Three weeks after he was shot during a traffic stop, Portland Officer Christopher Burley said he’s not angry at the man who shot him but wishes he could have gotten the mental health he needed before their encounter.
“The community as a whole failed Mr. Otis,” said Burley, referring to Keaton Otis, the mentally ill man who shot him during a traffic stop. “I think it’s something we can all learn from.”
Burley, 31, a five-year member of the Portland Police Bureau and member of its Hotspot Enforcement Action Team, spoke about the May 12 shooting at East Precinct, alongside team Sgt. Don Livingston and Officer Ryan Foote. Foote drove Burley to the hospital in a police car.
Burley was struck by two bullets in the upper, inner thigh groin area that went through muscle tissue and exited, and remarkably did not strike any major arteries.
Yet on the ride to the hospital in the back of a police car, Burley thought, “Is this the end of my police career? Is my life going to be different forever?”
He worried that his mother in Boise, Idaho, his hometown, would find out about the shooting from news reports.
“I was upset that I hadn’t put a plan together,” he said.
And, images of a man who’d been shot 8 months earlier at The Orient bar and was walking around with a cane and braces on his leg, went through his mind.
Burley was released from the hospital two days later. Initially, he said he walked with a waddle, but his stride has returned. He looked physically strong and fit today, dressed in khaki pants and a black Gang Resistance Education and Training shirt.
Ten days later, he joined his GREAT students, who were painting over graffiti in Southeast Portland. He said he’s thankful for the support from friends, family, students, and even from a few he’s arrested who have reached out to him.
Mostly, he’s thankful he’s alive and takes pleasure in even the most mundane pursuits – such as mowing the lawn of his Portland home.
“If I hadn’t been as fortunate ….I might not even be there to mow my yard,” he said.
The officers have returned to administrative duty, after a debriefing last night with the Traumatic Incident Team and fellow team members, and meetings with counselors. Members of the HEAT team involved in the incident are likely to remain off the street for about 30 days.
Burley, who has taught Gang Resistance Education and Training at Floyd Light Middle School, attended his students’ graduation earlier this morning. His students presented get well cards they made for him.
Sixth grader Emily Nelson called Burley “awesome,” and described him as “kind and caring.”
Burley was shot as he was struggling to pull motorist Keaton Otis, 25, from a Toyota Corolla and Otis yanked his arm away. Three other officers fired their Taser at Otis, but the stun gun shots weren’t effective. Police said Otis reached across the passenger seat and grabbed a 9mm pistol from the glove compartment.
Burley, who was standing by the Toyota’s driver’s door, told detectives he heard another officer shout “he’s going for something” and said he saw Otis reach into a Crown Royal bag. He said he stepped back and heard two pops and felt a burning pain. Burley fell to the ground.
“It was scary as I fell,” he recalled. “Do I have the use of my legs?” He wondered.
He moved his legs a bit and thought to himself, “OK, this is good.”
He crawled and pushed himself toward a curb as he continued to hear gunshots and radioed he’d been shot.
Had he not heard another officer warn him that Otis was reaching for something, Burley suspects he likely wouldn’t have backed up and his head might have been in the line of fire.
“I was looking for a lot of blood,” he said. When he didn’t see any, “I felt relief again.”
Foote helped drag Burley to a police car. Sgt. Livingston, who initially thought Burley had been killed when he saw him drop, checked on Burley in the back of the police car.
Burley remembers that moment.
Chris Burley, shot in both legs during a traffic stop last month that ended with the shooting death of Keaton Otis, and some of the kids he mentors for the Portland Police Bureau’s GREAT program from Floyd Light Middle School. Burley talked about the shooting today during a news conference.”I felt like I was back being a 4-year-old and your dad arrives at the scene…it’s OK, everything is going to be alright now,” Burley recalled.
Livingston said he felt responsible, and described how scary it was to see one of the officers on his team drop to the ground after getting shot.
Foote said he was frustrated he couldn’t find Burley’s injuries and called the drive to the hospital one of the scariest moments of his life. People along the sidewalks were pointing to his passing police car, motioning that he was going the wrong way. ” If they only knew,” Foote thought.
Burley said he harbors no anger against Otis.
“I was frustrated that Mr. Otis had decided he didn’t want to cooperate with what we were doing,” Burley said. But he added, “It saddens me that Mr. Otis died.”
He says he’s aware Otis’ family had tried to get Otis committed, but couldn’t prove he was a danger to himself or others.
“The community as a whole failed Mr. Otis,” Burley said. “He deserved resources.”
Burley, who previously taught high school physics and math in Chicago before becoming an officer, said he decided to speak out to draw attention to the crises on the streets.
“It was an opportunity to encourage the community to come together and assist those people who are in crisis.”
— Maxine Bernstein