Gresham police officers cleared in McDowell shooting
Multnomah County grand jury finds police officers “acted appropriately”
By Mara Stine
The Gresham Outlook, Feb 17, 2011, Updated Feb 17, 2011
Jim Clark / Gresham Outlook
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis called the Jan. 31 shooting of veteran Anthony McDowell a tragedy. A Multnomah County grand jury decided Thursday, Feb. 17, that the Gresham shooting was justified.
A Multnomah County grand jury determined Thursday that two Gresham police officers acted appropriately in the Jan. 31 fatal shooting of a suicidal war veteran.
Transcripts and audio of the 9-1-1 call leading to the shooting detail chilling exchanges between Anthony McDowell, 50, his wife Teresa and his sister-in-law.
“My husband has PTSD and um, he has a gun and he’s trying to leave the house,” Teresa told the 9-1-1 dispatcher during the cold, windy evening. Her husband responded by demanding the keys to his vehicle, “or I’ll do it right out here in the (expletive) front yard.”
In the end, McDowell “leveled a rifle at Gresham police officers and was shot and killed by officers who feared for their own immediate safety, the safety of their follow officers and the wider community,” said Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis during a press conference Thursday. “Moments before, evidence shows the man had failed to respond to multiple commands to drop his weapon.”
No criminal wrongdoing
The jury’s unanimous return of a “not true bill” on Thursday, Feb. 17, means that jurors thought the officers actions were justified under state criminal law. It also means the two officers Det. Matthew Galbreath and Officer Jason Justus will not be indicted on criminal charges for the shooting.
Both officers fired at and struck McDowell, said Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger. McDowell died in front of his house in the 24000 block of Southeast Oak Street of a gunshot wound to the chest, according to the medical examiner.
McDowell was a U.S. Army sergeant, an Iraq War veteran and the founder of a nonprofit organization in Tualatin to benefit veterans. His family has questioned the police department’s version of events, saying that McDowell emerge from the house holding his rifle above his head in a gesture of surrender at the time of the shooting. Relatives wonder if McDowell’s hearing loss, due to his war service, prevented him from hearing police commands.
His wife, Teresa, reportedly told one media outlet that she did not tell 9-1-1 dispatchers that her husband was suicidal. She reportedly said reports that he’d run out of medication for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder were inaccurate, that police didn’t give him enough time to comply with officers’ demands that he drop the weapon and that he wasn’t pointing the gun at anyone. Relatives also said his 13-year-old daughter witnessed the shooting from a vehicle.
Armed with powerful rifle
Junginger said McDowell emerged from the house armed with a 30.06-scoped hunting rifle, a weapon so powerful it can penetrate a police officer’s ballistic vest. McDowell failed to comply with “multiple commands by several different officers,” Junginger said, adding that a next-door neighbor heard the commands to drop the weapon.
Junginger did not comment on whether the gun was over McDowell’s head. He is not privy to the grand jury testimony, but said that information will become public when transcripts of the testimony are released, possibly in a week.
Bemis, however, said when McDowell was facing police officers, he pulled the powerful hunting rifle’s bolt back the first step in loading a round and aimed it in the officers’ direction.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Don Rees said the grand jury heard from witnesses, including McDowell’s wife, sister-in-law and daughter, all of who were at the scene. Jurors also reviewed exhibits, photographs, medial records including his mental health history and listened to the 9-1-1 call his wife made.
They were instructed to decide whether any individual had criminal responsibility in his death.
In general, state law allows police officers to use deadly force to make an arrest or prevent an escape if the officer’s life or personal safety is at risk
Chilling call for help
During the 9-1-1 call, the dispatcher asked McDowell’s wife Teresa what her husband was threatening to do in the front yard. “I’m assuming he’s gonna try to shoot himself,” she said.
Teresa told the dispatcher her husband has post-traumatic stress disorder and ran out of his medication.
“You wanna watch it right out here in front?” McDowell asked.
Then he managed to get a gun and ammunition. “He’s loading it. He’s loading it. Give me the (expletive) gun Tony. He’s loading the rifle.”
At that point the dispatcher told Teresa to go somewhere safe. “Let’s get you away from him,” the dispatcher said. “Where is the gun now?”
“He left it outside cause he got the wrong size ammo and he can’t fit it in there,” Teresa said. “Yes, he’s inside right now trying to find the right size ammo for the gun.”
She tells the dispatcher she’s by the front door. “He found it, he found it.” There are crying sounds, background noise and something unintelligible. “He’s loading the (expletive) gun.”
“I understand that. We need to get you away from him,” the dispatcher replies.
Meanwhile, McDowell tells his sister-in-law that he wants to see his parents and demands his car keys. The sister-in-law grabs the rifle and McDowell chases her while she tries to secure it in a vehicle.
Then he goes back inside the house. Teresa tells the dispatcher that their 13-year-old daughter is in her bedroom.
In a ball on the floor
McDowell then collapses on his bed sobbing. Although there are guns in the room, “he doesn’t have any,” Teresa says. “… He’s just kind of in a ball on the bedroom floor crying.”
“Has he made suicide attempts before?” the dispatcher asks.
“He has been in the psych ward before yes, I had to call 9-1-1.”
“… Has he ever said he wants to hurt other people?” the dispatcher asks.
“No, he just wants to hurt himself.”
The dispatcher tells Teresa to get her daughter out of the house. The sister-in-law leaves with the girl.
Teresa and the dispatcher talk about
other phones in the house and numbers Teresa can be reached at. Then Teresa says her husband is getting weirder. “He’s up and looking for his keys again,” she says, “acting very strange.”
His sister-in-law returns and McDowell grows agitated. The dispatcher tells Teresa that police want her to go outside.
“He is wiping blood all over the walls,” Teresa says. “OK, he has a knife now. He just stabbed the knife into the wall. So if someone could get in here sometime today.”
“I want you to go outside,” the dispatcher says.
“OK, I am heading out towards the cops,” Teresa says, assuring the dispatcher that nobody else is in the house with her husband. About 13 seconds go by and she sees her daughter in a car.
“Are you with the officers now?” dispatch asks.
“Yes, I am.”
The call ends a few second later.
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis said he struggles to reconcile the man in the frantic 9-1-1 call with the McDowell who weeks earlier appeared before the city council as a poised patriot seeking support for a Veteran’s Day parade.
“The McDowell family’s loss is immeasurable, and we recognize that,” Bemis said. “We also feel great sympathy and gratitude for our two fine police officers, who did exactly what they were required to do in the situation to protect our community and who will undoubtedly carry the burden of that lethal decision for the rest of their lives.”
When asked if the incident will change the way Gresham police respond to calls involving people in such psychological crisis, Junginger said officers routinely respond to such calls. But in this instance, circumstances “didn’t allow them to even get close enough to make contact,” he said.
With the grand jury review complete, the Gresham Police Department’s Shooting Review Board will review court transcripts to determine whether the officers’ actions were within department policy and training standards, Junginger said.
“This is a tragic situation for everyone involved,” he added.
Both officers involved remain on paid administrative leave, as is standard procedure in a police shooting, pending the outcome of an investigation conducted by the East County Major Crimes Team with help from Portland police.
They are expected to return to work next week after being cleared for duty by a psychiatric counselor.
Statement by Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis:
Within a span of minutes, on the night of Jan. 31, events unfolded in our community that will forever change the lives of everyone involved.
A well-loved veteran went into crisis at his home on Southeast Oak Street in Gresham, leveled a rifle at Gresham police officers, and was shot and killed by officers who feared for their own immediate safety, the safety of their fellow officers and the wider community.
Moments before, evidence shows the man had failed to respond to multiple commands to drop his weapon.
Today, after several days of close examination of the incident, a Multnomah County grand jury unanimously found no culpability on the part of Gresham officers. Based on the evidence gathered by the Major Crimes Team, this is the outcome we expected, but at the same time, this validation of our officers' actions is no cause for celebration. This is a tragedy in every respect.
We all feel a deep sense of sadness for the family of Anthony McDowell, a man who worked tirelessly to aid the cause of veterans, and who on the day in question had, according to his wife's statement to a 9-1-1 dispatcher, run out of his medication.
Only weeks before, Mr. McDowell had appeared before the Gresham City Council to ask us to support his planned Veterans Day parade, which we did so gladly.
Since the Jan. 31 incident, as Mayor I have struggled to reconcile the enthusiastic image of the man I saw that day at Council with the man you can hear in the background of that frantic 9-1-1 call. An audio recording and transcript of that call is being released today.
The McDowell family's loss is immeasurable, and we recognize that.
We also feel great sympathy and gratitude for our two fine police officers, who did exactly what they were required to do in the situation to protect our community and who will undoubtedly carry the burden of that lethal decision for the rest of their lives.
The choice they had to make wasn't really a choice: An individual who radio dispatchers described as out of control, and as actively searching his property to arm himself with a gun, walked out of his house with a powerful hunting rifle, failed to respond to commands to drop his weapon, then pulled the gun's bolt back – the first step of loading a round – and leveled it in the direction of police officers.
The officers, in accordance with our City's policy on use of deadly force, and state law, acted in defense of human life, to prevent serious physical injury or death to themselves, their fellow officers and others. The threat they sensed was immediate in nature and they were called upon, in split-second conditions, to immediately halt that threat.
To not have acted as they did would have risked even greater consequences.
To ensure that all the facts emerge from this very difficult case, we will provide the full grand jury transcript on the City of Gresham website when the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office makes it available to us most likely within a week to 10 days.