Picking Up Pieces [Nonfiction]
by Henry Talbott
Nonfiction Award Winner in the Echoes Writing Contest
I first knew him as G.G, Grandpa George. The journey to his small house was only ten minutes, and I could smell the fresh wooden furniture before I arrived. He would be at the front door, a stocky man with faded hair and small, rounded glasses, wearing a casually tucked-in polo and grey shorts. His skin is rough with arteries and, like old bark, is worn to hardness. Even when he is not smiling, he exuded a sense of genuine interest in what is before him, which when turned on me was the greatest honor I could have felt at that age. Unlike my mother, kind but towering with rules and lessons, he had no complications, his presence scaling down until he was level with me. I would be taken inside and sat down in his vast, sinking chair, and he would be across from me, before the window’s gentle light. “Grandson,” he would say, “your mother or your teachers might have certain expectations, but I know you work hard and here, I don’t want you to be anything but yourself.” He would stay up late with me, doodling my grand designs in his notebook, laughing at my preoccupations before committing them to the page. In the morning he would make me waffles and hand me the Sunday comics, crisply folded.
As I grew older, the photographs on his office wall began to suggest that he had not always been waiting for me. Most distressing were his old army photographs, where, in between dark, slicked hair and a black dress uniform, his eyes stare straight, stupidly ahead. They are lost, confused and ready to dive into the Vietnamese mud. He was prepared to finish his story right there, and become just another Russian name on a white cross. Then, somebody made a mistake, and his troop was sent off without him. He wound up in the Pentagon, and then the University of Washington, where he spent what was almost too long hunting his typewritten papers, all in Russian, for the slightest error. After trading wood in Asia, he finally slogged home to stand on the other side of the paneled door I so eagerly ran up to.
“Now, I seem to be missing a key component on the Lego plane, and was wondering if we could make a substitution.” George is looking up from his foreign-affairs journal. We’re in our same places, eleven years later.
“Sure.” My grandfather turned to Legos after his mother, who I never met, died. I find another piece; it fits well enough.
He laughs. “It was that simple? One piece? Sorry, but we didn’t learn to think the same way you do. We were too worried about Soviet missiles to have time for things like this. When I heard the sirens, I really thought it was all over.”
My grandfather’s image has slowly gained dimension as he recounts the fragmented stories of the photographs, the medals, the paintings on the walls of his office. On his shelf, below the gleaming Orthodox cross and St. George slaying the dragon on a golden field, there are Nelson’s letters and Napoleon’s lieutenant’s journals, and a book of Russian fairy tales, filled with marvelous illustrations of firebirds and houses on chicken’s legs. Guilt passes over me, that these books might be all I have left soon, and that I might end up reading them through desperately, too late, only guessing what he thought of the words.
“If you want to know how that mess got started, read this.” G.G. slaps a volume on the Yalta conference in my hands. I consider who he is, another doting grandfather living on a quiet suburban street, and where he has been, all the flotsam that has washed up with him that I am only trying to untangle. Now he watches football, reads history books, goes with his grandson to science fiction movies and tries to enlighten him, laugh with him. In the morning he will make me waffles and we will talk while we still can, light streaming onto our faces.
Violence’s End: Examining Police Brutality in Portland and the United States [Nonfiction]
by Sahil Veeramoney
Runner-Up for Nonfiction in the Echoes Writing Contest January 2016
May 22, 2007. The spring sun rays beam down on the surface of the earth, and the temperature begins to gradually cool as night approaches. A third grader sleeps soundly during a well-deserved evening nap but all is not serene and tranquil in the Beaver state. Around seventeen miles away on the border of Northeast Portland near the Columbia, an argument suddenly erupts from a townhouse, shattering the peaceful ambience of the moonlit neighborhood and the swaying bigleaf maple’s peppered along the street. A resident across the home gets ready to retire for the night but slowly begins to worry, for the brewing storm next door slowly starts to drone out the humming river breeze. Curiosity gets the best of him as he peers outside, hoping to eavesdrop on an unexpected quarrel but to his horror, instead, sees a man ruthlessly ramming a truck into the garage of the townhouse. High-pitched screams radiate from the house, inducing sheer fear in the neighbor. He dashes back into the bedroom and frantically dials the phone – “911 what’s your emergency?” (Gennaco et al., 2014).
Portland Police Officers Jon Dalberg and James Habkirk are dispatched to the “four-one-five” and respond to the reported disturbance within minutes. Contacting the complainant upon arrival, the routine call the officers thought it to be, starts to get out of hand – quick. The complainant, the neighboring male who has reported the activity, anxiously identifies the man as a neighbor and discloses that he has gotten inside, endangering the livelihood of a female subject inside. Officers Dalberg and Habkirk decide to call for additional backup in light of the emerging situation. Officer Jason Koenig broadcasts over radio that he is nearby and in transit but understands the severity of the particular instance and advises the officers on-scene to “make the call” of entrance if necessary. In fear of the woman’s safety and in hoping that the situation can be defused without further complication, the two officers attempt to contact the members of the residence. “Portland Police, please open the door.” Unfortunately, the officers are greeted with deafening music and banging from the inside. As soon as the additional sergeant arrives, the three re-approach with weapons drawn, and Officer Dalberg breaches by forcibly kicking down the door. The blasting music rings strongly but does not mask the eerie scream from upstairs: “you called the fucking police?”
With the safety of the subject inside in mind, the three officers put aside any potential fears and deftly ascend the stairs, “watching their sixes” and preparing for all possible outcomes. The final stair creaks as they reach the landing and proceed down the hallway but to the officers’ misfortune, one of the worst possible scenarios begins to unravel. The suspect rounds the corner and draws his shotgun, swinging towards the officers. Stumbling and screaming furiously, the suspect clearly appears intoxicated and therefore the ability to predict his actions becomes more difficult. The chances that he may resort to violence increase significantly. One, two, three, seconds, no response…you might die; if he shoots before you, you’re probably dead. Officer Dalberg knows this, split-seconds pass, his heart beating. In no time, he has to make a decision, for himself, for his team, for the woman inside. As soon as Officer Dalberg sees that barrel it’s crunch-time, there is no slow-motion, it’s all on fast-forward in the real world. One, two, three, four, five, shots from a handgun pierce the air of the night. Five additional rounds are discharged in rapid succession from the muzzle of Officer Koenig’s AR-15 rifle. A few seconds is all it takes, no-time to think about consequences or the future. Without all the information and unaware of the condition of the suspect and his capability to fire his weapon, the three officers quickly retreat from the premise of the house and form a perimeter.
“Shot’s fired.” The two infamous words broadcast over the radio, breaking the silence back at HQ. In addition, they request the accompaniment of a Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) and a team of paramedics. Forty-eight minutes after the initial entry, SERT re-enters the house. All questions after the shooting are answered: the suspect lying dead on the floor, head resting against the wall, hand reaching for a loaded 12-gauge. SERT reports condition of the suspect and the deceased is hauled off in an ambulance in the midst of flashing lights and patrol cars, leaving the surrounding neighbors concerned and bewildered. More importantly, SERT does a search of the home and finds no-one, no reported female, no further occupant, no other person, within the realms of the household. Steven Bolen, age 43, is later identified as the victim and suspected perpetrator; coronary reports indicate four fatal gunshot wounds to the chest and neck (Gennaco et al., 2014).
* * *
Reading this report eight years later, I had no idea the incident occurred twenty-five minutes away from my home. I don’t remember there being huge attention about the shooting in the media, but why would there be? After the incident, my initial response was, yes, the officers on-duty responded in an appropriate and necessary manner. However, further analysis shows that there were several underlying factors that may have played into the severity of the officers actions. Factors that may have unfoundedly influenced the decisions made in this particular situation. For one, the fact that no one else was present at the crime scene undermines almost everything – after-all, a woman was supposedly inside, threatening to be killed. Questioning the reliability of civilian information and the reliance on information to impact conduct are two of the many potential errors that come up. The failure of officers to develop an entry plan, the failure to broadcast forced entry, the decision to vacate the residence after the shooting took-place, the decision to use deadly force without assessing a full-threat, are all mistakes that come to mind. As an initially uninformed reader, these conclusions were not on the forefront of my mind but they do bring an important point when it comes to assessing these situations. It is really hard to determine whether police misconduct or brutality has occurred. Not everything is as clear-cut as seeing an officer use unprecedented deadly force which results in facing termination or a legal trial. Police brutality is a broad topic with many aspects to consider while dealing with such an issue. The difficulty of proving police brutality, police brutality directed towards minorities, and how oversight agencies work to remedy the situation, are all crucial in understanding the gist of the whole problem, beneath the surface.
The Bolen shooting is no exception to how surprisingly hard it can be to determine police brutality or misconduct. First off, the influence of civilian information in understanding the situation, was largely relied upon in this case. Without the “female victim,” the officers may not have entered so quickly, lacking thorough reconnaissance, and fatally shot the armed victim. Thus, when confronted with the fact that this “female victim” did not exist, at least when SERT entered forty-eight minutes later, the decision to use deadly force against Bolen could have been unwarranted. Additionally, the decision to retreat after firing is questionable. Had there been a “female victim,” the officers, unaware that they had killed Bolen until the SERT breach, would have left her inside, in an unknown condition, with the suspect who could have subjected her to further violence. All this evidence speaks against the conduct of the officers, but the story from their perspective paints a different picture of the incident entirely. As far as the officers were concerned at the time, they heard loud screaming and banging, they were informed that the subject had threatened to kill his girlfriend who was thought to be in the house, and they also heard a male voice presumably accusing someone of “calling the police” very aggressively. It is pretty clear that not all cases of police brutality are immediately definitive but the recent uptick of blatant police brutality cases has definitely brought a chilling spotlight to the issue, nationwide.
The tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, are some among a litany of names that have caught the public’s, and probably your attention, over the past few years. Many of these cases have one unfortunate thing in common, police brutality, or at least alleged police brutality, directed towards minorities. This has been a growing problem in the United States – a problem that has started rightful nationwide protest in defense of the victims. One such case that struck particularly close to home for residents of Portland, Oregon, was that of 21 year-old, African-American, Kendra James. At 2:40 am on Monday, May 5, 2003, Ms. Kendra James was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over by Portland Police Officer’s Rick Bean, Kenneth Reynolds, and Scott McCollister, for not coming to a full halt at a designated stop-sign. After realizing that the driver of the vehicle had a warrant out for his arrest, the officers instructed James and the other passenger, who exited peacefully, to leave the vehicle. According to police and some eyewitness reports, Ms. James tried to jump into the driver’s seat in hopes to get away. To prevent this action, Mr. McCollister entered the car and tried to pull her out but attempts via pepper-spray, hair-pulling, and taser, were fruitless. Reportedly, James failed to comply to these demands and therefore Mr. McCollister responded by putting his pistol to her head and yelling for her surrender. The car began to move and with his weight allegedly on his left knee, resting on the driver’s seat, he was unable to pull himself out of the car. In fear, the officer fired his pistol, fatally wounding Kendra James and sending the sound of a ringing gunshot through the streets of the North Skidmore I-5 overpass. However, there are discrepancies in stories of other witnesses. Darnell White, James’ boyfriend, and a few other eyewitnesses claimed that McCollister was several feet away from the car before he shot James (Budnick). The incident itself, the decision to withhold a public inquest, the tactics used by McCollister, and the decision of not indicting the officer, as evidence suggests he would have been able to extricate himself from the car freely without dying, sparked huge protests in the Portland community. As said before, James is one of many other people of minority race who tragically were and are subject to deadly force which could have very-well been police brutality. Once again, the blurred line of police brutality emerges which begs the question: who is doing what to solve this seemingly nationwide problem?
In Portland’s case, we have a civilian oversight agency called the Independent Police Review (IPR) which strives to mitigate police brutality in our communities. With respect to officer-involved shootings, IPR is always involved in some form, whether it be conducting the investigation or overseeing an administrative investigation by Internal Affairs (IA) and making sure everything is “up to snuff” (Severe). In terms of Kendra James’ case, IPR was a new and developing agency shocked by a horrible tragedy, but the agency was able to make some meaningful change out of it – something that can’t be said about nationwide progress on police brutality (Severe). In addition to this whole process, third-party organizations can be brought to oversee how the process took place; in Mr. Bolen’s case, the OIR group (professional police oversight and evaluation) was tasked with the responsibility of evaluating the IPR and IA’s findings and recommendations.
My first impression after reading through all the reports was definitely what I was expecting: the detail and the overflow of information within these reports is definitely overwhelming and hard to grasp as an outsider who doesn’t speak the “lingo.” But, what I learned from the whole process is that the presence of oversight agencies is key. Organizations like the Independent Police Review provide instrumental monitoring of the IA to make sure that all decisions are justified and fair. Fortunately, officer-involved shootings do not happen that often in Portland, which leaves an organization like the IPR with time on its hands. That’s why the IPR serves a very important role in the Portland community, the agency provides a platform for members of the community to report cases of alleged police brutality – cases that may have otherwise gone unnoticed (Severe). Whenever a person witnesses or feels like he or she is a victim of such misconduct or brutality, a report can be sent via mail, e-mail, fax, pretty much any form of communication, informing IPR of what happened (City of Portland). Once a complaint is filed, there are several possible outcomes. More specifically, five results: a referral to the Portland Police Bureau, a dismissal if the complaint fails to meet complaint requirements, mediation in a non-confrontational setting, a referral to a more appropriate agency, and finally an independent investigation (City of Portland). Either way, the complaint is dealt with in some manner which is most important. The IPR monitors police brutality and misconduct within our community with the purpose of making sure that we, as members of the Portland community, feel safe and are trusting of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
Over the past decade, police and officer-involved shootings and fatalities have decreased in the Portland community altogether. Maybe, crediting the IPR to this favorable trend is premature however it would also be remiss if IPR’s presence is not regarded as important. An organization whose goal is to satisfy the result that both parties want: a safe city and a strong police and community relationship (Severe), will undoubtedly give peace of mind to citizens and incentive for proper policing by the PPB. In the greater Portland community, I would think it is safe to say that this relationship is more favorable than those of others in surrounding states and countries. However, what I learned through my research and investigation into brutality and misconduct in the Portland community is that, it happens, and it happens a lot more than I anticipated. For a lot of people who have had a little encounter with the police, like me, there is this imaginary boundary that is sometimes created between this world of brutality and ours. The Bolen shooting, on the contrary, happened in a neighborhood that one resident described as “the kind of neighborhood where people walk their dogs and children play in the yards and on the sidewalks” (Walden). This lack of knowledge in the world of police brutality in my community translates over to my initial knowledge to IPR’s existence and mission. An ignorance that I shared with most of my peers, most of them having no idea what the IPR was, let alone its existence. But, after explanation, everyone agreed that IPR’s existence and involvement in the Portland community would be beneficial, as oversight is proving to be.
Though pretty much all cities circa a 500,000 population or higher, have a robust civilian oversight agency of some form with the same goals in mind, not all of them have had the same success that IPR has had. Cities who suffer from more violence and where community members are subject to higher chances of violence, share negative sentiments towards the Police. Thankfully in some cases, the disapproval of conduct has led to meaningful attempts for change. When looking at the current U.S situation, protest of police brutality has sparked several activist movements like the founding of Black Lives Matter and Mothers Against Police Brutality; organizations that advocate and campaign for the stoppage of such violence. Unfortunately, causing major change through policy in the United States is no easy task. Passing legislation nationally is always difficult and even in the wake of the cases of endless police brutality cases resonating through our social media outlets, change is moving slowly – too slowly. Does that mean change has to start on a state-level? Is there any hope for police brutality to be effectively reduced in our communities? After seeking out the expertise of an professional, I was able to sit and talk to the director of the Independent Police Review in hopes to straighten out questions like these and get a better understanding of the wider issue.
* * *
The chilling autumn winds ruffle the bright-orange leaves that are scattered across the entrance to the Portland City Hall Auditor’s Office on the corner of SW 4th and Madison. As soon as the door screeches, announcing my arrival to everyone, I am greeted with a beaming smile and firm-handshake from the person I came to see. I am looking at Constantin Severe, the director of Portland’s IPR. He stands around my eye-level, wears slightly rounded spectacles and a blue sweater, loves music, and is an avid cyclist fan. His dreams along with the mission of the organization he directs, include a concert where Ted Leo would open a double billing for The Clash and The Jam. The ambience of the City Hall is modest, slightly outdated, but nonetheless welcoming. Hallways and corridors sprout into different directions, leading to different organizations with various purposes in our community. The aroma of coffee beans waft through the air and up to the brown light fixtures attached to the ceiling. We walk across the black and white tiled floors towards the IPR’s portion of the offices. The cubicles spread in an orderly fashion around the room and wires scatter across the grey-patterned floors, indicating the staff of this division are hard at work. After passing through one of those small doors that come up to your knees, the ones you would see in a courtroom, I detect a hint of confusion in his colleagues’ eyes, wondering why a teenager is walking through their offices. “So this is my office,” Severe says to me, gesturing me inside and pointing to the circular table situated in the corner of the large room. Hundreds of cases are sprawled across the desk making an “efficient system of piles,” in Severe’s words. “You just have to remember where you put them,” he says, chuckling.
We both sit down and I try to figure out where to begin with all of the questions I have in mind. Going back to where everything for Severe started feels appropriate to address; the path it took to start this whole journey as director.
Severe adjusts his glasses and grins, letting out a brief chuckle. “It was actually a really windy road,” he says, “this was not something that I knew I wanted to do.” He takes a second to compose his thoughts, trying to translate several years into just a few sentences. “I was born in New York City to parents who were immigrants from Haiti.” Severe was fortunate that he was not directly a victim of police brutality however he definitely recognized its presence through seeing what others were going through in Miami: the city he grew up in. “I later attended Vanderbilt University and received my law degree,” he says and I glance to the right seeing his diploma proudly displayed on the wall. He speaks slowly and concisely about his journey, “I took up the profession of being a criminal defense attorney but after a while I got tired of it…and then I got offered the job as assistant director here at IPR.” A decade ago, Severe didn’t even know organizations like the IPR existed, and now was transferring to the assistant director position. “The change was…really different,” he remembers. “As an attorney, nothing else matters beside the representation of your client within the law. You’re always in reactive situations, and I got tired of that. I wanted to do something proactive.” Fortunately, he took up the right position to fulfill his goals, “Here, I feel like I’m making a difference. I’m being proactive and have the opportunity to shape city policy.”
In respect to actually making change, Portland has been one of the few cities at the forefront. After the Kendra James shooting, the IPR played a role in enforcing a prohibition for shooting at moving vehicles to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Portland seems to be moving in a favorable direction overall. “As for Portland, officer-involved shootings have gone down over the past years,” Severe states, “for this year, we have had five shootings here, if you went back ten years, we probably would have seen nine to ten and Portland is bigger now.”
As for change on a national level, society as a whole has been forced to involve itself in this conversation thanks to media publicity. This is the first step in trying to change the way things are but to really understand the extent of how far media can take us, I ask Severe his opinion on the subject. “I think media is very important,” Severe replies, “without the media, national attention on incidents like Ferguson would never have happened.” Severe believes the City of Portland has been able to learn from tragic deaths that should have been avoided like Kendra James, by creating policy for the future. And it’s nice to see some effort for change is happening on national level thanks to silver linings following the tragic death of Michael Brown. After Ferguson, President Obama led the establishment of a national committee which issued certain policies on how to police appropriately (Severe). Traditionally police oversight has been a city-based endeavor: “everyone has looked at it from their own different prisms,” Severe explains, “Media helped bring change.”
With all the attention on police brutality and misconduct, especially after Ferguson, you would think that the police officers would understand the repercussions of their actions. Even though armed officers like Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo were not indicted for actions of seeming police brutality, a national spotlight in such a negative manner can’t be on most people’s bucket-list. “I’m not too sure,” replies Severe, looking off into the distance, eyes flickering while contemplating the question at hand. “I remember reading about this one concept of tunnel-vision,” Severe says, “officers sometimes don’t think ahead, of future repercussions, when confronted with high-risk situations they are often put in.” How can officers possibly think of all future outcomes in the split-seconds they have to make decisions? They can put hours and hours of time at the shooting ranges, go through several training exercises, but nothing mirrors adrenaline rush they go through while acting in the line of duty. It is very easy to sit on the sidelines, sip a cup of hot coffee, and criticize the actions of an officer who used deadly force in a certain situation. There will be no way to emulate these encounters in simple training, and even if one is somehow created, pushing out such an initiative across the United States would be a huge challenge. The best bet to ameliorate police brutality on a vast-scale would be to campaign for legislative change, as said many times before.
According to Severe, Portland continues in its quest for a stronger community between the police and the citizens. “We are currently working with the DOJ to change policy for the better,” he explains enthusiastically. In the slightest glimmer of his eye, the modest man sitting right in front me, shows a tiny bit of pride – pride that is underappreciated and very much deserved. Maybe if it weren’t for Severe’s position, Portland wouldn’t be going in such a positive direction. But his modesty transcends those of the humblest, as Severe is not hesitant to point out flaws or areas of improvement in Portland’s Independent Police Review and civilian oversight systems. “Our system here isn’t very transparent, it’s difficult for people to access records. A couple hundred miles north in Washington, all you have to do is get on the computer and find out all the information,” Severe explains. “It’s not for the director to sit here and say, hey, we are doing a great job,” but what’s really important is how the public perceives how he is doing. “You talk to most people, and they’ll say: ‘yeah, we are doing a great job,’” he pauses, “but if you catch the right people at the right time, you’ll get some criticisms as well.” “What we don’t want is pent-up resentment to occur, that’s when bridging a possible gap between society and the Police bureau gets out of hand.” Unfortunately, the latter has happened in many places throughout the United States. How does one begin to solve this problem? Severe recounts a specific experience of his in Los Angeles, in a community with previous history regarding gang violence and distrust of police from the citizens. He strongly believes in having a truthful dialogue; a place where people can speak the truth and have a reconciliatory process where collaboration occurs. This, in accompaniment with strong persistence of legislative reform is the way the director sees change happening.
What we need to do is start learning from the events that happened in the past eighteen months. “If we learn from our mistakes, we will be on the correct path,” Severe argues. “As far as Portland is concerned, I have a better sense of what’s going on,” “we are on the right track to learning from our mistakes and making changes.” Sitting at the other end of the table, I remember the Kendra James incident vaguely, I was in elementary school like I was when the Bolen shooting happened. “It hit us pretty hard as IPR was upcoming back then,” Severe recollects as well, “but it has given the experience we need to move forward.”
Slowly but surely, change is actually happening on a nationwide level. However it should be happening more quickly. It’s a continuing disappointment to many, that the officer’s are not getting legally punished for their actions of seeming police brutality. Very recently, decisions like the one made not to press charges against Officer George Hernandez who fatally shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in October of 2014, sometimes cause violent protest that may be unproductive in the long-run. But as Severe says, “as far is Portland is concerned, ultimately, I feel pretty optimistic,” and hopefully the United States as a nation will be able to follow shortly on the journey to violence’s end.
1) Achisa, James. “Police Shooting of Mike Brown, An Unarmed Black
Teenager, Sparks Anti-Police Brutality Uprising in Missouri – Counter Current News.” Counter Current News, 11 Aug. 2014. Image. 8 Dec. 2015.
2) Budnick, Nick. “Anatomy of a Police Shooting: Citizens will now get the chance to dissect
Kendra James’ death.” Wweek.com. Willamette Week, 3 June 2003. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
3) City of Portland. Office of the City Auditor. Independent Police Review. Independent Police
Review Annual Report 2013. Print. 12 Aug. 2014.
4) Eiserer, Tanya. “Civil rights group criticizes Dallas police for deadly uses of force.”
Dallasnews.com. The Dallas Morning News, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.
5) Form for Complaints or Commendations about Portland Police. Officer of the City Auditor:
Independent Police Review, n.d. Print.
6) Gennaco, Miller, and Julie Ruhlin. Rev. of Portland Police Bureau Officer-Involved Shootings
and In-Custody Deaths, by OIR Group. Print. Nov. 2014.
7) “Portland Police Bureau Discipline Guide.” Chart. City of Portland. Portland Police Bureau,
8) Severe, Constantin. Personal interview. 20 Oct. 2015.
9) United States. Dept. of Justice. Officer of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008. US Dept. of Justice, Oct. 2011. Web. 3
10) Walden, Michael. “Update: Portland police ID man shot by police.” Oregonlive.com. The
Oregonian, 23 May 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.