Shots Fired: Portland, Oregon 12/14/1996

After a mentally ill woman fired on a paramedic responding to her call that she ingested poison, Portland Police Officer Scott Westerman was tragically forced to counter her attack.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

A change in the Portland Police Bureau's schedule had left a skeleton crew manning the city streets between 7 and 9 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1996. Just before the 9 a.m. shift was due to come on, a call came in saying that a woman had ingested poison and was feeling the effects. Scott Westerman, one of only four officers in the field and the only one not already tied up on a call, was dispatched.

Arriving at the Stevens Street residence, the officer found two paramedics waiting for him. The two advised Westerman that the woman inside, Patricia Marie Sweany, had reportedly swallowed poison at her own hand. Portland firefighters had tried to cajole Sweany into coming outside the house. They almost succeeded until Sweany saw the paramedics.

"I know you," the woman said, stopping and pointing at Paramedic Kurt Ream. "You were at that place last night! I'm not going anywhere with you!" With that, Sweany turned around and ran back into the house. For his part, Ream had no idea what she was talking about.

Their charm having taken them only so far with Sweany, the firemen elected to brief the paramedics on what they knew before returning to the firehouse. They failed to mention — believing that their lieutenant would enter the information into an EMS database — that Sweany was delusional.

Westerman didn't have the luxury of just up and leaving as the firemen had. If Sweany had indeed ingested poison, he had to make sure she got assistance.

The department had recently implemented a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trained to deal with the mentally ill. The CIT officer that answered Westerman's request for assistance advised of an extended ETA and instructed Westerman to contact Sweany. If it became apparent that the woman was in need of psychological intervention, the CIT officer would take over the call upon her arrival.

The request seemed reasonable to Westerman, so he and the paramedics approached the house.

An Unfamiliar Face

Westerman's knock at the door was greeted by a young man who identified himself as the caller.

"She's the one who needed the help," the young man said, indicating a woman standing in the living room wearing blue jeans and blue sweatshirt. "I called for her."

The 45-year-old Sweany walked across the living room and peeked around the front door so that Westerman could see only a quarter of her body. Westerman attributed the posture to a reticence on Sweany's part to have anything to do with him or the paramedics.

Sweany claimed to be working with the FBI and CIA to unravel conspiracies involving both the city of Portland and Multnomah County. But while the tendrils of corruption allegedly spread to the District Attorney's Office and beyond, it was plain to see the only thing unraveling was Sweany's narrative. Her words confirmed to Westerman's mind the state of her own, even as Sweany was developing her own suspicions about him.

"You have an unfamiliar face," she said. "I don't like unfamiliar faces." With that, she attempted to close the door.

Westerman placed his hand on the door. "My name is Scott," he said calmly. "I'm a police officer here in Portland."

"And this is Kurt," Westerman said, introducing the paramedic to Sweany. "He's with the ambulance company and we're here to help you the best we can."

Sweany's expression revealed a lack of faith, but she lessened her pressure against the door. Westerman explained that it was his understanding that Sweany had been poisoned and was refusing medical treatment.

"Yeah," Sweany acknowledged. "So what?"

Ebb and Flow

As the woman was clearly a danger to herself, Oregon law obligated Westerman to take Sweany into custody for her own protection. Determined to keep her engaged in the conversation until the CIT officer arrived, Westerman found himself dealing with an ebb and flow of feints as Sweany would try to push him away and he'd gently dissuade her from shutting the door.

But with each passing minute, Westerman engendered Sweany's trust. Her resolve to close the door dissipated and she slowly neared a state of emotional

"I have to determine whether or not you are a danger to yourself or others," Westerman said. "If you're not, we'll just leave. But if you are, then we're going to have to take you to the hospital. On the other hand, you called for help and the paramedics are here and willing to take you to the hospital right now."

By allowing Sweany to decide for herself, Westerman got Sweany to accept that she needed help. Agreeing to accompany Westerman, she said she first needed to tell her friend.

As Sweany turned and retreated back in the direction of her presumed friend, Westerman followed to keep an eye on her. He was about five steps into the house when she turned around and saw him.

And the whole game plan went to hell.[PAGEBREAK]

A Loud Bang

Enraged, Sweany turned toward Westerman, placed her left hand on his chest, and tried to push the officer out the door.

If Sweany's bid proved impotent, it was due more to her small stature than any lack of determination. Grabbing her left hand and placing it behind her back, Westerman said to the paramedic, "Let's just take her into custody now."

In preparation for cuffing her, Westerman tapped Sweany's shoulder and told her to place her right hand behind her head.

Instead, Sweany's right shoulder lunged forward. Paramedic Ream, standing by the front door, saw something that Westerman couldn't. The woman reached for her waistband with her right hand and removed a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson Model 60. The deranged woman shoved it into Westerman's gut.

For his part, Westerman was blissfully unaware of the threat pressed up against his torso. All he knew was that Sweany wasn't cooperating with him. Ream knew otherwise, and reached for Sweany's armed hand as Westerman pulled up on her left arm, still held behind her back.

Westerman heard a loud bang.

Out of Battery

Things in the room came to a complete stop, then began to move in slow motion. The sensory distortion was unlike anything Westerman had ever experienced before. He tried to analyze what had just happened. Knowing the bang hadn't been a firecracker, he still found himself looking for telltale signs of spent firecracker wrappings floating through the air. The possibility that it'd been a car backfire was just as quickly discounted and Westerman knew that it could only have been a gun shot.

But from where? His own sidearm was still in his holster and the paramedic didn't have one. The kid in the living room was too far away. Then it dawned on Westerman: She's got a gun.

Part of Westerman still didn't want to believe it. He'd tracked her gait as she made her way across the room to the front door, seeing nothing to suggest anything other than a small-framed woman in a state of agitation. But superseding any concerns over his initial inability to recognize the threat was how Westerman would now deal with it.

Looking over Sweany's shoulder, Westerman saw Ream double over.

Realizing that Ream had been shot, Westerman lunged over her back for the gun with his free hand but could not reach any further than the middle of her right forearm without relinquishing control of the left.

For two seconds the two struggled, as fear washed over Westerman — not for himself, but for others should Sweany pull the trigger again as its barrel swung back and forth in their direction. He had but two options: Keep fighting for the gun and run the risk of a bystander getting hurt, or shoot Sweany.

He didn't recall pulling it out of his holster, but he found his .45 caliber Glock 21 in his hand and pressed it into the woman's back. He pulled the trigger.


Westerman heard the voice of his firearms instructor, Ken Gardner, telling him that he had pressed the gun so hard into Sweany's back that the weapon was out of battery.

Pulling the gun back to let the trigger reset, Westerman again asked himself whether or not he had to shoot, again coming to the same disagreeable conclusion.[PAGEBREAK]

Still, some part of him didn't want to hurt her and he deviated from training, pulling the trigger just once to see if it would have an effect.

As he fired, Sweany spun toward him and he saw the gun in her hand. Ream regained his footing and headed toward the door as Sweany's revolver swept across his path.

Realizing that his round hadn't had any effect on her, Westerman released his grip and pushed her away.

As he retreated, Westerman rapidly squeezed off three more rounds. Just as Ream cleared the doorway, Sweany's body crashed against it and the door slammed shut.

Retreating to the corner of the living room, Westerman directed the informant to prone out near Sweany, but well short of Sweany's gun. In this manner, Westerman had put all three potential threats — Sweany, the informant, and the mysterious friend — within his direct field of vision.

He asked where the third person was, but the kid insisted that no one else was in the house.

Near the front door, Sweany lay gasping. Incredulous, Westerman looked to the informant.

"Was she crazy, or what?"

"She was just afraid somebody was going to kill her."

"Well, it looks like somebody just did. Damn it."

Outside, Ream sought medical attention for his wound. His Lucky Line retractable keychain had lived up to its name: The bullet smashed the front plate of the keychain, demolished its inner springs, and penetrated the back plate of the keychain where it fused with his leather belt. The bullet had not penetrated Ream's body, but he suffered lacerations from its blunt impact. Emerging from the ambulance, Ream re-approached the house to help. But Westerman-not knowing if Sweany would get back up-told him to get off of the front porch.

Looking Back

Sweany never got up.

A grand jury cleared the case and Westerman returned to work a month later. Finally able to review investigators' findings, he was surprised to find that Sweany had actually attempted to shoot him first.

The third party "friend" turned out to be one Sweany had been speaking with on the phone at the time of Westerman's door knock. Nobody else was in the house.

It was also determined that Sweany's boyfriend had set up the five-shot revolver with four rounds so that the first time she pulled the trigger the gun would not discharge. However, the day before the shooting, Sweany had shown the gun to her friend and closed the gun haphazardly so the gun discharged with her first pull of the trigger. As the gun's cylinder was found set on the sole empty chamber, Sweany had pulled the trigger a second time during the four-second altercation.

Looking back on the shooting, Westerman recalls that concurrent with the time distortion and visual slowing came a kind of hyperkinetic thought process.

"I remember consciously thinking: Do I continue to wrestle with her over the gun or do I shoot her? I decided to go for my gun. I just don't remember getting the gun out."

Nor did he at any time anticipate that Sweany might pull a gun in the first place. Having spent several minutes dealing with Sweany prior to the shooting, he'd in fact become optimistic at the success he'd had communicating with her.

"I watched her go hot and cold on her own," he says. "It wasn't anything I said, as I'd been able to calm her down three or four times and had been an effective communicator. It was what was happening in her mind."

Westerman still finds himself reviewing the incident in his mind. "Nobody — and I mean nobody — has scrutinized this case more than me when it comes to what I could have done differently," he says. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about that encounter.

"The actions that I took at the time were consistent with our training and policies. But in hindsight" — and here Westerman emphasizes the word hindsight — "I can identify at least 50 different things that could have been done differently. Nowadays, whenever an officer anticipates dealing with a mentally ill individual, they'll wait for a cover officer before initiating contact. Today, there would have been two officers on scene. We would have done two-on-one custody, taken control of her arms immediately, and found the gun during our search-and nobody would have died."

Westerman had long been agnostic on his training kicking in when he'd need it. He'd always anticipated that he'd make conscious decisions. But his training kicked in on multiple fronts such as in his ability to compensate when his sidearm went out of battery. A convert, Westerman has since gone out of his way to attend additional training of his own initiative. He hopes that other officers will prove less skeptical on such matters when it comes to tactical and range training.

Both Paramedic Ream and Scott Westerman received Meritorious Service Medals for Valor for their actions on that fateful day. Scott Westerman now serves as a sergeant with the Portland Police Bureau.


Contacting Mentally Ill Subjects

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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