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Wednesday, April 07, 2004  

News: Witnesses say police shot docile man

Eye witness accounts of the shooting of James Jahar Perez, the second African-American killed in Portland by police in ten months, are consistent. They say he was not aggressive. Perez, who was unarmed, was shot and killed less than 30 seconds after two police officers stopped him for not signaling a turn. The Oregonian is investigating what happened.

Its reporters spoke with four people who had viewed the scene from different angles.

Two witnesses say Officer Jason Sery had his gun drawn when he approached James Jahar Perez's car for what Portland police have said was a routine traffic stop in broad daylight.

Within seconds, Sery and his partner were shouting at Perez, the witnesses said. Both heard someone scream, "Get out of the car," and Perez's question, "What did I do?"

One witness who said he had direct view into the driver's side of the car said he saw Sery's partner, Sean Macomber, briefly pull on Perez's left shoulder.

Moments later, according to four people who were present, Sery and his partner backed away from the car, with Sery firing three shots from a crouched stance in rapid succession. One witness recalls hearing one of the police officers shout, "Don't do it," shortly before the first shot rang out.

. . .The witnesses said they saw nothing that would explain why the North Precinct officer fired. Police have said Sery, 29, had the "subjective belief" that Perez had a gun. Perez did not.

The complication for three of the four witnesses described in the Oregonian today is that they have aspects of their lives that may damage their credibility. Two are convicted felons. One has settled a lawsuit again the PPD for use of excessive force in arresting him. Among the policemen cited in his suit was Sery, who fired the fatal shots.

Two of the four witnesses interviewed by The Oregonian have felony convictions. All four say they did not know Perez or either officer by sight. One of the witnesses, Martin Dennis, filed a 2003 lawsuit against the city charging excessive use of force three years go by several officers, including Sery.

"I've been on parole. I hope that doesn't make me an incredible (sic) witness. But my statement isn't going to change," said Kim Sundquist, 47, who was convicted of drug possession. "Whoever it hurts or helps, I want people to know the truth and not for any other reason."

All say they are willing to testify at an inquest or grand jury. Richard Brooks, who is on probation for a burglary conviction, was interviewed by police shortly after the shooting. He reported the contact to his probation officer the following day and underwent a urinalysis. But he has yet to be contacted by investigators.

Prosecutors, who are inclined to agree with the police anyway, will doubtlessly take the criminal records of the witnesses into account. The testimony of the pair will be discounted because of their own run-ins with the law. Though Griffin's arrest resulted in no charges, he will likely be treated as if his testimony is dubious, too. The same issue of credibility will arise if the two officers are indicted and a case actually goes to trial. Prosecution of police officers rarely occurs in such shootings.

Who comes forward as a witness in these situations impacts the outcomes, I believe. In the Kendra James shooting last year, the eye witness with the best view of what happened, her boyfriend, was also a convicted felon. Darnell White was in the car with James and saw all that occurred. James was shot and killed when she moved into the front seat of the car and tried to drive away. White disappeared after the shooting. He was taken into custody on unrelated charges later. His criminal record and shady behavior effectively undermined what he told investigators and a grand jury.

About 30 percent of Americans have had an encounter with the criminal justice system. I don't understand why the persons willing to testify in police misconduct cases seem likely to come from that demographic, which means they are less likely to be believed. Perhaps citizens who have not been arrested, or accused of a misdemeanor or felony themselves are indifferent about police abuse they witness or afraid to get involved.

The policemen involved in the Perez shooting may have violated departmental policy.

The witness accounts raise questions about the tactics chosen by Sery and his partner. In an ordinary traffic stop, Portland Police Bureau officers approach a car on either side with their guns holstered. In what police call "high risk" stops involving a potentially dangerous motorist, officers are trained to wait for additional backup, draw their guns, take cover and instruct occupants to leave the vehicle.

But, if the witnesses are dismissed as not to believed, their accounts of the encounter will not matter.

11:45 PM