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Portland police chief is expected to step down amid furor over accidental shooting

June 26, 2016

The police chief of Portland, Ore., is expected to announce his retirement Monday amid unsettled accusations that he tried to cover up the accidental shooting of a friend during a camping trip.

Larry O’Dea, 53, a 30-year veteran of the police department, first told an investigator that the friend, Robert Dempsey, had somehow managed to shoot himself in the back during the late April trip to southeast Oregon. Dempsey, 54, who had to be airlifted to a hospital in Boise, Idaho, was treated and released.

Though O’Dea had denied any responsibility for the shooting in a statement to a local deputy sheriff, the chief later called Dempsey and apologized for shooting him. Dempsey subsequently relayed that information to the deputy.

The story that emerged was that the chief had been getting a beer from a cooler when his rifle somehow went off and wounded Dempsey, who was sitting nearby with others in the hunting and camping party. The armed group was arrayed in a line of lawn chairs, drinking beer and picking off sage rats running along a dirt bank.

Mayor Charlie Hales will probably replace O’Dea with a captain rather than with one of four assistant chiefs who are also under investigation for not taking internal action, according to the Oregonian newspaper. Selection of a new chief will be delayed until after Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler takes office in January, the paper reported, citing unidentified sources.

An investigation of the shooting by state police and the state Justice Department is due to be wrapped up shortly, the Oregonian said. Investigators are curious about why none of the four assistant chiefs called for an internal investigation or why Hales – who learned the details from O’Dea – kept them secret until word leaked out.

O’Dea will become the city’s 10th chief to depart in the last three decades. Some lasted hardly a year. Former Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Mark Kroeker, appointed to the Portland job in 1999, lasted until 2003. He resigned under pressure from liberal Portlanders reacting to his hard-nosed policies and beliefs – including his view that homosexuality was a perversion.  

When O’Dea took over in January 2015, he promised to lead with strength and integrity, and to stay in office for longer than some of his precedessors. “In the past,” he said, “changing chiefs has been like, ‘Off with their heads, out the door, who’s next?’”

He’s the second chief of a major West Coast city to step down amid misconduct claims. A scandal in Oakland resulted in the recent hiring and firing of four police chiefs in 10 days after an officer’s suicide led to sexual misconduct revelations. Twenty-eight Oakland and suburban police officers have been implicated in an alleged group relationship with an Oakland prostitute. 

Anderson is a special correspondent.

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