Wednesday, August 24, 2016

No Time to Learn


Joe Hopkins won the National Golden Gloves Middleweight Championship in 1963 when he was 17.  His pro career was short-lived and the injury-prone boxer was banned by the Portland Boxing Commission in 1973 to prevent further injury.

        Something happened to Joe Hopkins. The young boxer, who had been a Golden Gloves champion as a teenager, described by Portland fight promoter, Sam Singer, as “a gentle, simple kid… [without] a mean bone in his body” was suddenly frantic.  Convinced that his neighbors had stolen a litter of kittens from his front porch, on the afternoon of October 8, 1974, he began shooting a handgun at their house.  A few days later the Portland Boxing Commission insisted that there was no brain damage that could explain his erratic behavior on the day he died, but he had been suspended from boxing the year before for fear of further injury.  No one was ever able to explain what happened to Joe.
            In 1974, before police officers received training in how to deal with people in mental and emotional crisis, they were aware of the problem and they approached the troubled young man carefully.  Officer William DeBellis, first on the scene, approached Hopkins on the front porch of his house and tried to talk with him.  Hopkins, yelling that he would kill DeBellis if he came any closer ran into his house and slammed the door.  DeBellis, and other officers who arrived quickly, kept watch on the house and soon found out that Hopkins had been in treatment at University Hospital’s North Psychiatric Unit.  Three officers watched the house while waiting for help to arrive, but none of them noticed when Hopkins slipped out the back door and made his way downtown.
            Hopkins had been in trouble before; arrested in 1971 for frequenting a gambling house, he had been in and out of the Psychiatric Unit and was currently being supervised by the Metropolitan Public Defenders (MPD) office.  From his house he went to the MPD office on SW 5th Avenue, and told them about the confrontation with the police.  It is not clear whether his supervisor there knew that he was still armed, but he called the police to report that the young man was there and should be picked up.  Hopkins, still very restless, left the office before the police arrived.  When Officer Gene Maher arrived at the MPD office, employees pointed out Hopkins walking down the street. Maher and Officer Eugene Francis approached Hopkins, planning to take him into custody.  Officer Bruce Harrington watched the three men from a nearby patrol car.
            Hopkins was still very agitated and he resisted when the two officers tried to arrest him.  He pulled a .38 revolver from under his jacket and fired a shot, before Harrington shot him in the chest, killing him instantly.  The death of the agitated young black man, the first suspect killed by Portland police since 1971, was considered an inexplicable tragedy, but it was the beginning of a series of shootings that enflamed community feeling and heightened tensions between African-American Portlanders and the police.  Over time the shooting of Joe Hopkins would be seen as the impetus for a new round of community organizing that would uncover serious problems within the police bureau.
The shooting of Joe Hopkins while in a violent psychotic episode in October 1974 was seen as an inexplicable tragedy, but his death was the first in a series of events that led to a new period of community activism in Portland.
            In 1974 there was little oversight for police shootings.  The Homicide Division conducted investigations and often they were cursory.  Not since the 1945 shooting of Ervin Jones had there been major controversy or community protest over a police shooting.  The shooting of Joe Hopkins was ruled justified because of his earlier violent behavior and his firing a shot while resisting arrest.  Just a few weeks later though, the shooting of a second black man raised questions about how the police were being regulated.
            The second shooting occurred on October 27 and again it involved a young man with a police record.  Kenneth “Kenny” Allen, 27, was a familiar figure on the streets of Northeast Portland. Allen, an intravenous drug user, prowled the streets looking for opportunities among the prostitutes, drug dealers and their customers; he had a long arrest record.  On the night of his death two undercover police officers, John Hren, 26, and Ed May, 28, were also prowling in an unmarked car looking for prostitutes to arrest.  Allen was talking with two women on the sidewalk when he saw the car with two white men pass by.  He flagged the car down and asked if the men were looking for drugs.  Hren told him they weren’t interested in drugs, but they were looking for women, indicating the women that Allen had been talking to.  Kenny said he could take them to a brothel and climbed into the backseat of the car.
            Allen directed the two undercover officers to an address on N. Congress Street, but when they arrived he produced a handgun and stuck it in Hren’s left ear.  He said it was a holdup and he wanted their cash.  According to Hren, Allen seemed very nervous and began to pat Hren down, discovering his shoulder holster under his jacket.  At that moment, Ed May, who was in the driver’s seat, pulled his weapon and fired at the man in the back seat.  Both officers emptied their weapons and then jumped out of the car.  Allen, who also went by the name of Kenny Nommo, was hit by six bullets which penetrated several internal organs and killed him within seconds.  Hren related a dramatic tale for the Oregonian and Mayor Neal Goldschmidt praised the shooting, implying it was a good idea to shoot the “crazies with guns.” Some felt that the whole story had not been told, but a cursory investigation again ruled that the shooting was justified and there was little community outcry.
Career-criminal Kenny Allen drew little sympathy from the public when he was shot by two police officers.  Mayor Neal Goldschmidt characterized him as a "crazy with a gun."
            Less than one month later another black man, Charles Menefee, 26, was shot to death by the police after a high speed car chase.  Questions raised by the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Albina Ministerial Alliance motivated District Attorney Harl Haas to put the case before a Multnomah County Grand Jury, which again ruled that the shooting was justified.  The death of Menefee certainly seems to have been justified, but the sudden frequency of police shootings and the death of three black men at the hands of police raised community awareness and the issue of police accountability became a serious issue for organizing in Portland’s African American community.
            Charles Menefee had a record for burglary and was most likely up to no good as he cruised the small suburban town of Canby on the night of November 20, 1974.  In Canby a black man driving around was considered suspicious in itself and soon the local police approached Menefee’s car.  The young man attempted to evade the police and drove north at high speed.  It must have been an exciting chase as Canby, Milwaukie, Oregon City, Clackamas County, Portland and State police joined in the pursuit on Highway 99E, up Grand Avenue, across both the Hawthorne and Steel Bridges.  By the time the speeding car reached Williams Avenue in Northeast Portland, not far from Menefee’s house, there were fourteen officers involved.  Menefee’s car was finally forced out of control near Sacramento Street.  Menefee fired at least one shot from a rifle, wounding Portland Officer Kent Perry before dying in a hail of bullets. More than fourteen officers fired dozens of bullets in the exchange of fire and Portland Officer John Murchison was struck by a ricocheting bullet and slightly wounded. 
Charles Menefee was probably up to no good the night he died in November, 1974, but the overwhelming violent response to his crimes made Portland's black community nervous.
            Three black men dead at the hands of the police in one month created a big stir in the African American community. Besides the NAACP and the Urban League a new organization, the Black Justice Committee (BJC) was formed.  Charlotte Williams, daughter of Otto Rutherford, an important leader of the NAACP, became the most visible spokesperson for the BJC and soon the host of a weekly Public TV program, Black on Black, focused on issues in the black community.  Things cooled down between the police and Portland blacks, but when the next shooting occurred, in March, 1975 the BJC was well organized and vocal about their demands for police accountability.
            The killing of 17-year-old Rickie Johnson on March 14, 1975 by North precinct officer Ken Sanford combined with Police Chief Bruce Baker’s confrontational stone-walling attitude was the last straw.  Johnson, a junior at Washington High School, had obviously fallen in with a bad crowd.  His father, Oscar, warned him just weeks before his death that if the police ever caught him they would “blow his brains out.”  Any parent of a teenager knows the fear that Oscar Johnson must have felt at the poor choices his son was making, but only an African American parent knows the life threatening danger presented by the police.  A danger Rickie Johnson had “no time to learn” according to an Oregonian letter-to-the-editor published in the aftermath of the young man’s death.
            It started on March 12 when Radio Cab driver Marvin F. Zamzow was called to pick up an order of Chinese food from the Pagoda Restaurant in the Hollywood district and deliver it to a house on North Gantenbein Street.  When he arrived a young black man, later identified as Homer Zachery, another Washington High School student, held the door open for the cabdriver with a box of food.  Zamzow stepped into the house and Zachery closed the door behind him, guarding it with a baseball bat. Another young man, who was probably Rickie Johnson, pointed a handgun at the driver and demanded money.  Zamzow handed over about twelve dollars in cash along with the box of food.  The two young men were angry at the small amount of money and ordered Zamzow into a closet where they told him to wait for ten minutes.  After Zamzow reported the robbery, Officer Ken Sanford went to the vacant house to investigate and familiarized himself with the layout.
            Two days later when Zamzow received a call to pick up food at the Pagoda and deliver it to the same house in North Portland he called Officer Sanford.  Donning Zamzow’s pants and sweater, Sanford carried a box that looked like it was full of food; it actually contained his pistol which he held through a hole in the back of the box.  Zachery again held the door and Rickie Johnson waited inside.  Most witnesses claimed there was an unidentified third robber in the house who escaped and wasn’t pursued, but no testimony about a third person appeared after the initial report.  According to both Zachery and Sanford, Rickie Johnson pointed a handgun at Sanford’s face.  Zachery ran when Sanford displayed his weapon and yelled, “Police. Drop it.”  Sanford said that he was “afraid for his life” when he fired two shots.  One went into the wall above Johnson’s head, the second entered the back of his skull, passed through his brain and lodged in his cheek. Another officer, hiding nearby, fired a shot at Zachery, who was running through the yard.  It was never determined where the third bullet landed, but Zachery surrendered.
Charlotte Williams, daughter of Otto Rutherford, was a prominent activist in the PSU Black Studies Program and became the popular host of Public Broadcasting's Black on Black program.  She was the most visible spokesperson for the Black Justice Committee.
            Community response was instant. Questions about the shooting: Why was he shot in the back of the head? Why wasn’t he given the opportunity to drop the pistol before shots were fired?  Inconvenient facts: Johnson had a non-functioning, unloaded weapon; There were seven officers on the scene, most never named, and none pursued the “third suspect". A “blue wall” of resistance to any investigation; a general distrust of the Police Bureau as well as the unsympathetic government of Mayor Neal Goldschmidt; along with a simmering anger in the black community in the aftermath of two uprisings in Albina in 1967 and 1969.  All these elements combined to create a legal case that would become a sort of racial Rorschach test for the city of Portland.

PART TWO – Racial Rorschach Test


Blogger Marc Haddenham said...

Hey there. I spent my whole day reading every story you posted here. I'm also really fascinated by true crime stories especially here in Portland. This city has a dark past and remember many stories my grandparents told me. One thing Id like to see is your crime map. The links seem to be dead. Please keep us posted on when it will be up and running again.

10:07 PM  
Blogger jd chandler said...

Thanks for you comment, Marc. Glad you enjoy my work. Sorry about the Crime Map. It was hosted at and they went out of business some time ago. I'm afraid that map is lost. You might enjoy my other blog and you might also enjoy my books from History Press. Thanks for reading.

10:32 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home