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City loses Jeff Kaer police arbitration
- Nick Budnick
- Portland Tribune - News
Lieutenant who shot man in January 2006 will be reinstated
An independent arbitrator has reinstated Jeff Kaer as a Portland Police Bureau lieutenant with back pay, reversing his firing last year by Mayor Tom Potter for a fatal shooting.
Arbitrator Gary Axon found that Kaer 'made a series of poor decisions,' but the city failed to prove his actions merited firing. Instead, Axon wrote that a 30-day suspension was called for.
Kaer could not be reached for comment, but his wife, Kim, said he was 'elated' by the decision.
'It has been horrendous, the last two years,' she said, adding that from the day of the shooting, it 'has been just a huge blur, a huge heartache.'
'As big as he is he's a very gentle person,' Kim Kaer said. 'But he's not a crier. Maybe in the fifteen years I've known him he's cried twice, and one of them was the morning the shooting happened. He said 'I took another man's life.' '
The shooting of Dennis Lamar Young, 28, occurred after 2 a.m. on Jan. 4, 2006. Kaer left his assigned post in Southeast Precinct to respond to a frightened call from his sister about a suspicious car parked outside. Her son had recently had been shot in a road-rage incident, and she feared that the perpetrator or his friends had been driving by the house in preparation for more violence.
Kaer later told police investigators that he had approached an idling car only to have Young wake up and throw the car into reverse. Kaer said he was in the path of the car and fired his gun because he feared for his life.
In August 2007, Potter fired Kaer, citing several errors. Among them were that Kaer handled the call personally, rather than leaving it to Northeast Precinct officers. He also did not call in the vehicle's license plate number, which would have shown that the car was stolen.
Chief Rosie Sizer did not agree with Potter's decision, supporting instead a four-week suspension. The arbitrator cited her disagreement, as well as Kaer's 18 years of discipline-free policing, as among the reasons for his decision.
Potter issued a press release on Kaer's reinstatement, saying he was disappointed by the decision.
'I continue to believe such poor performance, when it ultimately leads to the death of any human being, merits more than a 30-day suspension,' Potter said in the press release. 'Nevertheless, the city will comply with the arbitrator's ruling.'
The arbitrator, however, rejected Potter's reasoning.
'When Dennis Young made the choice to put the car in gear, he set in force a new set of circumstances independent of any prior conduct by (Kaer),' Axon wrote. 'The new set of factors came into play that required (Kaer) to react with deadly force.'
'He was defending himself,' Kim Kaer told the Portland Tribune. 'It was really devastating for him, all of this. He's a laid back guy, he's very compassionate. He's not racist by any means; I'm black, he's white ... We are just so thankful to family and friends and members of the bureau who have been supportive.'
The arbitrator's ruling is unlikely to quell criticism of the shooting. Lawyer Craig Colby, who has tracked the case closely, questioned the arbitrator's decision. He contends that Kaer acted improperly when he responded to his sister's call and put Young in a wrist-lock.
'The city failed to ask the arbitrator to infer Kaer's motive for the secrecy with which he left his post, the secrecy with which he entered his sister's precinct, the computer silence he maintained when he saw the license plates, and the immediate application of painful violence to the sleeping motorist. Whatever the motive for these personal and private actions against the man who is now dead, it is wrong to say Kaer was exercising the neutral judgment of a police officer when he fired.'
The reversal of Potter's decision had been predicted by many police observers and labor-law experts. They cited Sizer's disagreement as well as a relatively untested argument employed by Potter to justify the firing.
Hank Kaplan, the attorney for the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association who represented Kaer in the arbitration, said he warned the city in advance that the arbitration would be overturned.
'It's going to cost the city a bundle of money to do what they should have done in the first place,' Kaplan said. 'It's probably going to be easily six figures.'