The photo showed James Jahar Perez handcuffed to the car door's post. He had already been shot three times in the torso and then tasered for several minutes. Even so, the first officers to respond to the scene assessed him as a danger and, before radioing emergency care, cuffed him. Watching these images, a middle-aged African American man called out, "This is cold-blooded murder."
But during the three-day inquest into last month's police shooting, that was about the only emotional outburst. Otherwise, a parade of experts on police training and protocol took the stand to scientifically spell out what may have happened. The most anticipated moment came when Jason Sery, the police officer who shot Perez, strode onto the stand. But his testimony was little more than a quick and emotionless narrative. After that, it took less than 20 minutes for the six-member jury to return a verdict.
Late Friday afternoon, the jury filed back into the courtroom and plainly announced they had determined the cause of death was a homicide--a verdict that surprised no one. The public inquest was not convened to determine guilt or innocence, only the means of death. But it was not the verdict that mattered to most people; it was the process the District Attorney took to reach that conclusion. It was the first public inquest into a Portland police shooting in nearly 20 years, and many people left the courthouse feeling underwhelmed by both the process and results.
A month ago, officers Sery and Sean Macomber pulled over Perez for failing to activate his turn signal 100 feet before taking a corner. (He apparently signaled about 30 feet before the turn.) Within 24 seconds after radioing the stop into headquarters, Sery shot Perez three times. How these events turned deadly so quickly is what the family and community members are hoping to discover. But over the three-day public inquest, few details or insights were provided.
According to officers and expert testimony, the turning point during the traffic stop seemed to be either when Perez reached for his seat belt, or when he began rolling up his tinted windows. At that point, according to testimony, the officers' reaction was "fight or flight."
Coupled with a shooting last May 5, the Perez incident further underscores concerns about police training protocol. In the incident last year, officers pulled over a vehicle in north Portland for allegedly rolling through a stop sign. When Kendra James, a 21-year-old passenger in the car, tried to drive away, Officer Scott McCollister shot her in the side. In both cases, officers decided not to retreat when faced with the option, but chose instead to use brutal force.
Taking the stand, Sery quickly laid out his version of events. His testimony concluded with his assessment that he "feared for [his] life." This was almost the same rationale that helped exonerate officer McCollister from any wrongdoing in the James shooting. Community activists worry that those words seem to have become a shield to protect officers from any liability.
The inquiry has also brought to the surface another barrier facing community members who demand accountability. As the inquest unfolded, Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association (PPA), has stepped front-and-center as a stubborn force resisting change at the police bureau. Talking with an Oregonian reporter about the inquest, King said, "I sort of hope we never do anything like this again because of the traumatic impact on the officers." He said nothing about the pain for the surviving Perez family, but went on to explain, "[The officers] were on display for the public--everybody, everywhere."
King also tried to explain that public inquests are detrimental to officers' safety. "Fear of intense public scrutiny shouldn't be part of the process of deciding whether to use deadly force when an officer feels his life is threatened."
In another attempt to resist police accountability, King balked when DA Shrunk first called for a public inquiry. Ultimately, Officer Sery threatened to sue the city if they proceeded. He stated that a public inquest would prejudice a grand jury against him. The DA conceded, and allowed the closed-door grand jury to occur first, before the inquiry.
Chief Derrick Foxworth was also "cop-blocked" by King, when he suggested a mandate saying that officers must write a report each time they pull a weapon--a policy followed by officers serving the State of Oregon, Beaverton, and Hillsboro. King gave a similar rationale, claiming such reports would inhibit police from using deadly force when necessary. But against King's wishes, Chief Foxworth moved forward with the plan. That mandate takes effect on July 1.
With the public inquiry completed, the case will now move into an internal investigation.
The Perez family is also considering a lawsuit against the police bureau and the city. (A lawsuit from the James family is still pending.) After the public inquest, the Perez family released a terse press statement: "Which unarmed motorist will be the next victim of Portland police--a police force that we learned is trained to use deadly force whenever they rightly or wrongly fear for their physical safety."