UPDATE (Oct. 9, 1:35 p.m. PT) — Both Portland State University police officers who shot and killed an African-American man in June say they fired after they saw the man point a gun at them, according to grand jury transcripts released by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday.
The transcripts reveal for the first time the officers’ perspective of the moments leading up to the death of 45-year-old Jason Washington on June 29 outside the Cheerful Tortoise Bar in downtown Portland.
James Dewey was interviewed on Sept. 11 and Shawn McKenzie was interviewed on Sept. 12, the first time either officer had been interviewed in an official capacity about the shooting. The grand jury did not indict either officer.
The transcripts also reveal how Officers McKenzie and Dewey entered a situation that escalated from a routine encounter to a deadly force situation in a matter of seconds. But they also show that the officers weren’t sure who Washington appeared to be pointing a gun at before they killed him.
“Um, in my mind I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna be shot right there, and I fire a couple rounds,” McKenzie told grand jurors. “I couldn’t perceive which one he was actually pointing it right at.”
Alcohol was a major factor in the brawl that led up to Washington’s death, according to an investigation by the Portland Police Bureau. The shooting was also captured on two body cameras worn by officers.
The shooting revived criticism from students and faculty over the PSU Board of Trustees’ controversial 2014 decision to arm campus officers. At the time, students argued the policy would only make the university less safe, especially for people of color on campus. At its first meeting since the shooting, the university’s board said it didn’t want to rush its decision over whether to stop having armed officers, despite calls from the campus community to do so immediately. In a statement Tuesday, the university reiterated it hired outside consultants to review the shooting and officers’ conduct, which would rely in part on the grand jury transcripts.
The attorney representing the Washington family declined to comment following the release of the transcripts Tuesday.
‘It Was A Stressful Situation’
Early in the morning of June 29, McKenzie and Dewey were headed to a separate, unrelated call when they saw a fight near campus at the Cheerful Tortoise Bar.
Shortly before the drunken fight, Washington took a handgun from his friend, whom he perceived to be more drunk than he was. That friend had tried to pick a fight with a bouncer earlier in the night, according to investigative documents from the Portland Police Bureau.
“It, it was a stressful situation, as people [sic] running around and, and fighting,” McKenzie told grand jurors.
“Um, and the guy with the gun on his hip was in the fight,” Dewey testified. “Um, hadn’t quite picked up his role in that yet.”
McKenzie testified his stress levels had “come up one more notch” when Dewey said he’d spotted a gun holstered to Washington’s hip during the brawl.
“So, a lot of thoughts run through my head at this time,” McKenzie said. “Obviously my stress level’s higher.”
Dewey testified that he was surprised to see an open carry in downtown Portland, but said if it’s holstered, “it’s not dangerous to anyone.”
“And as we’re still shouting and trying to figure out what’s goin’ [sic] on, um, the guy with the gun stands up and it’s no longer holstered …” Dewey said.
Both officers testified Washington stood holding the gun.
That prompted the officers to draw their firearms.
“And I’m yelling at him drop the gun,” McKenzie said.
“Um, when this is going on, um, I know that my body’s startin’ to get, like, the adrenalin’s [sic] startin’ ta, ta kick in, and my vision is startin’ to go like this, and my hearing is not, like, what it’d be right now,” he testified.
Both officers testified seeing the gun pointed in their direction.
“I stopped seeing the frame and I just saw his body position come up and I, I knew, it was pointed at us,” Dewey testified.
But both officers appeared to be unclear about which of them the gun was pointed at.
“There was probably a dozen people involved or spectating or still there and, um, it’s just, it’s trained into you and that’s when my partner and I started firing,” Dewey said.
When asked why he chose to fire in that moment, Dewey said: “It’s like a, he was gonna start shooting people. It’s, that’s the only thing that you can consider. … There’s no reason to be pointing a gun at somebody on a city street in the middle of the night so my thought was that he’s gonna start shooting people.”
The grand jury transcripts also detailed the drunken night that culminated with Washington’s death. Two friends who were with Washington the night of shooting could not remember several key events from that evening.
One of them, who can be seen in officer body camera footage lying feet away from Washington’s wounded body, could not remember the moment Washington was shot. He would not learn Washington had been killed until the next morning.
Officer McKenzie has since left the university for another job. Dewey has returned to do administrative work at PSU.
Amelia Templeton contributed to this report.