Box out of his house is one lawful way to contact him,” Park said. “The other lawful way — and there are only two — is to go to his front door and knock.”
In a May 2021 ruling, an appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and found the troopers had indeed trespassed on Box’s property and that a jury should be allowed to decide if that contributed to Box’s death.
Smyth and West were dispatched to Box’s house in May 2015 after Box’s daughter called 911 to report her father had assaulted her. The daughter told dispatchers she had already left the house and was driving to the hospital. According to the lawsuit, the two troopers parked their vehicles away from Box’s home and “snuck up on the Box property on foot, entered and took up concealed positions behind large trees.” When Box’s dogs started barking, Box, who was on the phone with his wife at the time, told her he thought he heard someone in the bushes.
Box’s property “was in an area of rural Josephine County where a homeowner would likely be startled by persons sneaking up on their property in the dark,” the lawsuit says. “Many rural residents of Josephine County were armed for home protection.”
The lawsuit claimed Box was on the phone and speaking in a non-threatening, calm tone when the troopers called for him to come outside without identifying themselves as law enforcement. When Box exited his home, troopers saw a handgun in his right front pocket and shot him within seconds.
Supervisors had long been aware of Smyth’s troubled history with the agency but failed to take action, according to the lawsuit.
In 2012, after only three years with OSP, Smyth already had more use-of-force incidents than anyone else at Central Point station. His fellow troopers noticed and made a cartoon mocking his “extreme bravery.” In February 2015, three months before the Box shooting, a colleague on the SWAT team with Box wrote a letter expressing concern about Smyth’s tactical competence.
“I have voiced concerns in the past because I have observed times in training where Smyth is under stress and seems to react by going into ‘tunnel vision mode’ that causes him to either overreact or react inappropriately to the given set of circumstances,” a senior state police trooper wrote about Smyth. “I believe his decision-making and overreaction have potential to lead to someone being seriously injured, or killed, on a real-world operation.”
It was one of five complaints Smyth’s SWAT supervisor received about his performance.
Smyth was fired from the SWAT team but remained on patrol duty. His supervisors on patrol weren’t told why he was let go from SWAT. Smyth’s supervisors at the time of the shooting said they were unaware of his history of having difficulties processing information in high-stress situations.
“Some people are not fit to be police officers. Gregor Smyth is one of those people,” Park said. “It doesn’t mean he’s a bad person but it does mean that, temperamentally, he’s not cut out to be a police officer.”
Park said the situation speaks to larger systemic issues at the Oregon State Police. He said the agency might have prevented this shooting if it was using early warning tools to track officer use-of-force, vehicle chases, co-worker complaints and other indicators of a potential problem. The systems, which are used widely by agencies across the country, can help supervisors identify officers who are struggling in some capacity and intervene before a crisis or tragedy.
A state police spokesperson confirmed the agency does not use any sort of early intervention tool.
“The events of May 29, 2015, were indeed tragic and I would like to apologize and hope they are never repeated,” OSP Superintendent Casey Codding wrote in his letter to Bernadette Box acknowledging the agency’s role and promising to learn from it.
Park said the apology was Bernadette Box’s primary requirement in reaching a settlement. In a statement on Tuesday responding to the apology, she said the promised training must be taken to heart and that no other family should have to go through this.
“All I wanted from you was a letter of apology, admitting that you did wrong,” she wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “You killed my husband. It took you 7 years and 9 months to admit that.”
Smyth is now a detective at OSP. West is a senior trooper.
Box was one of at least 26 people shot by police in 2015 in Oregon according to police watchdog Portland Copwatch. Since then, police in the state have shot and killed at least 240 people.