Did James Plymell need to die?

How homelessness is criminalized in small cities and towns across the West.

Note: This story contains images of a recently deceased person.

A couple of stray dogs were running loose in the parking lot of the Linn County fairgrounds just after 8 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2019, and Gerry Morris, a community service officer (CSO) with the Albany Police Department in Oregon, was on his way to help round them up. Morris turned onto a street that snakes past the blank-looking backs of stores and homes wedged next to railroad tracks. He noticed a beat-up silver Nissan Sentra stranded in the bike lane, partially blocking the road. A man with salt-and-pepper hair, who was wearing baggy gray sweatpants and a sleeveless blue shirt, was struggling to push it out of the way, but he didn’t appear to be making much progress. The dogs could wait.

Morris pulled over and got out.

As a CSO, he is one of four unarmed officers employed by the small police department in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. As he described it, CSOs are tasked with handling “livability-type issues”: abandoned vehicles, municipal code violations, fender benders. “I don’t even carry handcuffs,” Morris would tell a detective from the Oregon State Police six days later. And, unlike the department’s armed officers, CSOs don’t wear body cameras.


By the fall of 2019, Morris had been working in law enforcement in the Willamette Valley for nearly 40 years, first with the Eugene Police and then for 17 years as an armed officer for Albany PD. He’d been a CSO in Albany for the past 16. He received all of his police training in the Willamette Valley, and evidence of his long career there is scattered across local news: In 1994, his promotion to the narcotics team made the paper; in 2006, as a CSO, Morris appeared on the front page after he tased an aggressive pit bull. Later, in one August 2010 photo, Morris is shown flipping burgers at a community barbecue. On the Albany Police Department’s Facebook page are photos of him snuggling rescued puppies and baby goats.

“Can I help you push it off the road?” Morris asked the man.

“I ran out of gas,” the man responded. But they might have trouble, he added: He had a back injury. Morris said they could still give it a try.

Morris, who later told the Oregon State Police detective that he didn’t recognize the man, had in fact encountered him at least four times before. His name was James Plymell III.

Plymell initially said that he didn’t have the car keys, but then, moments later, he patted his pockets and found them. Morris thought that was odd. He looked into the car and saw boxes piled high with clothing and belongings in the front seat, suggesting that Plymell was living in it. And Plymell seemed nervous. “His verbiage — it wasn’t making sense,” Morris told the state police. “I could see the front of his pants were wet. Getting closer to him, you could smell a sweet odor of … something.”

Morris later told the detective that once he saw Plymell’s wet pants, he decided to call for backup. “Station one, code two,” Morris radioed in, a non-emergency request for assistance.

This seemed to make Plymell even more anxious — “amped up,” Morris said. Plymell rifled through the boxes in the passenger seat; Morris, worried that he was looking for a weapon, told Plymell to keep his hands where he could see them.

“Step it up,” Morris said into his radio.

In Albany, a town of 53,000 people, local police knew Plymell well: who he was, who he wasn’t, and how he acted around law enforcement. Between 2012 and 2019, the department ticketed, cited or arrested him about once per month on average. High Country News reviewed a list of 103 incidents during that time and found no mention of weapons, no record of violence. Plymell’s crimes involved sleeping in public parks, littering, drinking in public or being intoxicated — the kind of infractions that housing advocates and legal experts say cities and towns use to criminalize homelessness, poverty, addiction and the behavior of people with mental health issues.

Plymell’s crimes involved sleeping in public parks, littering, drinking in public or being intoxicated.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the U.S. economy and forced an estimated 30 million people to face potential eviction, homelessness was on the rise. In 2019, an estimated 568,000 people in the U.S. experienced homelessness. And the issue is particularly severe on the West Coast: In California, Oregon and Washington, in 2019, 29 to 38 people per 10,000 were homeless; those three states, along with the District of Columbia, New York and Hawaii, had the highest rates of homelessness nationwide. (Alaska, Nevada and Colorado had only slightly lower rates.) “There is not one city in the entire United States where there is enough shelter for people that are homeless,” Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said. “That’s rural, that’s urban, that’s suburban. That’s across the board. … This isn’t just a big-city problem.”

It’s a problem in Albany, too — and, in this case, it would contribute to James Plymell’s death, lying on the pavement on a cut-through street, next to a bright yellow-painted Battery X-Change store, across from a line of old houses, near a PetCo, and a Goodwill, and a strip mall. A place between places.

James Plymell lies dead on a residential street in Albany, Oregon, after being repeatedly tased by police officers. Plymell thought he had run out of gas, and his car was parked in the bike lane.
Albany Police Department via a public records request

OFFICER EMILY SCHROFF heard CSO Morris’ second call when she was parked in a nearby parking lot, drinking coffee and eating breakfast in her black police SUV. She flipped on her sirens and sped toward the scene.

Like Morris, Schroff, now 27, received all of her police training in the Willamette Valley. By October 2019, she was in her fourth year with Albany PD, where she’s also a member of the SWAT negotiation team.

Schroff arrived — body camera recording — and saw Morris standing at the open driver’s side door of the Nissan. Plymell was in the driver’s seat. As she approached, Schroff pulled purple plastic gloves over her hands, stretching them up over the outline of the state of Texas tattooed on her inner left wrist.

“Out of the car, please,” Morris commanded.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” Plymell replied casually, maybe even a little annoyed. “I’m out of gas.”

“Out of the car, please,” Morris repeated.

“You need to get out of the car,” Schroff interjected, lowering her voice. “Do it now.” Schroff, too, had come across Plymell at least three times before.

“I’m a licensed driver,” Plymell told her, still seated. Morris looked at Schroff, who started pulling Plymell by the arm.

“Am I under arrest?” he asked. Yes, Schroff said, for failing to obey a lawful order, and interfering with an officer. They struggled for a few seconds.

“You’re gonna get tased if you don’t get out of the car,” Schroff warned as she tugged at Plymell’s arm. She drew her Taser — a black device, shaped like a gun — and removed its barbs, preparing it for “drive-stun” mode, in which the device is pressed directly against the body for “pain compliance,” the use of painful stimulus to control an uncooperative person. Plymell yelled “OK! OK! OK! I’ll get out! I’ll get out!” He put his left foot on the ground just as Schroff pushed the Taser toward him. He flailed his arms, batting the device away.

At the moment Schroff’s Taser began to click, she had been at the scene for 42 seconds.

“HELP! Help! HELP!” Plymell yelled. “I didn’t do anything! I just ran out of gas!”

Morris yelled into his radio that officers were now fighting with the subject.

Screen shots from footage captured by Officer Emily Schroff’s body camera as she responded to the radio call from Community Service Officer Gerry Morris for non-emergency assistance. Schroff arrived, then pulled James Plymell out of his vehicle.
Albany Police Department via public records requests

Other officers began to arrive, including Gina Bell, a former gym manager in her late 20s who had been on the force for only a year. Bell, who had never encountered Plymell before, ran toward the Nissan, where Schroff and Morris were grappling with Plymell. “Get out of the car right now or you’re going to be tased!” she screamed.

“Tase him!” Schroff commanded, and Bell did not hesitate. The wires of her Taser launched with a loud pop, and Plymell’s yells transformed into high-pitched screaming. The officers dragged him from the car.

“Do it again,” Schroff said. Bell’s Taser continued clicking as Plymell writhed on the ground. He twisted and kicked. As the officers piled on top of him, his torso was thrust underneath the Nissan. His sweatpants started to fall down.

“I swear to God!” Plymell said as Bell tased him. “They’re gonna blow me up!” He screamed for help. “You already beat me once!”

He yelled something, too, about how he didn’t “see those little girls” — a discordant note that records and post-incident interviews never explained. Another officer arrived. “Tase him again?” the new officer asked the police piled on the ground. “No!” Morris shouted. “Don’t tase him again, that’s gonna get one of us.”

As Plymell continued to yell for help, the officers struggled to get his right arm out from underneath his body.

“Help!” Plymell cried into the pavement. “Help. Help. Help. Hey. Help. Help. They’ll kill me. Help. Hel— He— He—”

He went limp and silent.

“Are you awake?” Bell yelled, slapping the man’s back. “He’s unresponsive.”

“He’s still breathing, though,” Schroff said.

The officers pulled Plymell out from underneath the car and snapped his wrists into cuffs, propping him up into a seated position.

“Is this Plymell?” Schroff asked. “Is this James Plymell?”

“Sir?” Bell called, looking at Plymell’s face. “Do we need to do CPR? What the fuck? He’s blue, you guys — put him down!”

The struggle had lasted just over four minutes; a swarm of officers new to the scene now gathered, performing CPR until local medics arrived. They worked on Plymell for 20 minutes. But the man — who minutes before had been simply a person stranded on the side of the road — was pronounced dead at 8:51 a.m.

As Schroff stood by watching, another officer approached her. “Was he under the influence of meth?” he asked. She wasn’t sure, she said — maybe alcohol? She was breathing hard, winded from performing chest compressions on Plymell. “In all past incidents where we’ve had to fight him, he’s under the influence of meth at the time,” the officer told her before looking down at her body camera. “Are you recording?” he asked. She said yes. The officer walked away.

“I wouldn’t say anything further,” said another officer standing nearby.

“OK,” she said.

Yet another officer drew Bell and Schroff aside. “You’re not in trouble,” he explained, although an investigation into the incident would occur. He gave them two thumbs up. “Sounds like you guys did great,” he reassured them. “OK? Things like this happen.”

James Plymell’s body lies on the pavement. “Sounds like you guys did great,” an officer told responding officers Bell and Schroff. “OK? Things like this happen.”
Albany Police Department via public records requests

JAMES FULLER PLYMELL III was a son of the Willamette Valley, the wide green land between the Oregon Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains, home to Oregon’s prized hazelnuts and luscious pinot noir grapes. Plymell had lived in Lebanon and Albany and Eugene and all the spaces between those towns for nearly his entire life. Three generations of Plymells have called this part of Oregon home; his grandfather was a city councilman in Waterloo, and a member of the council’s police committee in 1951.

The area was already — and is still — home to the Kalapuya, Molalla and Chinook peoples when, in the 19th century, white settlers followed the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley. The settlers built ferries that shuttled passengers up the Willamette River. At a bend in the river, they constructed a bustling downtown filled with ornate French and Italianate architecture, much of it still standing in Albany today.

Before statehood in 1859, back when Oregon Territory was known as a bastion of Confederate supporters, the Legislature combined Albany — a pro-Union town — with the town of Takenah, which was dominated by Southern sympathizers.

For a long time, Albany, like most places in the state, was powered by timber money and industrial labor. Until a decade ago, travelers driving up or down Interstate Five would know they’d arrived when the acrid reek of the International Paper mill wafted through their open windows. The mill — which was actually located in Millersburg, not Albany — closed in 2009, and was demolished in 2012. “How will I know where to find Albany now?” one reader mused on the local newspaper’s Facebook page.

Plymell’s first name was James, but some family and old friends called him Jeff, his childhood best friend, Don Ackroyd, said. “He was one of those hardcore friends that’s hard to find.”

Plymell briefly moved away, then returned to the Valley as a young teenager. Unlike Ackroyd and his other friends, he didn’t graduate from high school. He “probably didn’t hang around the true role model adults,” Ackroyd said. (HCN could not locate any immediate family members for this story.)

Court records show that Plymell’s troubles with the law started early. When he was 13, he was caught driving without a license. At 16, he was caught driving without insurance; at 18, with an ounce of marijuana.

“Nobody’s perfect, you know? He had a problem with alcohol. I’m not gonna lie or beat around the bush. It didn’t define who he was.” 

He tried methamphetamine. At some point, Plymell was diagnosed with schizophrenia. And yet, Ackroyd said, time and time again he saw his friend beat back his addictions, cycling in and out of sober housing in Albany, attending recovery meetings, trying to clean up his life.

“Nobody’s perfect, you know?” Ackroyd said. “He had a problem with alcohol. I’m not gonna lie or beat around the bush. It didn’t define who he was.” More than once, drinking and drugs landed Plymell in the hospital; the doctors would call Ackroyd to ask if Plymell had any allergies. It was a heartbreaking cycle. “You could trust him with anything,” Ackroyd said. “He wouldn’t steal from you or rob you. But God, the drinking. When he was drinking, he was just really difficult. He would argue, or just rattle on about crazy things.”

At times, he held down stable work. Plymell was good with cars, “a Dodge guy,” who worked in auto body shops around the Valley. Some years, he took seasonal work stacking hay bales at local farms, a job he loved.

Plymell was living in a group home when he met Querina Landauer in a recovery group. The two got married in 2006, when Plymell was 32. But when he relapsed, “he started really getting verbally abusive to me,” Landauer said. “He was conniving. He was a narcissist.” He never hit her — “I wouldn’t put up with that shit,” she said — but he was impossible to live with, and the two divorced in 2010.

His encounters with local police continued throughout their marriage, and Plymell became convinced that the cops were out to get him. One late night in June 2004, shortly before he met Landauer, Plymell stood in the road near the Highway 20 overpass of Interstate 5, shirtless and yelling at cars. Police said he was screaming that he wanted to talk to Jesus. An officer, suspecting that he was on drugs, ordered him to get out of the road. He didn’t.

Albany Police fired beanbag rounds — fabric pouches filled with either lead shot or sand that can fracture skulls and break blood vessels in the brain  — from a shotgun to get Plymell to comply. When the first shot didn’t work, the officers fired more than a dozen more, tearing through Plymell’s skin.

It was useless — the beanbags “only enraged him,” read one local news report. Albany PD then tried pepper spray, with little result. “Officers considered calling for the Albany Fire Department to bring a firehose to spray him with,” the paper wrote. In the end, they wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, charged him with menacing, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, and transported him to a local hospital, where his injuries were treated.

Landauer said that when she and Plymell first met, he had scars all over his body. After police beanbagged him, he became even angrier and more afraid of law enforcement. “He hated the police,” she said. “Hated them. They wouldn’t ever listen to him.”

According to Albany PD, the incident happened so long ago that the records of it have been destroyed.

Photos from the scene and from the search of James Plymell's car, following his death. Lower right: One of the expended Taser cartridges recovered from the scene. Plymell was repeatedly tased by Albany Police officers before his death.
Albany Police Department via a public records request

THE OREGON STATE POLICE opened an investigation into Plymell’s death on the day it occurred — the standard response when someone dies after the police have used force in a small department like Albany’s. Morris, Bell, Schroff and the fourth officer to pile on Plymell were put on administrative leave while the investigation progressed. The state police detectives interviewed witnesses and the officers involved, searched Plymell’s car and phone, and spoke to people who knew him.

Detectives asked if the officers recognized Plymell. Morris said no. Schroff said no, too, but then explained that she knew who he was. She described the scene. “I remember seeing a partially crushed silver beer can behind the driver’s seat,” she said. “That added to my suspicion of DUI and him being under the influence of something. As I got closer, I could smell urine, that he’d soiled himself. I was familiar with that, because when I’d contacted him in the past, that had been the case as well.

“I didn’t know if there were weapons in there,” Schroff continued. “I knew there was some reason Officer Morris was asking him to get out of the vehicle.” At one point, she started to cry. “I didn’t want him to die.”

In 2017, Plymell was a passenger in a car accident in a small town outside Albany. “He was lucky to be alive,” his friend Ackroyd said. His hips and back were seriously injured, though, and he was prescribed Oxycontin for the pain. Lori Ann Bourgeois, who dated Plymell during the final month of his life, told the police that he would sell it, or use it quickly.

He was in a wheelchair for a time after the accident. But even when he was able to walk again, he wasn’t the same. “He had a hard time getting in and out of cars,” Ackroyd told me. “It wasn’t like he couldn’t, but it took him a little time. He had to be real gentle, because his back was really messed up — his spine and back.”

Officer Schroff, however, thought Plymell used a wheelchair simply because he was too drunk to walk. “He is not wheelchair-bound,” she told OSP investigators. “That was something that I think he utilized to get around with his intoxication level.”

“Ah,” one detective responded.

Bourgeois told me that the crash had another result, too, which became a focal point of Plymell’s life. “After the accident, he had incontinence issues,” she said. “It was hard for him to find a place where he could live where he wouldn’t be ridiculed.”

 “It was hard for him to find a place where he could live where he wouldn’t be ridiculed.”

“On our first date, we went to Belknap Hot Springs,” Bourgeois said. “We spent the day up there. He had a hard time walking, and the incontinence thing — that made life a living hell for him.”

Plymell briefly lived with Bourgeois in her apartment in Eugene. She’s a recovering addict, too, and when she came home one day from her job as a server at a breakfast joint and caught him drinking and taking pills, she was done. “I don’t know what made him drink that night I ended up kicking him out,” she said. “I told him nothing was going to come between me and my drug program.” During the week before he died, Plymell lived in his broken-down car in the parking lot of her apartment building. Bourgeois told me that she still didn’t really understand what happened. She hadn’t seen the body camera footage of Plymell’s death; she’d heard rumors, and she had questions. “The whole police department knew him and his situation,” she said. “They should have known he could barely freaking move.”

OSP finished its investigation the following month, and the case was referred to the Linn County District Attorney’s Office. In December 2019, County District Attorney Doug Marteeny issued a statement concluding that Plymell’s death was not caused, in any part, by the at least four 50,000-volt tasings that he received from Albany Police officers. Instead, the local paper reported, Plymell “died from cardiac complications of acute methamphetamine toxicity.”

“The case is now closed and you should feel free to bring your officers back for full-time duties as you deem appropriate,” Marteeny told the Albany PD. (The department declined to make Schroff, Morris and Bell available for comment. Requests for comment from attorneys representing them went unanswered.)

When Plymell’s car was hauled away and combed for evidence, detectives found two white pills, neither of which could be identified, in a locked box in the trunk. There were pillows and blankets in the car. There was an appointment card for mental health services. There was no drug paraphernalia, no bottles or cans of alcohol.

Behind the driver’s seat, they found an empty can of Monster Energy Drink.

Photos from the scene and from the search of James Plymell’s car, following his death.
Albany Police Department via public records requests

PLYMELL PERIODICALLY SOUGHT HELP for addiction. One place he went was housed in a converted old church in downtown Albany called CHANCE — Communities Helping Addicts Negotiate Change Effectively. “Everyone here at CHANCE is someone in recovery who deals with addiction,” Executive Director Jeff Blackford told me in December. James “was very open with his struggles around it. … He was just a good, genuine person. But when he struggled, he struggled.”

Albany has 18 private transitional living homes for people in recovery, and just two shelters to serve its large homeless population. Blackford says that’s not enough. “There needs to be affordable housing, where people that are making the $741 on (Supplemental Security Income) can afford a rental in Albany,” he said. “It’s just not affordable. You can’t find an apartment for under $1,000.”

Whitehead, the director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said skyrocketing housing prices are precisely why the Western U.S. is seeing such a surge of unhoused people. “And then there’s also the jobs that don’t pay a living wage,” he said. “There is no lack of housing when it comes to people at the top of the economic ladder.”

It isn’t just the income disparity; Whitehead and other experts interviewed for this story pointed to the federal government’s actions during the 1980s, such as President Ronald Reagan’s decision to cut housing subsidies. “It’s an American priority crisis,” Whitehead told me. “It is unfathomable that in the richest country in the history of the world we have people living on the streets. And I think part of that is because several decades ago … America stopped providing long-term solutions for the homeless. Homeless people and people at the bottom of the economic ladder were villainized.”

As tent encampments have emerged in both cities and towns across the region, misperceptions regarding who is homeless, and why, have also increased. Whitehead estimates that 35% to 40% of unhoused people have full-time jobs or are seniors who are unable to work any longer. “They just can’t afford a place to live,” he said.

Source: 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Some, like Plymell, are “hard to house” individuals who have criminal records or bad credit history. Many need mental health services, substance abuse programs or rental assistance, but in Albany, connecting people with those services can be a challenge. Most of the organizations that offer those services, including CHANCE, are located in the city’s downtown core, where craft breweries, boutiques and a wine bar are now interspersed among the city’s historic buildings.

In 2018, the Albany City Council, in a 5-1 vote, passed a city code creating an “Enhanced Law Enforcement Area.” People in town call it the “exclusion zone.” The change allowed the city to enact something of a three-strikes-you’re-out policy: Anyone who has been convicted of three offenses — felonies, misdemeanors or city code violations — could be banned from the downtown area for up to a year.

“The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” 

Later that year, Albany was forced to remove illegal camping from the list of offenses that could accrue three strikes after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals  ruled that Boise, Idaho, had violated people’s constitutional rights by citing them for sleeping on public property when they had nowhere else to go. “The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the panel of judges wrote. The ruling affects how municipalities treat unhoused people across the Western states — from Montana to California, Arizona to Oregon. Late last year, for example, in Grants Pass, Oregon, a judge ruled that the small city had violated the decision by continuing to ticket and fine people who are unhoused. Experts say that policies like Albany’s are more common than not across the state, and that the cost of jailing someone over and over is “probably more than it costs to put someone in a housing unit,” Whitehead said.

Captain Brad Liles, of the Albany PD, pushed back against the idea that the Enhanced Law Enforcement Area was designed to criminalize unhoused people, or keep them from accessing the help they needed. “There wasn’t a violation to go to get your services,” he said. “But there was to hang out on the corner and drink another beer.”

IN RECENT YEARS, Albany PD crossed paths with Plymell frequently — sometimes several times a week, sometimes several times in a single day. The department reported him for “transient complaints,” disorderly conduct, being intoxicated, camping in prohibited places.

Liles said that while the department saw Plymell often, “he’s nowhere near the highest,” he said. “I’ve had some in the 300 to 400 category.”

The fall of 2018 is a good example. On Sept. 2, shortly after noon, Plymell was riding his bike shirtless near a drive-thru taco place, where the smell of carne asada blends with the exhaust from four busy lanes of traffic. Officer Emily Schroff spotted him and recognized him from previous interactions. She ran his name, saw he had 10 warrants, circled the block and stopped him. “(He) became very anxious and fidgety,” Schroff’s report of the incident reads. “He was yelling that he wasn’t drunk.” She searched him for weapons — he was unarmed — and took him to Linn County jail.

The next day, the police ran into Plymell twice in the Enhanced Law Enforcement Area: first, when he was sitting shirtless on a local trail he had been prohibited from visiting for six months. An officer cited him, and banned him from it for two more years. Later that night, Plymell was sitting on a sidewalk with a friend who had an open can of Four Loko. His friend was cited. Three days later, both were cited — this time by Schroff.

The pattern continued: An officer would see Plymell, who had warrants, and cite him again or take him to jail. It was a dance that both parties seemed well-acquainted with. On one occasion, the officer citing him noted that “Plymell was decent and cooperative.”

Source: Albany Police Department via public records requests

One Sunday morning, CSO Morris spotted Plymell “wrapped in sections of carpeting” and sleeping on a park bench downtown; he woke him and cited him for prohibited camping. The next week, Morris roused him from the same bench. “Plymell had wet himself,” he wrote in his report. He cited him, again, and banned him for life from the property. Later, he noticed Plymell’s bedding had been “folded and left on the ground between a bench and a table.” He cited him for littering.

A few days later, Plymell got another citation from Morris for sleeping on the same downtown bench. The next morning, another officer cited him as he rode his bicycle. Later that night, he flagged down an officer as he was walking down the sidewalk. “He was very intoxicated, and it appeared he had urinated and defecated himself,” the officer wrote in a report. “James was very upset and stated he was going to kill himself and that he wanted to hurt other people.” Plymell told the officer if he didn’t help him, he’d jump off a nearby bridge. The officer transported him to the local hospital, helped him to a room and into a bed, and he calmed down.

Two days later, he was back in handcuffs for outstanding warrants, and, yet again, was transported to the Linn County Jail.

In 2017, the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an organization dedicated to ending homelessness, joined the ACLU to push for the introduction of a “Right to Rest” bill in Oregon, after surveying nearly 600 unhoused people in Oregon about their frequent police citations and tickets. But the bill couldn’t get a hearing. “The rate of interactions between cops and homeless people is fucking astronomical,” Paul Boden, WRAP’s director, said. “Sleeping, sitting and standing still, by massive percentages, were the top three criminal offenses people are being hit with. Sleeping, sitting and standing still — who doesn’t do that?”

Boden said frequent interactions with police, of the kind that Plymell experienced, are typical — and he doesn’t think unarmed community service officers are helping. “Whether they’re unarmed so they’re more palatable to the general public, or whether they’re fully armed, they’re still enforcement,” Boden says. “Their job is to enforce these laws that were put on the books in order to mitigate the impact of your presence in your community. ‘I’m watching you, I’m following you, I’m hunting you down, motherfucker. And as soon as you step out of line, I’m going to jack you up.’ ”

Whether they’re unarmed so they’re more palatable to the general public, or whether they’re fully armed, they’re still enforcement.

Capt. Liles said that the department has a single trained mental health crisis worker who can respond to calls with officers. That is clearly not enough. “She’s one person. She covers all of Linn County,” he said. “I would love to have more mental health workers.” But it all comes down to money. “Where does that lie?” he asked. “In the budget of the police? In the budget of mental health? Because in my career, the mental health budget has significantly decreased. It has not grown with the problems in society. It really hasn’t.”

Just before the end of 2020, I spoke with Alex Johnson II, the newly elected mayor of Albany. He was sympathetic both to the housing advocates and to the local police with their strained budget.

Johnson is a former city councilman who sells insurance and referees local football and softball games. He is also the first Black mayor of Albany. He said he wants the city to revisit the downtown three-strikes rule. “The exclusionary zone is crap,” he said. Unhoused people are “part of our community. Whether you like that part of our community or not is not my problem. Our job as city leaders is to take care of everybody in our community, not just the people with money.”

He thinks that the services in the downtown core should be relocated — and he made a point to note that he is extremely supportive of the local police. He realizes his election presents Albany with an opportunity to change things, to make sure everyone feels served by the city and its police department. “There’s been this anti-growth, anti-change, anti-anything-new philosophy in city government for a long time,” he told me. Affordable housing is one of his top priorities.

“If Albany doesn’t create housing that’s affordable, if we don’t deal more effectively with our unhoused population, Albany’s gonna be a ghost town in 20 years,” he said. “My grandkids … are going to inherit a city that’s dying. It’s our job not to let that happen.”

James Plymell lies dead on a residential street in Albany, Oregon, after he had been repeatedly tased by Albany Police officers.
Albany Police Department via a public records request

WHEN HE DIED, Plymell joined the modest population of Oregonians who died after being tased by law enforcement in small cities, and whose deaths were ultimately blamed on their own health problems or drug abuse.

Among the group was a 24-year-old student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. In 2006, Ashland Police officers responded to a report of a suicidal male, a young man passed out in a closet. Upon being awakened, he started to get up and advance toward the officers, who tased him. Authorities blamed his death on an overdose of a sleeping medication. Other examples span demographics and jurisdictions: In 2010, after an 87-year-old Boring, Oregon, woman, threatened to shoot people working near her house, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office tased the woman, who died. The medical examiner later blamed her heart disease, saying her pacemaker failed. “A healthy person would not have died from this,” he concluded. In 2012, a 23-year-old with mental health issues who had smoked spice — a synthetic marijuana substance — died after being tased 24 times by a Talent, Oregon, police officer; a medical examiner concluded that the drugs had caused a heart attack.

Tasers were invented in the 1970s by a NASA physicist who wanted to create a nonlethal conducted-energy weapon to aid police. According to a 2019 study by the National Institute of Justice, they have been “a magnet for controversy” since their wide adoption in law enforcement circles in the early 1990s, given the extreme pain they cause, and the potential for fatal reactions.

“They were the next big thing in policing,” Seth Stoughton told me. He’s a former police officer who is now a professor of law at the University of South Carolina, and the co-author of Evaluating Police Uses of Force. He said that “less-lethal” uses of force are in constant rotation: Dogs and firehoses, pepper spray and beanbag rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas. Batons were common until 1991, when violent footage of Los Angeles Police officers beating Rodney King caused law enforcement agencies to re-evaluate their use.

Tasers generally have two modes. Usually, when an officer deploys a Taser, wires connected to barbed prongs fly at the subject, piercing through clothing and embedding in the skin. (This is how Bell used the device when she tased Plymell.) The Taser X26P is commonly carried by law enforcement, including in Albany. Its wires carry pulses of electricity so powerful they cause extreme pain and neuromuscular incapacitation — a loss of muscle control. When Schroff attempted to tase Plymell, however, she used “drive-stun mode,” which is when the operator removes the Taser prongs and pushes the device directly against the subject’s body in order to cause more localized pain.

But drive-stunning is controversial. In 2011, a mentally impaired South Carolina man who had been committed refused to comply with officers’ orders. He was drive-stunned as he sat on the ground, hugging a stop sign, and he died afterward. Stoughton said that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled “that the Taser is a serious use of force, and for that reason, it is only appropriate as a weapon — whether in prong mode or drive stun mode — when there is a risk of physical harm to officers.”

 “The Taser is a serious use of force, and for that reason, it is only appropriate as a weapon — whether in prong mode or drive stun mode — when there is a risk of physical harm to officers.”

An investigation published by Reuters in 2017 found that 1,005 people across the United States had died after police tased them. Most of the deaths had occurred since the early 2000s, and many of the victims were already in some psychological distress. Taser International (now Axon) revised its own training manuals in 2013 regarding the use of Tasers on people with mental health issues. The company said: “Drive-stun use may not be effective on emotionally disturbed persons or others who may not respond to pain due to a mind-body disconnect.” And since 2009, the company has cautioned against using Tasers on the chest. After Plymell’s death, a Taser prong was found lodged near his right nipple.

During their investigation, Oregon State Police detectives spoke to several civilians who had either seen Plymell stranded on the side of the road or attempted to push his car for him. He was described as “erratic,” “acting like a tweaker,” and maybe “buzzed on dope.” One person said he repeated 15 times that the car “is light, it’s easy to push.”

“The big picture question we should be asking is what kind of failures, what opportunities were there, to intervene in a different way earlier than could have prevented this guy from being in the disabled vehicle?” Stoughton said.

Images downloaded from James Plymell's cellphone and placed into evidence following his death.
Albany Police Department via public records requests

IN THE MONTHS BEFORE HIS DEATH, Plymell had lived in a recovery house called God Gear. Curtis Parke was a resident there at the same time, and only knew Plymell when he was clean and sober. “He’s a really pleasant, friendly guy,” he said.

He had heard that Plymell’s car had broken down the night before he died, and that he ended up sleeping in the car at Battery X-Change, less than a mile from God Gear. “I often wonder why he didn’t reach out to any of us,” Parke said. “He was right there. We could have done something if he just reached out.” Later, when a detective scoured Plymell’s Nissan for evidence, it turned out it wasn’t completely out of gas, as he’d told police. One of the cables that connected the battery to the car was simply unplugged.

Using records obtained from the Albany Police, I was able to look through the contents of Plymell’s cellphone. Just like anyone’s phone, it chronicles at least a part of Plymell’s life — the people he spent his time with, the ones he cared about and those who cared about him.

In June 2019, he snapped photos of a cherry-red Mustang at a used car dealership; Ackroyd and Bourgeois said he bought it with an insurance settlement. (When Plymell died, there was a photograph of a check for $20,698.94 on his phone from Progressive insurance.) He got new tattoos: an eagle mid-flight, wrestling with a snake in its talons, across his forearm; his last name inked across his shoulders in script.

There were appointments in his phone for court dates and doctors’ appointments. A photo of Ackroyd, smiling, in a red tank top. One of a newly installed sound system in his Mustang, and one in the beat-up Nissan. Pictures of antique clocks and silver coins. Sunrises, sunsets. A selfie of Bourgeois and Plymell, grinning on a trip to the beach in Newport, where they walked along the Bayfront.

He took other selfies, too: smiling in a driver’s seat of his Mustang; smiling in the forest; smiling as he reclined on a couch outside at God Gear, with the words “Jesus Saves” painted on the wall behind him.

And there’s one more selfie, taken in the dark, early in the morning of Oct. 23, 2019.  You can barely see him. It’s as if he’s fading, somehow, just a dark outline in the driver’s seat of his car. The following photos are a blur: The floor. The seat cushion. And then one more photograph, taken in the morning, out the window, the bright yellow walls of Battery X-Change coming into view as the sun came up one last time.

The following video is police body camera footage of the violent last minutes of James Plymell’s life. It includes tasers, physical restraint by police and may be disturbing to some viewers.

The unedited, 28+ minute version of police body camera footage is available here.

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High Country News. She writes from Portland, Oregon. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

This story was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund


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