by Casey Parks and Anna Griffin
By the time the violence ended, Keaton Otis had bullets in his boxer shorts and Taser probes in the hood of the sweatshirt that prompted police to pull him over.
Otis was driving his mother's silver Toyota Corolla on May 12, 2010, when Portland officers stopped him near the Lloyd Center because he failed to signal a turn -- and because they thought the 25-year-old African American man looked and drove "like a gangster." He was slouched low in the driver's seat and wore his hood over his head when police cars first pulled up behind and alongside the Corolla. Otis eyed them suspiciously in his rear-view mirror, they said, and seemed to veer his car away from them like a man attempting to elude capture.
Once he stopped, police surrounded the Corolla with four vehicles and ordered Otis to put his hands on his head. Otis, officers later testified, grabbed the steering wheel and screamed obscenities instead.
Officer Chris Burley, a former high school physics teacher and the team’s strongest member, reached into the car and grabbed Otis’ left arm in a martial arts hold. Otis pulled back, officers said, with enough force to nearly pull Burley inside the vehicle.
Three other officers fired Tasers. Otis grimaced in pain, officers said, yet managed to open the glove compartment and pull out a Crown Royal bag. Inside was “something bulky:” a gun.
Otis shot Burley twice in the legs, according to police, two quick pops that neighbors confused with fireworks. Burley’s colleagues fired 32 times in response, striking Otis with 23 and leaving the Corolla and the pavement studded with bullet casings.
The entire encounter lasted less than 10 minutes. The investigation took three weeks. The case, police and prosecutors said, was tragic but clear-cut: Officers did not recognize that Otis was in the midst of a mental health crisis. No matter. Pull a gun on police officers, and they are legally entitled to respond with maximum force.
Four years later, Portland Police officers receive better training and more assistance when it comes to recognizing people exhibiting signs of mental illness. Investigations into deaths caused by police are more transparent.
None of those reforms had anything to do with Keaton Otis. They were triggered by other cases; A police sniper shot Aaron Campbell in the back. James Chasse was chased and tackled for the apparent crime of urinating on a Pearl District sidewalk.
Yet people still talk about Otis, still debate his death. Why?
Because police officers still respond first to most mental health crises, and still struggle to keep such encounters from turning violent. Because African Americans still feel targeted and abused, and activists for both police reform and better mental health care still strain to find sympathetic and accessible faces to illustrate their causes.
And because Otis, who looked more like a student body president than a gangster bound for trouble, left behind two parents determined to make sure the world remembered the lesson of their son’s death.
They disagreed, though, on what exactly the rest of us should learn.
Guilt drives a father
Police reform activists were incensed, but not shocked, by Otis’s death.
For more than a generation, they’ve maintained that Portland police unfairly and illegally target African Americans, particularly men, and that encounters between officers and people of color are more likely to turn violent.
They protest every time an officer shoots a young black man and brace every summer for an uptick in violence.
But the movement’s momentum has been inconsistent — “Portlanders get outraged for a moment, then we go back to our lattes,” said former state Rep. Jo Ann Hardesty – in part because the cause has lacked compelling spokespeople.
Fred Bryant filled that void perfectly.
Bryant first heard about the shooting from TV reports that said police had killed an unidentified black man. Two days later, he said, his favorite newscast showed a picture of the victim. Bryant sank back into his couch, suddenly breathless.
The dead man was his son.
Bryant and Keaton Otis had never been close. Otis was the product of a brief romance between his father and mother. Bryant didn’t even know his son’s last name until after the shooting, though he’d worked in recent years to rebuild their relationship.
Bryant, tall and bald-headed with a top row of gold-capped teeth, knew that he’d made mistakes. He had been an alcoholic when he and Otis’s mother got together, but at the time of his son’s death had been sober for more than two decades and earned a living cooking and selling barbecue. He’d wanted to be more involved in Otis’s life, and was heartbroken at losing that chance. So he set out to learn more about his son’s death.
A relative took Bryant to the funeral home before his son was cremated. Otis’ face was bruised, his palms pocked by gunshots. But Bryant still saw himself in his son’s broken body.
Otis inherited his father’s dark skin tone and imposing height. Officers said Otis caught their eye, in part, because of how he slumped down in this mother’s Corolla. Bryant wondered if that was his fault. If only he had been shorter, maybe his son wouldn’t have grown to be 6-feet-4 and needed to fold himself into that sedan. Maybe he wouldn’t have appeared so suspicious to police.
A week after Otis’ death, Bryant attended a service for Aaron Campbell, another young black man killed by police a few months earlier. Bryant had known Campbell’s family and hoped the memorial would help him make sense of both deaths. There, he met several of the leading figures in Portland’s African-American community, including Hardesty and Rev. LeRoy Haynes, who helped create the Dallas chapter of the Black Panthers in the 1960s.
They told Bryant they believed that police deliberately targeted young black men, and they offered to help Bryant plan a memorial protest for his son.
Bryant led his first monthly vigil on June 12, 2010, a month after Otis’s death. The event, held on the inner Northeast Portland corner where Otis died, drew young white social justice workers, older black ministers and community organizers with decades of experience campaigning for police reform.
The protesters had not known Keaton Otis. To them, he was a symbol of systemic problems, another in a long list of black men who died too young: They talked about Otis in the same breath as Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, and Oscar Grant, whose death at the hands of Oakland transit police was dramatized in the movie “Fruitvale Station.”
That year, officers in The City That Works killed four people. They’d killed 27 in the preceding decade.
In most other cases, the families of the deceased quickly stepped out of the limelight that accompanied their grief. Some fought for civil settlements that bound them to silence or left the hard work of explaining their loss to lawyers. Bryant didn’t hire an attorney or file a lawsuit. He just talked.
“The more Fred talked, the more people said, ‘That story the police are telling doesn’t make sense,’” Hardesty said.
The activists who began calling their group “Justice for Keaton Otis” mistrust anything Portland officers say or do. They believe police are capable of anything, including fabricating evidence to justify killing someone.
Together, they read through transcripts from the Multnomah County grand jury investigation into Otis’ death. Bryant stopped selling barbecue, and instead spent his days researching.
“I went to school,” he said.
The work grew into a point-by-point deconstruction of the confrontation between police and Otis. In activists’ version of events, gang-enforcement officers targeted Otis because he was young and black. Police provoked the confrontation, went into the traffic stop planning to commit violence and even planted the gun officers say Otis fired. Bryant and other advocates did not believe a man as scrawny as Otis – 155 pounds at his autopsy – could have held his own against a cop, or grabbed a gun and fired while being Tasered.
“It’s the black-man-as-superhero narrative,” Hardesty said.
Bryant and his supporters watched and re-watched a pixelated iPhone video of the shooting taken by a young woman from an apartment overlooking the scene. Bryant paid to have the video’s sound enhanced. He became convinced the video showed Otis submitting to police, that he told them, “I have my hands up!” and that officers yelled, “Let’s do it,’ before they opened fire.
“My mission is to clear my son’s name, to put the truth out there, to show who Keaton was,” Bryant said. “Until I get justice, it doesn’t stop.”
But as months turned to years, he found it hard to continue. The police bureau’s citizen review committee refused to hear his appeal. Requests for pro bono legal help to reopen the case went unanswered. Nothing changed. Fighting for justice required real money, and required him to talk constantly about the day his son died.
Vigil-goers offered to buy him business cards and helped pay his rent. They suggested alternative healers who might ease his mounting stress.
Yet by the September 2013 meeting, Bryant struggled to stand from a seat he’d taken on the curb. He thought the Justice for Keaton work had given him an ulcer. Guilt was consuming him, he told participants.
Not just guilt over Keaton: His oldest son had congestive heart failure, a malady Bryant worried he’d passed along. His oldest daughter was no longer speaking to him. She was mad that Bryant, who did not raise her, now spent all his time obsessively recounting Otis’s death.
Bryant told the group of protestors that he’d barely left the house recently. He spent most days sleeping.
“I get tired of talking about this thing, over and over for three years,” he said. “It’s like sandpaper, wearing away.”
Less than two months later, Bryant suffered a stroke and died. More than 200 people attended his November 2013 funeral, a four-hour affair that focused on Bryant’s work pursuing justice for Otis.
Many blamed the Portland Police for Fred Bryant’s death. He was a victim, they said, just like his son.
A mother searches for answers
Felesia Otis hasn’t attended any of the vigils held in her son's name.
She doesn’t believe her son was killed because he was black. She doesn’t blame the officers who shot him for his death.
Otis’ death was traumatic, she says, but so was his life, in ways Fred Bryant and the protestors who still meet every month knew nothing about.