This Week in the Mercury


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Examining the Police Shooting of Bradley Morgan

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Mar 1, 2012 at 3:29 PM

Bradley Lee Morgan
  • Bradley Lee Morgan
The day before he threatened to jump off a downtown parking garage early the morning of January 25, later to be shot dead by police, Bradley Morgan was alternately distraught, calm, and methodical.

He was wrecked over a recent breakup with his longtime girlfriend, the mother of his 8-month old son. A few weeks before, Korena Bartley had obtained a restraining order and moved out after he'd pushed her during one of their frequent fights over money, and lately Morgan had been convinced she'd been seeing someone new.

Frantically, he called Bartley three times the night before he died, and then dialed her five more times in the hours before his death. The last came at 3:05 AM, just minutes before he called police with his suicide threat. And then there were the text messages, and the Facebook posts. Each was increasingly desperate. In one voice mail, he threatened to "jump off a building." In another, he said he was coming over to see her. He never got to do either.

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Just less than an hour after that call, Morgan was shot at, and killed, by a pair of officers who'd been trying to coax him down from an awkward perch atop a SmartPark garge at SW 4th and Morrison. It was Portland's first fatal officer-involved shooting in more than year.

Yesterday, Portland police and the Multnomah County District Attorney's office—which cleared Officer David Scott and Sergeant John Holbrook of any criminal wrongdoing—released 600-plus pages of interviews, 911 calls, grand jury transcripts, and investigative reports that all probe Morgan's death. The documents shed new light on the misery and heartbreak that led to Morgan's crisis, and death, and they offer a rare window into the difficult, high-wire task cops face hundreds of times a year when confronted with a potential suicide.

"I was able to communicate with him effectively," Scott told the grand jury at one point. "Or that's what I thought at the time."

Friends and family knew Morgan was having a rough time. The 21-year-old had finally gotten work, at a temp agency, but his troubles with Bartley had left him slipping away.

Before the breakup, he and Bartley had been together for three years. Once, she told detectives, when she was seven months pregnant with their son, Kannon, the couple fought because he forgot her birthday. He threw something at her, and she left and filed a restraining order. They patched things up, she told detectives, and life continued on until the baby was born.

Little changed. Morgan was edgy about the messy peculiarities of life with a baby—crying and diaper-changing—and they began to bicker about finances; by late last year, neither was working and they'd recently moved back in with his parents. When he did get some got money, Bartley said, he'd spend it on pot and cigarettes. It all fell apart during their last fight, in December, when he pushed her while she was holding the baby and then tried to keep her from calling 911.

She got the restraining order, and they gingerly coordinated visits with his son. But he was devastated, and reportedly tried suicide once before, right after the breakup, and had grown depressed and quarrelsome.

Eventually, he'd had enough. And the afternoon before his death, January 24, he did some purposeful shopping. First, at the Fred Meyers on North Interstate, he picked up a can of Monster energy drink and a cheap plastic gun, complete with moving parts, called the "Peacemaker." Then he hit up a nearby auto parts store for some black Krylon paint.

He'd hoped to get a hold of Bartley later that night, trying to see his son one more time. But when she stopped picking up, he visited a childhood friend, Christina Swartwout. That night, Swartwout told detectives, he was oddly detached from subjects that lately had been enraging him: Bartley, and the fact that she had custody of their son, Kannon. They played videogames, and she remembered him saying something like "life was so shitty it would be better off if he was not here." His goodbye, she added, was unusually, eerily long.

The 911 call came a few hours later, at 3:18 am. Morgan told a dispatcher he'd used a knife to rob someone (a claim that cops told him pretty immediately they knew was bogus) and was atop a downtown garage, planning to jump.

He gave his name, and Bartley's name, and asked the dispatcher to contact her, too. When asked if he had a gun, he ominously replied "possibly," and vowed he wouldn't climb down if and when cops asked him to.

Morgan had been taking to Facebook to hash out grudges and grievances with Bartley and other relatives. But when he posted last, minutes before the 911 call, via his phone, he posed a grim question: "What would be the best way to die? To jump to my death or get shot to death?"

The dispatcher worked furiously to keep Morgan on the line while cops first figured out which garage he was atop, and then how to get to him. She asked Morgan if he'd reconsider, so his kid would have a dad. He wasn't budging: "you know, I, I'm thinking past that right now." Then she promised to listen to his side of the story, gently poring over intensely personal details and speaking with him in depth about his custody battle.

"You know, I appreciate the sweet talk, I really do, you know," he allowed, "and it feels good to actually be able to talk to somebody finally."

The dispatcher later asked Morgan, if he got his apparent death wish, how the cops who shot him might feel about it. And, invoking the show COPS, he said, "I hope pretty good, because that's what they do for a living you know."

Eventually, he lets on that the officers had found him and were coming his way. She told him to put his arms up and go peacefully. At first he was "cool with that." But then he stiffened back up and said he wouldn't go. He was worried that he'd gone too far and that he wouldn't be able to see his son again, no matter what did or didn't happen atop the garage.

Officer Scott did most of the talking on the garage. He was with Holbrook and another officer, James Richardson, who was called over to help after Morgan said a different officer who'd been nearby was too short and that he didn't like him.

The talks were tricky. Morgan would seem receptive, the officers said, but then veer back into resisting their entreaties, complaining that cops had roughed him up before (he'd had a record beyond the restraining orders) and saying that whatever services might be offered wouldn't be enough. He was pacing, smoking, and pulling sips from a Monster can, all the while keeping one hand suspiciously out of sight.

Scott testified that he thought Morgan was imminently going to jump and that he wanted to make face-to-face contact. But Morgan was hard to hear, so Scott decided to get closer—and asked Morgan's permission before doing so. He also told Morgan that his "goal" was to get him to come down safely, and that he wanted to talk to him about that, and Morgan said that was okay, too.

Scott said he dipped into his crisis intervention training, remembering lessons on how to try to break through to someone who's enduring a mental health crisis and how to try to discern what might be animating someone's behavior. He said Morgan was calm, engaged, lucid.

They talked about Morgan's failed romance and Scott thought he seemed sincere. It seemed like they were developing a rapport. Scott and Holbrook also let him know that they were pretty sure the robbery claim was a ruse and that he shouldn't worry about it. Then Scott started mentioning "resources" like Project Respond, places that could help Morgan.

Morgan wasn't having any of it and still wouldn't listen when Richardson promised that he'd stay with Morgan the whole way through whatever intake process might follow if only Morgan climbed down and accepted treatment. But the talk didn't go anywhere, and soon the officers were back to talking with Morgan about his baby.

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This all took just a few minutes. But with little sign of a breakthrough, and as Morgan dug in emotionally, Scott says he realized another hurdle, that Morgan's perch was too unsafe to climb up to, and likely down from, without a fire truck ladder. About then, a lieutenant called and suggested that the bureau's crisis negotiators be called out. Scott told him the suggestion was a good one.

They kept talking, while waiting for the negotiators. Morgan mentioned the rapidly approaching time of 4:20 as a good moment to jump, which set the officers on edge. The notion that Morgan maybe had a gun was rustling around in Scott's mind—all of the officers fixated on the hand they couldn't see—but Scott said he was always more concerned Morgan would go over the side of the garage.

Then, as Scott put it, things "deteriorated pretty quickly." Morgan started talking about pulling out a gun and asking what would happen if he did.

"I don't want to say 'Well, I'm going to shoot you,' so I said, 'Brad, why would you want to ruin our lives,' trying to build on that personal thing and make him see me as a person, and I don't want to be involved in that situation."

Negotiators were still several minutes away, and things were getting tense. Holbrook had called in James Nett, a North Precinct sniper trained to use an AR-15 rifle; Holbrook, the commanding officer on scene, had decided that Morgan had made one too many threats to get just a bean-bag. Nett also was worried about where Morgan's right hand was.

Morgan started digging that hand into his waistband, and Scott and Holbrook got ready to do what they said they didn't want to have do. They unholstered their own weapons—Nett remembers hearing them tel Morgan to show his hands—and they got ready to shoot.

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Just a few seconds later, Morgan finally produced the black-painted replica handgun and pointed it. Scott was shocked, thinking Morgan's pocket was big enough to hold the thing. Holbrook yelled "no," and started firing his gun. Scott's gun didn't work at first, and after he did a "tap and rack" to fix it, fired one shot. Soon after, Morgan dropped down out of sight. There was no grunt, no groan, no indication he'd been hit.

Five bullets were recovered, all from Holbrook's and Scott's guns. One hit Morgan in the head, at the hairline, killing him quickly. Another passed through his hoodie. Nett says he was getting ready to shoot, too, but that Morgan had moved too much—and that his fast-traveling rifle bullets might have wound up inside the nearby Hilton Hotel.

Scott was asked why he pulled his weapon, and he echoed the trainers who were set to testify in the Aaron Campbell case, explaining that his training demanded he take defensive action to get ahead of whatever threat Morgan might pose if he pulled a gun. He explained that he fired because he had no cover, no place to run, and that Morgan, because he had a high ground and a ledge, could have had easy pickings, "which would have been potentially disastrous for us."

It wasn't until Scott said he actually saw the gun that he realized Morgan wasn't just trying to provoke the cops into shooting him while he worked to muster the will to jump. Holbrook also reflected on that question:

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When Morgan's body was found by tactical officers hours later, his finger was still on the trigger of the toy gun. His backpack carried a change of clothes. His pockets held a lighter, a TriMet ticket, and $19.06 in assorted bills and coins.

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