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December 21, 2006
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Force used to subdue 'threatening' Portland teen questioned

By Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian
The Oregonian

When Portland police encountered Sir J. Millage walking barefoot and shirtless in the chill December dawn, carrying what appeared to be a stick or metal rod, they thought he "might be unstable and possibly violent."

Witnesses who had spotted Millage walking amid traffic across the Broadway Bridge told police they thought the 5-foot-10 inch, 260-pound person was around 25. An officer later was struck by his "fixed gaze," as if he was looking "right through" him. He did not respond to shouted orders to drop his stick, and, according to the officer, waved it in a threatening manner.

One officer fired four Taser shots at Millage, and then another struck him six times with his baton because he wouldn't stay on the ground. They thought Millage was high on drugs.

Millage's great-grandmother and legal guardian, Pastor Mary Overstreet Smith, said Millage didn't respond to police because he's autistic.

He's also 15 years old and can hardly talk. She said she can't understand what led to the use of physical force that Dec. 5 morning and is sickened by what occurred.

"He can't speak for himself. It tears me up when I read this," she said, flipping through the police report. "I just feel like what they did was unwarranted."

The episode illustrates the challenge police increasingly face as they are called to deal with people either putting themselves in danger or acting oddly. Sometimes they display characteristics similar to people on drugs but are actually mentally ill or disabled.

Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz and Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, said the officers did what they're trained to do, based on the information they had.

Portland police say the person they encountered looked much older than his age because of his size. He didn't respond to their commands or the Taser shots, and appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"Officers will use what force is appropriate depending on the circumstance," Schmautz said. "You can't know what's going on with someone until they're in a controlled situation."

King said police don't have the "option of leaving or of not engaging."

"We have to take steps to stop or protect. You recognize that other people looking in on your actions later will have a different perspective because they have more information available to them than you did," King said. "In a case like this, we're grateful that we have tools like the Taser to control the person safely and reduce the amount of injury to the person and the officers involved."

Stephen Edelson, president of the Autism Society of Oregon that has provided training to Portland police on autism, said the big question that occurred to him was: "What did he do that was threatening because autistic individuals typically don't do that."

"Since there is an epidemic of autism now, there's going to be many situations like this," he said. "Maybe this will wake them (police) up to realize they really need to be much more aware of the characteristics of these individuals."

Overstreet Smith, who has raised her great-grandson since he was 41/2, said the teenager climbed out of the dining room window in the middle of the night. Awakened by a chill in the room, Overstreet Smith noticed the window open and thought a burglar had entered her house. Shortly afterwards, she realized the boy was gone.

She and her son raced outside to look for him.

By 6:20 a.m., she called 9-1-1, police records show.

The dispatcher thought her description of Sir might match that of a man who was reported walking along the Broadway Bridge at 3:55 a.m. and later stopped by police.

According to a police report provided by Overstreet Smith, two city employees in a pickup spotted a man wearing shorts and no shirt, and carrying a stick, walking west along the center line in the middle of the bridge. The two witnesses told police they tried to talk to the man but didn't get a response. They were concerned because he wasn't wearing enough clothing and might get hit by a car.

Officer Andrew Griggs, a three-year bureau member, spotted the man on Northwest Fifth Avenue, walking toward Irving. In his report, Griggs describes the man as "very large," holding a "large tan item" that looked like a large stick, or possibly a large piece of metal.

Griggs wrote that the man passed in front of him, swinging the metal object, as he looked directly at the officer with a "fixed gaze" and picked up his pace. "These indicators led me to believe that the man might be unstable and possibly violent and that distance was going to be important in my contact," the officer wrote.

Griggs called for cover, pulled up alongside Millage and yelled at him to stop. According to his report, the man hesitated for a moment "but gave no verbal response." He then continued walking. Griggs pulled up.

"As I got out of my car, I immediately pulled my Taser from its holster," he wrote. He aimed a laser dot on the man's chest, and ordered him to drop the weapon or he'd be Tased. He got no response.

Overstreet Smith said the officer didn't need to confront him. "I would've liked the officer to at least have asked him what his name was. . . ."

Griggs said the man came toward him, swinging the object in front of him in a threatening manner. Griggs fired his Taser, saying the man was engaging in "aggressive physical resistance" and "coming at me with the physical actions of attack," noting his size and presence of a weapon in his report.

Overstreet Smith wants to know what exactly her great-grandson was doing. "What were the 'physical actions of attack'?"

She said Millage often likes to play with plastic battens that he finds in chain-link fences. "It's a play thing to him," she said.

The first Taser shot made Millage drop what he was holding and fall to the ground. The officer yelled at him to get on his stomach, but Millage was screaming. The officer concluded that the man "seemed to be screaming more out of anger than pain." Because Millage wouldn't stay on the ground, Griggs fired a second Taser shot.

"In my experience using a Taser, I have yet to see a person not comply, so I believed this person was high on drugs and possessed an extremely high pain tolerance," Griggs wrote. Every time Millage tried to get up, he was Tased again.

Police later learned that the Taser shots were ineffective because one of the probes fired never attached to the teen's skin, Schmautz said. The bureau declined to release reports on the incident because Millage is a juvenile was not arrested, and the reports contained medical information.

Overstreet Smith said Millage probably didn't understand the officers' commands and was just trying to get up. She is disturbed that police concluded he was on some type of drug and called the police action "excessive physical force."

After the Taser shots, the backup officer, Michael Chapman, struck Millage six times with his baton on his right leg and right arm, police said.

As Overstreet Smith was talking to the emergency dispatcher, an officer came to her door. He told her that her great-grandson was at Adventist Medical Center. In the emergency room, she found Millage restrained, bleeding from his knees, with bruises to his right side and right leg from the Taser probes and baton strikes.

"He was smiling. He was glad to see us" she said, "but he couldn't tell us what happened."

Millage has the comprehension of a 2-year-old, the pastor said. Portland police have a disability identification card on file on the teenager, which Overstreet Smith updates each year. It has his full name, address, phone number and describes his autism, childhood degenerative disease, and his mannerisms, listing "mumbled language, speaks very little, doesn't answer commands, fearful of angry voices."

Millage's characteristics - from playing with an object in his hands to not having normal responses to pain or cold weather - fit those of severely autistic people, Edelson said.

Copyright 2006 The Oregonian
All Rights Reserved

Full story: Force used to subdue 'threatening' Portland teen questioned






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