This is the story of how I — had I dared sneeze — could have been shot and killed by the Eugene Police Department.
I’m not kidding. It could have happened, and I’ll get to the story in a moment.
It’s a story I’ve told to only two or three people over the years. The only reason it surfaced this time is because members of Brian Babb’s family were in the Eugene Weekly building on Feb. 28, a couple days after the Babb family lost its civil suit in federal court over the police shooting death of Babb, a 49-year-old Afghanistan war veteran suffering from what appeared to be a PTSD-related breakdown.
The Babb family sued the city of Eugene and Eugene police officer Will Stutesman, who shot and killed Brian Babb just outside his home on March 30, 2015. The jury ruled that Stutesman acted within its training protocol.
Where the case goes from here is anyone’s guess, but it reminds me of my brush with EPD and mortality.
I want to emphasize that this is not an indictment of EPD. Far from that, it’s a story of how a series of random movements tangled with a calling (to protect and serve) and rolled downhill without brakes to collide with hardened perceptions.
No one thinks. Everyone acts on trained impulse.
It’s the mid-1990s. I’m still working as a copy editor at The Register-Guard and the RG is still on High Street. I’m working in the sports department, and it’s a Saturday night in February, the teeth of basketball season.
This particular night is brutal. The sheer volume of raw information we receive is astounding. Everyone is hunkered down. Finally, after the midnight hour, the last page is proofed and released. I need to decompress, and it is not happening inside four walls and a ceiling.
No, I am going to take a walk before getting into my dilapidated ’74 Dodge Dart (I loved that car) to drive home. So I fish $5 from my wallet, leave the wallet and car keys on a desk, grab my company-issued blue keypad and go out the back door.
This may have not been the best idea, but I was not known for common sense in those days. No, in those days I often took late night walks around Eugene to clear my mind.
I approach the University of Oregon. I step inside The Glenwood Restaurant. I order coffee to go, something to hold on to while I decompress. Then I cut through the 7-Eleven parking lot and cross Hilyard Street. The night is starting to wash away from me when an EPD officer approaches in his car. He is going very slowly and spying me. I shrug and walk past.
Suddenly, I hear the officer slam his car into reverse. Tires squeal. He is now parallel with me. He opens his door and points a gun at me.
“Hands up,” he barks.
I stare at him and tilt my head. “Hands up,” he barks again.
I’m still confused. I turn to see if anyone is behind me. What crazy stage have I walked onto? That’s when I see three more EPD officers sprinting my way, each pointing handguns at me.
“I said hands up,” the first officer shouted. I gently set the coffee cup on the sidewalk. Four guns trace the movement. I stop to notice that. Then I’m cuffed, and I have no ID.
I try to explain what I’m doing to the first officer. I don’t believe he’s buying it.
He’s talking to someone on his radio. “Was he wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, a baseball cap and glasses?”
The answer, I gather, is no, so I’m un-cuffed. Apparently, a man had walked into the 7-Eleven at 13th and Alder with a baseball bat and proceeded to destroy the place, aisle by aisle.
I was just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I suppress a chuckle. That’s a hell of way to decompress, I think. This also is a hell of way to end a hell of a night.
I carry this incident with me for a while. I was innocent, yes, but with four guns pointed at me I had no idea how to convey that. And what would have been a wrong move?
Babb was innocent, too, but with no way to convey the agony he was going through. He may or may not have been holding a gun. It’s forever conjecture.
What is certain is that the Babb family is shattered. There is no recovering from this.
Stutesman’s shot was final, and I wonder, too, how he moves forward. Law enforcement personnel see things they can’t un-see, and it also has a toll.
According to studies cited in 2018 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers experience symptoms of PTSD. That contrasts sharply with the 3.5 percent of the general population that has symptoms of PTSD.
As for me, I’m fine. The 25 years or so since my brush with EPD and mortality have been kind to me. I am lucky. I get to ask more questions.
Dan Buckwater writes and copy edits for Eugene Weekly in addition to wrangling the What’s Happening Calendar.