Leah Sottile | Longreads | February 2018 | 33 minutes (8,200 words)
The night before Quanice Hayes was shot in the head by a police officer, the skinny 17-year-old was snapping selfies with his girlfriend in a seedy Portland, Oregon, motel room.
Bella Aguilar held her phone close when she clicked off the photos: In one, the 18-year-old girl pushes her tongue out through a smile, her boyfriend leaning over her right shoulder, lips pressed to her cheek, his dreads held back with one hand.
In another, Aguilar cradles her cheek against a black-and-sand-colored gun. It’s fake — the kind of air-powered toy that kids use to pop each other with plastic pellets in indoor arenas. Hayes peeks into the frame behind her.
If you know that the gun is fake, you see a snapshot of two kids playing tough; if you don’t, those photos looks like the beginning of a story about to go terribly wrong.
A few hours later, it did.
It was a cold night in February — a Wednesday. Aguilar and Hayes snapped photos and danced when friends came by the motel room where the couple had been crashing. They drank cough syrup and booze. There were pills and pot and a bag of coke.
They fired the toy gun at the motel’s dirty bathroom mirror, laughing when they couldn’t get the glass to break.
When the long night caught up with Aguilar and she lay down to pass out on the room’s queen-size bed, Hayes yanked on her arm, nagging her to stay awake. Two friends crashed on a pullout couch; two more were on the floor. But Hayes didn’t want to sleep. He walked outside.
Hours passed. The sun came up. Aguilar jolted awake and felt the bed next to her, but her boyfriend wasn’t there. His phone was — it sat on the table next to the bed. She felt frantic. Panicked. Confused. “I don’t know why, but it was that moment. I just felt really, really bad,” she said last summer, sitting outside a Portland Starbucks where she took drags from a Black and Mild.
She couldn’t remember why Hayes had left. She couldn’t remember so much of the night.
She frantically tapped out a text to her boyfriend’s mother, Venus: Do you know where Quanice is?
After Hayes walked out of room 129 of the States Motel, a dirty row of crash pads on a rough Northeast Portland arterial, a Portland police officer shot and killed the 17-year-old, by then a suspect in an armed robbery who’d been running from police. Officer Andrew Hearst shot Hayes as the young man knelt in front of several officers. Later, Hearst would tell a grand jury that he believed the boy was reaching for a gun tucked into his waistband.
But before three .223-caliber bullets left the long barrel of Hearst’s AR-15, spanning the 10 feet between the officer and Hayes at some 3,200 feet per second, the replica gun had not been seen in the nearly two hours that police interacted with Hayes. (Portland police officers don’t wear body cameras, so there’s no footage of the shot.)
It was only when officers approached the teenager’s body that they saw the black-and-beige air pistol lying feet away.
By the end of that day — February 9, 2017 — a fake gun would come into play in another shooting: Portland police shot at 56-year-old Don Perkins, who was living in a van when he called 911, telling the operator he was about to overdose on pills. When police officers responded, Perkins pointed his fake gun at them, yelling, “Kill me! Come get me, bitch!” Perkins was shot in the arm and abdomen and survived.
In the year since Quanice Hayes was killed by Portland police, similar shootings by police officers have dominated headlines — like the death of Daniel Shaver, an unarmed 26-year-old who obeyed orders by a Mesa, Arizona, police officer in early 2016 to get on his knees and crawl toward officers. As Shaver crawled, sobbing and begging for his life, as seen in recently released body-cam footage, he reached back to pull up his shorts and was killed by a police officer operating an AR-15.
Nationally, as fatal shootings of black Americans by law enforcement have continued, the Hayes case was lost in the static of the news cycle. Local news showed photos of the fake gun — an exact knockoff of a sidearm made in the Czech Republic — and a mug shot of a stoic Hayes.
But the headlines didn’t say that Quanice Hayes was on his knees when he died.
They didn’t say he was shot in the head.
The story of the last day of Quanice Hayes’s life is one that contains no heroes. It’s the story of two teenagers living on the streets, hustling up cash, making mistakes, partying with friends, and stealing when they thought they had to.
It’s the story of a police department that has shot at people with fake guns on at least seven occasions since 2010, according to the Portland Police Bureau. And officers say they have no good way to decipher between real guns and their toy replicas.
It’s the story of a fake gun that was never seen by Hearst — a young officer who had previously been involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed felon who charged at officers in a dark parking lot in 2013, a broken telephone handset in his hand.
“I knew that if [Hayes] were to get to his gun, I would not be able to react fast enough before he was able to shoot one of us,” Hearst testified before a grand jury in March 2017.
This is the story of the Hayes family, too: of 38-year-old Venus Hayes — a recovering addict, a single mother who works in a warehouse outside the city limits, who lives in a tiny apartment with her four other children and her 58-year-old mother, Donna. The women have been thrust to the front lines of a movement in Portland raging against excessive force by the city’s officers — a movement neither ever thought they’d have to be a part of.
“Never once did I ever worry about being shot by the police,” Venus says. “Growing up, police were like heroes.”
In Portland, a place The Atlantic called “the whitest city in America,” where just 6 percent of the population is black, people continue to scream her son’s name through bullhorns. Six months after the shooting, a row of posters bearing a drawing of Hayes’s face are plastered on an abandoned building near where he was shot. “SAY HIS NAME,” they read.
Venus continues to struggle with her son’s death.
“Do I think Quanice robbed somebody, or attempted to rob somebody? Yes,” she says. “Was he attempting to grab a BB gun against all these officers with big guns? While he was on his knees? No.”
Even if the 17-year-old was committing crimes that morning, Hayes “did not deserve to get shot and killed,” says Mat dos Santos, legal director of the ACLU of Oregon. “Finding a fake gun after the fact does not justify the use of force.”
“What happened to Quanice Hayes and so many other black men who are executed at the hands of officers is an extrajudicial killing,” he says.
“An extrajudicial murder.”
* * *
After Quanice Hayes left the States Motel, he wandered four blocks south on Northeast 82nd Avenue, past a row of boarded-up buildings, a Taco Bell, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and a used-car lot where checkered flags dripped with rain. He stopped under the green awning of a Plaid Pantry convenience store.
Hayes peered through the windows into the fluorescent-lit aisles. It was 5:49 a.m. The clerk later told police he recognized Hayes, who he said had shoplifted candy and alcohol from the store the night before. He leaned outside before Hayes could enter and shooed him away.
The teenager walked away, stopping to ask a woman for change before walking south.
The sun wasn’t up yet.
There’s no clear explanation for how Hayes spent the next 30 minutes. He may have walked the four blocks back to the motel room, only to find his friends asleep in a room full of empty bottles. He may have panhandled—when he was killed, officers found three dollar bills and $14.10 in loose change in his pockets.
Whatever he did, at around 6:23 a.m. police officers say the teenager was just two blocks south of the Plaid Pantry, standing at the steamed-up passenger-side window of a dark-blue 2007 Nissan Altima.
Hayes knocked on the car window.
* * *
Armando Suarez had been sleeping in the front seat of his Altima for the past week. He told investigators that in the early hours of February 9, he’d jolted awake when he heard a tap on his passenger window. Thinking it was a friend who was staying at the motel, he lowered the window, and then, he said, “I have a .45 put in my face.”
For the next 33 minutes, Hayes sat in Suarez’s car, yanking open the glove box, pawing through papers, pressing the fake gun against Suarez’s face and demanding that he drive him around. Suarez pushed the car’s start button to show he was out of gas: He’d been cold during the night and had run the heater until the tank was empty.
Frustrated, Hayes pocketed Suarez’s Oregon Trail Card (a food-stamp debit card) and took a blue-and-green jacket from the car. The teenager drew two cigarettes from a pack of Marlboro Special Blends, handing the rest back to Suarez.
“Before he gets out of the car he threatened me by telling me, ‘Don’t call the cops. I see a cop roaming around here, I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna put two in ya,’” Suarez recounted.
Suarez sat still in his car for a few minutes, and when he finally emerged, he walked toward the motel’s front office and asked to use the phone.
First, he called to cancel his EBT card. And then, some 15 to 30 minutes after the robbery, he called 911. He told the operator that the person who’d robbed him had done it while holding a desert-camouflage-colored “military gun” to his face — a gun he “put … on his waistline” as he walked toward 82nd Avenue.
Suarez, who told police he needs reading glasses to see close-up, said his assailant was a black male with a small head wearing a “grayish” hoodie pulled up over his hair, along with a jacket and jeans. He told the operator he was afraid what would happen if the guy who robbed him saw a cop nearby.
“OK, well, it’s been 30 minutes, sir,” the operator said. “So I don’t think he’s still in the area.”
Suarez interrupted: “As bold and arrogant as this guy was, I’m willing to bet he’s standing right around here. Cause this guy doesn’t care.”
In fact, by the time Suarez called 911, at 7:24 a.m. — three minutes after the sun had peeked over the horizon — Hayes was directly across the street from the car, in the parking lot of a veterinary hospital. He had allegedly just shattered the window of a 2014 Ford Focus.
The car’s owner was inside dropping off her sick dog, and when she emerged from the clinic, she found Hayes in her car.
“I’m calling the police,” the woman told him. He ran.
“He took a bunch of my CDs,” the woman told a 911 operator moments later. The kid had left a blue-and-green jacket behind in her car. He had also taken her lunch. Her voice labored as she followed him down the street, where she saw him pause to pee on the side of the four-lane road.
At 7:36, a woman named Marsha Pittman was trying to get her children ready for school when she called 911 from her home, just two blocks from the vet’s office. Pittman’s house isn’t visible from the nearby street — instead, it’s set back, down a gravel driveway, behind another home. Minutes before, a man had knocked on the sliding glass door that leads into her fenced backyard.
“I pulled the curtain back, and there’s a young guy standing there,” she told a grand jury a month later. Pittman yelled at Hayes to leave.
Hayes ran around to the front of the house. He began incessantly ringing the doorbell and pounding on the front door.
Pittman ran to the door, locked the dead bolt and told her kids to get upstairs. She could see the doorknob shaking. “Get away from my door!” she yelled as she dialed for help.
Later, when detectives interviewed Pittman, she told them she was scared of Hayes.
“I don’t know what he was up to,” she said, “But, you know, he was just like, he looked so innocent. … [He] just looked like a little innocent child.”
Suarez was less sympathetic.
“I’m glad he’s dead,” he told a grand jury the next day. “I’m glad he’s dead.”
* * *
Quanice Derrick Hayes was born on August 2, 1999 in Portland, Oregon. His mother, Venus, was 19 years old, living in Chicago, when she found out she was pregnant with him — the product of a long crush on a boy from her neighborhood back home in the projects of Gary, Indiana.
The father was on his way to jail — so Venus “didn’t push the issue” as far as parenthood went. She moved West to join her mother, Donna, who’d recently moved to Portland. Donna, too, was pregnant.
After Quanice was born, Venus moved into an apartment in north Portland. “It was just me and my baby,” she says. Her son talked fast, walked fast. He was always around her — never in day care — and “we didn’t do the whole baby talk thing.”
As a boy, Quanice was a gifted athlete. He grew up playing every sport Venus could sign him up for — football, basketball, baseball, tennis, rugby. But still, “I was the parent who hovered over him,” she recalls. When he was 7, she’d watched from the sidelines as he was tackled by a pile of other kids during a football game. Horrified, she ran onto the field and “snatched all the little kids off him,” she says. “I was that mom.”
She said no every time he asked about sleeping over at a friend’s house. She wanted to always protect him, to always keep him close.
When she said no skateboards, he not only learned how to skate, but he perfected it. When he was 9, he competed in the Northwest Jerk Competition, dancing with boys twice his age. “He had been like that his whole life: a little guy with a big personality,” she says.
He was never a great student. To Quanice, being in school meant he could play sports. “We went through a lot of tutors,” she says. “He just would only do enough to stay in sports.”
When Quanice was 15, Venus moved her four kids into a house with her mother and an uncle — and her son threw a fit about having to share a bedroom with his younger siblings. His grades slipped. He was cut from the baseball team. Without sports to occupy him, “he started running away from home,” she says.
Venus would call the cops, frantic about her missing son, and when they’d find Quanice they’d bring him home. “He’d always say, ‘I want to be with my friends,’” she remembers him saying again and again when she begged him to stay put. Tears well up in her eyes as she recalls it.
“I felt like it was a phase he was going through.”
He’d barely be home a few hours, and he would run again.
At the time, her sons Adonis and Prince, now 4 and 3, were in diapers, and Venus had more on her hands than she could handle. She was out of a job. Her boyfriend was put in jail. She was depressed and overwhelmed. She couldn’t get Quanice to calm down.
She looks away. “I turned to drugs.”
“Even if the other kids didn’t know what was going on,” she says, heavy drops falling down her cheeks, “Quanice did.”
* * *
Quanice was getting ready to run again when Portland police officers told him to put his hands up. He was still in Pittman’s yard when officers Daniel Tatro and Heather Rippe found him and yelled for him to get his hands in the air.
Hayes slowly drew his hands up by his ears.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Tatro told Hayes to walk backward toward them with his hands up, but the boy didn’t comply. He stammered, asking questions. The officers felt like he was stalling, formulating some kind of a plan.
The officers repeated their commands: Hands up. Walk backward.
“I told him that we received information that he may be armed with a weapon, and that if he reached for that weapon, that he would be shot,” Tatro told the grand jury.
“I don’t have anything on me,” Hayes responded.
At the time, the officers weren’t sure if he did actually have a gun. Hours after Hayes was shot, Rippe, in a taped interview, said, “I did think [Hayes] probably did something,” but at that moment in the backyard, “I don’t know the legitimacy of the gun. That’s what was going through my brain at the time.”
Another officer joined Tatro and Rippe, repeating commands with no success. “No,” Hayes said. “I know how these things go. … I’m not going to do that.”
They were at a standstill. And then, suddenly, the kid ran.
The officers said that as Hayes ran, his hands hovered near his waistband.
“I’ve never seen that before in anybody else that doesn’t have a weapon,” Rippe testified. “They go right to hold it when they take off running.”
As the officers called for backup, they heard a noise — the kid had hopped the back fence.
* * *
On June 4, 2016, Venus was four months pregnant. She was in Salem, Oregon — the state capitol, an hour south of Portland — riding in the passenger seat of a van being driven by a friend. Behind the women, their five children sat watching cartoons on a laptop. The kids weren’t in car seats. Two shared a seat belt.
The driver had been using meth. So had Venus.
The van was speeding down a busy road when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The vehicle veered toward the shoulder, hopped the sidewalk and slammed into a tree.
Adonis, then 3, suffered spinal injuries that required four surgeries. A seat belt whipped back against 2-year-old Prince’s head, slashing it open, and the impact caused his intestines to rupture. The boys were life-flighted to a hospital — where they would stay for months.
Venus’s voice shakes as she recalls the incident. “After that, I checked myself into rehab,” she says.
She entered an inpatient facility where — upon their release from care — her young sons could join her. “Everything went great in treatment,” she says. “The only problem I had was worrying about Quanice.” Venus’s eldest children — her daughter, then 10, and Quanice, nearing 17 — were too old to live at the treatment facility with her. Her daughter stayed with her birth father; Quanice was supposed to stay with his grandmother Donna. But, again, he kept running away. “He kept getting in trouble,” Venus says. “I would constantly get calls at the treatment facility: Quanice was in a stolen car. Quanice was caught for curfew. Things like that.”
That summer, Quanice met Bella Aguilar at a party.
By the fall, Quanice had stopped showing up for classes at Centennial High School. For the first couple of months of the school year, Aguilar woke up in time to make it to school by the first bell. As she sat in class, her phone would buzz with voice messages from her new boyfriend.
I don’t care what people say. I love you for you. Aguilar would listen to the messages as she walked down the hallways. Hayes’s voice was always confident and sure. He made her feel safe.
I just love you for the simple fact that you always have my back. You always encourage me to be better. So, fuck what anybody else thinks. I love you, babe.
The pair went to the mall together. They rode the bus together. They partied. They showed up at the same taco joint every day until they got free tacos. They traded Facebook passwords — a pledge of teenage loyalty.
I’m yours forever, and I’m always gonna take care of you.
When Aguilar stopped showing up to school too, she says she was kicked out of her house. The two teenagers started bouncing from couch to couch. On nights they couldn’t find anywhere to crash, they wandered the streets of downtown Portland, clutching hands, preferring to walk around all night than sleep in a doorway. Sometimes they’d go to cheap motels and beg for a room. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
They drank and smoked and dreamed of a different life. Quanice wanted to go to Dubai. They talked about having kids. She called him her husband. He didn’t mind.
“We were going to live in California, with all these kids, with a big house,” she says. “A couple days before everything happened, we had both made a promise to each other. We promised each other a week from now, we were going to quit everything we were doing. All the drugs, all the liqs, everything we were doing.”
They were going to go back to school. Go back home. “We were going to figure it out and stop doing all these things we were doing,” she says.
“But we didn’t get a chance.”
* * *
With a potentially armed suspect on the run, officers began swarming to the scene, creating a perimeter several blocks wide, scouring nearby yards.
They came armed with orange shotguns loaded with beanbag rounds, Tasers and an officer from a K9 unit, whose dog honed in on a house just over the fence from Pittman’s — where, soon after the fence rattled, a security-alarm company was calling police to report a potential break-in.
The house is a handsome white two-story structure with an attached garage, all surrounded by a black-iron fence and a garden that, in spring, blooms with pink and red roses. Just a block from 82nd Avenue, it’s a stark contrast to most of what’s around it: yards filled with piles of tires, cars propped up on cinder blocks, mattresses swollen with seasons of rain and children’s toys, brittle and faded from ages in the sun.
Officers surrounded the house, scouring its edges, noticing a broken window at the back of the house. Inside, the blinds were ripped apart. They took up a position to guard the back door, considering options to send the dog in with a camera. Officers searched the perimeter and found nothing, but on a second sweep, they spotted an open window and a mangled screen lying on the ground.
Officer Jerrold Higginbotham, a 23-year veteran of the force, saw the kid first, crouching on the balls of his feet, like a baseball catcher, in an alcove between the house and the garage.
“I drew my weapon and pointed it at him, and told him to get his hands in the air,” he said to the grand jury. He yelled for the other officers to come to the front yard, telling Hayes that “if you reach for anything, you are going to get shot.”
Soon he wasn’t the only one shouting orders: Officer Hearst, who carried his AR-15 to provide “long cover,” took over delivering commands upon his arrival; then Officer Robert Wullbrandt, holding a barking K9 dog; then Sergeant Kyle Nice.
“As we were giving him direction to come out, he was told to crawl out on his … knees,” Higginbotham recalled. “A couple times he started to put his hands down.” Officers yelled, Hands in the air.
Hayes grew agitated: “How am I supposed to crawl out without my hands on the ground?”
They told him to walk on his knees. One officer would later say that Hayes’s pants were sagging. His boxer shorts — covered with images of astronauts and cats — could be seen over the waistline of his jeans.
“We were 60 seconds away from having him being prone out and us going up and putting handcuffs on him,” Higginbotham said.
But Hearst was certain Hayes was armed. “There was no doubt in my mind that the person I was looking at had a gun,” Hearst said later, noting the detailed nature of Suarez’s report.
As Hayes was crawling on his knees, Hearst said he “[took] his right hand and [dropped] it to the small of his back” before immediately putting his hand back in the air.
“It just took my breath away,” Hearst said. But then Hayes again reached for the front of his jeans, Hearst said, “and I fired my rifle. I hear it go off three times. Boom. Boom. Boom. And he immediately falls to his face.”
The shots were sudden. “It kind of surprised me,” Hearst’s partner said in his testimony. “I looked over and … I saw Andy’s barrel had, like, steam coming from it.” One officer complained the shots had caused temporary hearing loss.
Hearst shot Hayes three times: twice in the torso, once in the head.
Six weeks later, not one of the 17 officers — including Hearst — who testified before a grand jury said they’d seen Hayes’s fake gun.
As they cuffed the gangly kid, bloody foam trickling from his mouth, they finally saw it lying in the dirt, several feet away from his dead body.
In March, Hearst was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Hayes shooting.
* * *
On November 3, 2016, three months before Quanice Hayes was shot, Officer Greg Adrian encountered him sitting in a stolen car.
He and another officer had responded to a car-prowl call, and when they got to the scene, they found Hayes and another kid sitting inside a parked Subaru with a broken window.
In a memo Adrian released after Hayes was shot, he wrote that the teenagers both had “dilated pupils and relaxed inhibitions, smiling and giggling at me from the car.” The officers searched a backpack inside the car, finding “what I believed was a black semiautomatic handgun” inside.
“It’s not real,” one of the boys told the officers.
“I told both of them that the toy gun looked real and may get them killed if they carried it or pointed it at someone,” Adrian wrote. “I was graphic in my language and told them I would shoot someone who pointed it at me.”
That night, the police called Venus to tell them about the car prowl.
“Never once did [the officer] mention that Quanice had a replica gun,” Donna says. “[If] he had a replica gun on him, how come they didn’t say that to his mama when they talked to her on the telephone? And if they forgot to tell her, they could have mentioned it to me. They talked to me on the telephone, so what’s the problem with telling me he had a replica gun?”
As the winter holidays edged near, with Venus still in rehab, Donna says Quanice wasn’t living at home, but she insists he wasn’t missing either. “We could get in touch with him,” she says.
Quanice showed up for Thanksgiving dinner.
The last time Venus saw her son alive was right before Christmas. She remembered meeting him and Aguilar at the mall, toting Prince and Adonis to see Santa Claus. When they got to the front of the line, they smiled for a picture with Santa.
It was their last family photo.
It’s March — a month after the shooting. A crowd that had earlier tossed roses and daffodils on the grave of Quanice Hayes is now shouting his name on a downtown Portland street. Venus and Donna are there, standing at the edge of the crowd. They shoo away reporters.
In the center, Teressa Raiford — who heads Don’t Shoot Portland — paces on the top of a flight of concrete stairs, yelling until her voice is hoarse: “Say his name!” She’s demanding, not asking. It’s a declaration, not a request. “Quanice Hayes!” the crowd yells.
“Say his name!”
“Say his name!”
Cars honk in agreement, fists thrust out of windows.
When Raiford’s voice breaks, a man picks up her call, shouting into a bullhorn.
The group starts moving, marching west, flooding into traffic, blocking cars, then taking their protest to City Hall, where a city council meeting is about to begin.
“These racist cops have got to go! Hey hey! Ho ho!” the group yells, winding uphill.
Sylvia Dollarson, Quanice’s 72-year-old great-grandmother, is signed up to speak.
But when the group arrives, tugging on the metal doors of the building, they find them locked. They pull and rattle them. Eyes look around for someone with an answer. Employees in suits pull on the doors. They’re locked out too.
Inside, security guards stare through the glass with arms crossed.
No one seems to know if this is a mistake, or if they’re being kept from the meeting.
The tension is swelling. The chants grow louder. And finally the crowd moves into the street, blocking buses headed down Southwest Fourth Avenue, holding signs above their heads. TV cameras and livestreamers start filming. “This young man was on his knees!” one woman yells. Men with masks over their faces stand in the path of a bus, one of them holding a road flare in his hand.
Suddenly police officers in riot gear inside, holding batons across their bodies, explode out through the doors and onto the street. They come in dozens, and soon more than 80 of them surround the protesters, who grow angrier at the sight of them. The officers slam two people to the concrete, cuffing them and dragging them away.
“You’re fucking maggots!” a woman yells. “He was a 17-year-old boy!” The officers stare stone-faced.
“The whole nation should have heard about that. I don’t think they did. Because it was a black kid,” Raiford says of the dramatic scuffle in the street months later. “We not only can’t sign up to do public testimony, but we’re not able to participate in the process of actual access to government.”
In late May, two councilwomen offer the Hayes family the floor of the council’s chambers for two hours. The family shows up in T-shirts bearing Hayes’s face.
Donna Hayes tells them her grandson didn’t “bring a play gun to shoot-out,” that she believes Hearst to be a “free murderer,” that the police union is corrupt, that they need anti-racism training.
A cousin takes the microphone to tell the council about his time in jail for “committing an offense against the peace of this city.” He says he was grateful for the opportunity to turn his life around. He’s an electrician now. He says the Hayes family is confused about why Quanice wasn’t given that same opportunity. To rehabilitate. To change.
“Quanice didn’t have a violent weapon in his possession,” he says. “If Quanice had pulled a gun and aimed it at police officers, my family and I would not be sitting here today.”
* * *
“There are six fake guns in this pile,” Sergeant Paul Meyer tells me. “Which ones are they?”
It’s July, and Meyer has invited me to the Portland Police Bureau’s training facility to take a look at a stock of fake guns. He winds down cold hallways, stopping at a room where a long countertop is covered in firearms. They’re shiny-silver, matte-black, wooden-handled, plastic.
In February, Meyer was working in the training facility when photos of Hayes’s CZ P-09 airsoft gun and Don Perkins’s replica Walther PPK C99 handgun made the rounds in the media. Meyer started doing research.
“We’ve had fake guns for as long as I can remember,” he says. “After the Hayes case, I thought we should have a little bit bigger inventory.” As we look over the counter, officers in polo shirts walk into the room and look at the same pile of firearms, shaking their heads.
Meyer found Perkins’s handgun for sale online from Cabela’s and Walmart, alongside a host of other fake guns that looked just like the real ones, and he found the CZ knockoff on a specialty airsoft-gun site. Both arrived with blaze-orange tips. Meyer scratched off the orange paint and colored over it with a black Sharpie.
“It’s scary how real they are,” he says. We compare real Berettas to fake Beretta, real Colts to fake, real SIG Sauers to fake. I can’t tell the difference.
Meyer tells me they’re safe — so I look down the barrel of each real and fake gun. There are small grooves — called rifling — twisting in a spiral down the barrels. In real guns, the rifling propels the bullet out of the chamber in a spiraling motion. I ask Meyer why the fake guns would need that.
Meyer shrugs. He doesn’t know.
On the side of the fake CZ are a string of raised letters — so small they’re barely visible even up close: “WARNING: Not a toy.” I have to hold it inches from my face to see it.
The closest person I can find to an expert on fake guns is Tom Gaylord, who since 2005 has run a blog all about airsoft pistols for Pyramyd Air, a company that sells airsoft, air, BB and pellet guns. He says airsoft guns gained popularity in the 1980s when Japanese customers — who could not purchase real firearms due to rigorous gun laws in Japan — latched on to the replicas. In the United States, “the big focus was on war games,” he says. Paintball and airsoft, in which air-powered guns propel hollow plastic balls at opponents, became more popular.
Gun manufacturers began to license out the plans for real guns to be made into replicas. “They are so realistic, you can take them into a gun store, set them down and the people in the gun store will not know they are not firearms,” Gaylord says.
That’s problematic, he says, because there’s no way for law enforcement to tell the difference between the real gun and its fake copy. “I don’t think a young person should buy anything that looks like a gun without their parents’ knowledge,” he says. “You can’t sell an underage person a gun. You can’t sell them cigarettes. We stop them cold on underage drinking. … Why can’t we do this with things like guns?”
In 1988, Congress passed a law requiring water guns, airsoft guns that fire nonmetal pellets and some replicas to have an orange tip — a response to two shootings by police of children with plastic guns. Though many fakes now come with this blaze-orange-colored tip — not all replica guns are required to have it.
There’s no great data on shootings by law enforcement of people with fake guns, but a story in the Washington Post examined 86 shootings of people with fakes in the United States in 2015 and 2016.
Chuck Wexler is the executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, an independent organization that researches police accountability issues. In 1990, his agency was hired to do research into issues with toy guns after several shootings occurred. PERF found that “this is a huge problem for police departments. You’ve got these toy guns or replicas turning up in situations where officers or citizens would think they were real,” Wexler says. “In some cases it might not have any consequences.”
States can’t prevent sales of BB or pellet guns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but they can restrict sales to minors.
Some states have capitalized on that ability: In Rhode Island and New Jersey, non-powder guns are still classified as firearms, which keeps them out of the hands of kids and felons. In New York City, air-gun dealers have to “keep records detailing the name and address of each purchaser.”
The PERF research from 27 years ago seems to be the most extensive analysis of the issue. But, Wexler says, “I’m not sure you could make the case that a lot of progress has been made since [that] report came out.”
Some people point to California as having made the most progress: In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown approved a bill requiring manufacturers of fake guns to make them brightly colored and, in some cases, to include additional fluorescent elements.
But back at the training facility, Sergeant Meyer argues that guns come in every color and pattern — pointing to an AR-15 on the counter of the training facility that’s covered in green camouflage patterning.
Despite state restrictions, despite orange tips, fake guns issue have continued to get kids killed: In 2014, Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old, was shot in a Cleveland park by police officers as he held a toy gun that had had its orange tip removed.
Meyer says the Hayes case rattled Portland police officers. “All of us are shocked by it,” he says. He shakes his head as he thinks about Hearst hearing that Hayes’s gun was fake: “I can’t imagine that feeling.”
But still he says that when officers see a fake, they don’t have time to determine if it’s real. “My opinion? It’s an unrealistic expectation to expect to have one of these pulled on you and think it was fake,” he says.
Sergeant Christopher Burley, the public-information officer for the Portland Police Bureau, agrees. Even if Oregon imposed regulations on fake guns to make them bright green or pink, like California has, he argues that this wouldn’t affect how officers respond. “There have been recent reports of people making a real weapon look fake in order to fool police prior to a possible ambush,” he says.
Yet in Quanice Hayes’s case, officers never saw any gun.
Burley says “officers consider the totality of the circumstances and base their decision to use force on the person’s actions and access to a firearm or what appears to be a firearm.”
Seth W. Stoughton is a former police officer and AR-15 operator who now researches “the rules and policies and laws that shape police behavior” as an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina. He says a reach for a waistband doesn’t necessarily make someone a threat.
“The reach for the waistband is a very good reason for officers to elevate their awareness of the potential threat — but at that point it’s still just a potential threat,” he says. “It isn’t an actual threat until officers have some sort of confirmation there’s a weapon there.”
“Officers will go blue in the face before they say they will shoot to kill. They say they shoot to stop the threat,” Stoughton says.
And Stoughton says research might attempt to answer why Hearst shot Hayes that day. “We don’t exactly know why, but we do know that one of the strongest predictors for an officer being involved in a shooting is the officer’s past involvement in a shooting,” he says. “It’s not entirely clear why that is.”
Nationwide, officers are trained that the most efficient way to stop a threat is two shots to the chest, and “if that does not stop, shoot them in the head,” Stoughton says. It’s called the Mozambique Drill — a maneuver perfected by Rhodesian mercenaries on guerrillas during the Mozambican War of Independence.
In firing at Hayes, Hearst — whom I made multiple attempts to interview — must have believed the totality of the circumstances meant Hayes was a threat that needed to be stopped: the robbery, the car break-in, the jiggling of Pittman’s doorknob, the running from officers, the home break-in.
Hearst, in front of the grand jury that March, said it was his responsibility to shoot Hayes. His duty. And his colleagues continue to back him up: He had no other choice but to shoot.
But critics don’t buy that there was no other option but to shoot the teenager.
“The line is always ‘I felt in fear of my life,’” says Lew Frederick, an Oregon state senator who has pushed to have bills on police mental health and use-of-force issues passed through the statehouse. He says that no Portland police officer has “ever been completely fired as a result of use of force on duty. Within the minority community, that’s well known.”
“The difference between living and dying on the streets at the hands of an officer is the difference between your skin color and whether you scare them or not,” says dos Santos, of the ACLU of Oregon. “And we are training police officers into being scared of young black men?”
Across the country, the Hayes case is particularly disturbing to Sandra Weissinger, a co-editor of the book Violence Against Black Bodies. She’s an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. She can’t help but compare the shooting of Hayes with the later shooting of Don Perkins.
“Even though [Hayes] may have been on drugs at the time, it really plays into why his life ended, as opposed to [Perkins], who begged to have his life ended,” she says. “It’s because we assume we can get him help. We don’t assume that this animal-like teenager can be helped. And that’s deeply embedded.”
In late August I meet with Daryl Turner, the president of the Portland Police Association — the police union. He uses the word tragedy again and again to describe the Hayes shooting. He sympathizes with the Hayes family. He agrees with the decision to clear Hearst of wrongdoing. But he says there are systemic questions raised by delving into Hayes’s story.
“He was in a situation where he had fallen through some huge cracks in the education system, the social-service system. … Unfortunately in this country, it seems to be more so young men of color that get in those situations than it does anyone else. That’s a socioeconomic issue; it’s not a police, a law-enforcement issue,” he says. “It could have been a lot of things that pushed him to a point of putting him in a situation he was in that day. We get the blame for it, we take the responsibility for it.”
“At the end of the day nobody says the education system failed this young man. Or the social-service system failed this young man,” Turner says. “They say, ‘Well, the police shot and killed this young man.’ And that becomes the story line.”
* * *
Venus’s alarm goes off at 4 a.m., and when it does, she untangles herself from a knot of tiny legs and arms. At night, she puts her sons to bed in their own room. By the time she wakes up, they’ve always joined her in bed.
She skips breakfast and drives 25 minutes to work at a warehouse, where she supervises “people who lift boxes,” she says. While she’s at work, her mom watches her three boys.
After work one late July day, Venus is sitting on the couch in her living room in striped leggings and a yellow tank top. Outside Prince and Adonis have been climbing up a tree just outside the living-room window. And then suddenly they’re banging through the front door, screaming that the ice cream man is outside. Venus fishes coins from a change purse, pushing money into their palms, and the boys are flying out the door again, hurtling over their 10-month-old brother, who is crawling across the brown carpet in a diaper. Donna chases down the baby, eyeing the open front door.
The women say there is no justice for Quanice.
A court battle would “never bring back my baby,” Venus says.
She feels pressure: from her family, from people in Portland, for her young sons. She says she’s not sure if she will file a lawsuit. She’s exhausted, confused, afraid.
“Who wants to take on the Portland police? Who wants to take on the city?” she asks.
“They’re going to attack the character of Quanice, they’re going to attack the family,” J. Ashlee Albies, a Portland civil-rights attorney who has offered representation to the family, tells me over the phone. “All of those things are really hard to voluntarily step into. It’s discouraging.”
Albies says she’s made multiple requests to the city for photos of the scene, autopsy photos, CAD recordings, Internal Affairs reports, lab work, surveillance videos and audio recordings of witness interviews, but have gotten nothing in response.
One week before the anniversary of her son’s death, I received a call from Jesse Merrithew, an attorney working with Albies. He says that the Hayes family plans to take legal action. This week, they’ll send a tort claim notice to the city of Portland informing them of plans to sue.
Maybe it will bring her heartache. “But her desire for justice and her desire for answers outweighs that in the end,” Merrithew says. “She spent a good amount of time over the course of the last year trying to figure out whether she was willing to do it.”
“She’s now very solidly determined to file a lawsuit and do what she needs to do to seek justice for her son.”
* * *
One afternoon in early summer, Donna is watching the kids, waiting for Venus to get home from work before she starts making dinner. She’s explaining how Quanice’s death has changed how she talks to the young boys about the police.
“Donnie! Come here!”
“Yes?” Adonis asks, running into the room.
“Come here, baby,” she says. “How old are you?”
“What did the police do to your brother?”
“They shot him two times in the chest,” he says.
He points one tiny finger to the center of his forehead.
“And one shot in the head.”
* * *
Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and Vice.