Family group demands more accountability for police shootings

Special Reports

Family members of those killed in officer shootings seeking reforms in district attorneys' offices

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A group asking for more accountability from the criminal justice system is gaining momentum regionally. Pacific Northwest Family Circle (PNWFC) consists of families in Oregon and Washington who have been impacted by officer-involved deaths or other harm. They routinely hold protests outside Multnomah and Clackamas County Courthouses to protest. They’re launching a campaign this month for more “accountable and just” district attorneys in general, organizer Maria Cahill said.

Irene Kalonji co-founded ‘Pacific Northwest Family Circle’ to demand more police accountability for families of those who have died or been harmed in officer-involved shootings Oct. 12, 2019 (KOIN/Danny Peterson).

The organization was co-founded by Irene Kalonji, the mother of Christopher Kalonji, the 19-year old African-American who was killed by Clackamas County Sheriff’s deputies during a mental health crisis in 2016.

Shiloh Wilson-Phelps is the other co-founder of the group. Wilson-Phelps’ son, Bodhi Phelps, was killed by Gresham police three years ago in what was later determined by a grand jury to be a “legally justified” action. Police stated Phelps was armed with two knives, but that claim is contested by PCNW Family Circle.

Kalonji said the latest efforts by the volunteer community group she helped start is to inform the public about the power that district attorneys have and give potential 2020 DA candidates who want to engage in community conversations a platform by hosting two forums at the end of October.

“We need a progressive DA who would love to work with community, who would love to hear input from community, and who would love to work for the people, not for the system that was built,” she said.

The first event is a community safety forum on Oct. 26 from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Willamette Falls 710 6th St., Oregon City. The second event is a community-led DA candidate forum from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 27 at First Unitarian Church at 1211 SW Main St., Portland.

Christopher Kalonji was killed in an officer-involved shooting in 2016 by Clackamas County Sheriff’s deputies while he was experiencing a mental health crisis in his Oak Grove home. (Courtesy Irene Kalonji)

Kalonji said her son was experiencing a mental health crisis caused by post-traumatic stress disorder from a previous encounter with police at the time he was killed, which was shortly after he called 9 11 on himself at his home in Oak Grove. Police stated he was armed.

Christopher’s death was ruled a suicide, and the officers involved were cleared of all wrongdoing by a grand jury, even though the bullets that ended his life were from Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies’ guns.

Irene contests those claims, calling her son’s death a “murder.” Solidarity from other community members who’ve experienced something similar has only grown since Kalonji lost her son.

When she started Pacific Northwest Family Circle, there were only three families associated with it. Today, there’s 18.

Kalonji said it’s unfortunate that such an organization has to exist, but running it has kept her energized after the swell of grief following her son’s death.

“We decide to bring all the family together who had the same terrible experience to losing loved ones in hands of police…we start to organize.”

The pain felt by community members whose family members have been killed or harmed by police is a wound that continues to be felt by many. In a testament to that are the monthly vigils still held for Keaton Otis, a 25-year old African-American man who was pulled over by Portland police in 2010 and shot dead shortly after a confrontation in Northeast Portland.

Officers pulled Otis over for looking “like a gangster,” wearing a hoodie on a hot day, and for driving a car that he didn’t “fit” in, which was his mother’s Toyota, according to a 2013 report on Portland officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody from OIR Group of Los Angeles. That was the second of six reports on the matter, the latest of which came out in March.

Similar to Kalonji’s circumstances, Otis’ mother, Felesia Otis, was reportedly working to get her son help for increasingly severe mental health issues.

A monthly vigil for Keaton Otis (center) commemorates the 25-year-old who was killed in an officer-involved shooting in 2010 October 12, 2019 (KOIN/Danny Peterson)

Though the breakdown of events are contested to this day–as to whether Otis pulled a gun and twice shot one of the officers in the leg or not immediately after being tasered–it is seen as a flashpoint for many as an example of police targeting African-Americans that often result in violent encounters.

Some supporters in the African-American community of the protests against Otis’ death were then-civil rights activist and current City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Rev. LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform. Hardesty was also one of the first people to visit Kalonji after her son died, Kalonji said.

A grand jury found no wrongdoing in officers’ actions related to the officer-involved shooting that ended Otis’ life, nor did a Portland police’s internal review of the entire incident. The Use of Force Review Board, comprised of community members, police officers and representatives from the Independent Police Review Division, found the incident to be “in policy,” according to the city’s website.

Seven officers were present at the encounter, three of which unloaded 32 rounds, striking Otis 23 times, reports stated.

That was almost 10 years ago. And though Otis’ father, Fred Bryant, passed away in 2013, the monthly vigils he started to protest his son’s death are still attended by many at the spot he was killed, on the corner of Northeast 6th and Halsey.

That included about a dozen people, including Kalonji, at the Oct. 12 vigil, who held signs of remembrance, photographs, and wrote in chalk the names of over a dozen other Oregon and Washington people killed by police over the years.

Some bullet holes chipped in the brick building on that corner remain to this day.

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