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OREGON BOY’S ’92 DEATH PROMPTS NEW LOOK AT HOSTAGE SITUATIONS

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Nathan Thomas was 12 years old when he died in a hail of police gunfire as officers charged an intruder who was holding a knife to the boy's throat.

His parents, former Utahns Dr. Gregory Thomas and his wife, Martha McMurray, could have sued the city for millions. Instead, they agreed not to go to court if the city cooperated in an independent study of the tragedy."We felt that it was a very complicated event," Dr. Thomas said. "There was plenty of blame to go around. We wanted Nathan's legacy to be a positive one, and we felt that suing would most likely be negative."

Nearly three years after the shooting, the report titled "Tragedy on Hazelfern Place" was made public last week.

Thomas and McMurray, who lived in Salt Lake City before moving to Oregon about four years ago, said they were pleased with the findings, which included recommendations for better training of patrol officers in handling hostage situations and in communicating with people under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The 258-page report was compiled by former Eugene police chief Pierce Brooks, considered an expert in evaluating police pro-ce-dures.

"From the start, it was apparent that Portland uniform officers had not been adequately trained in procedures related to hostage taking incidents, at least not for the situation that occurred that early January morning at Hazelfern Place," Brooks wrote. "The lack of command and control skills is quite evident."

Police didn't like the idea of someone from the outside coming in to second-guess their actions. But Portland Police Chief Charles Moose said his bureau is better because of the Thomas' demands.

"I'm very thankful to them because they've been very diligent in their insistence that we do get an outside review, that we do an in-depth analysis," he said. "It's always scary when you ask people to second-guess you, to review what you've done, to do a Monday morning quarterbacking.

"But they were persistent. They were very logical (and) methodical in looking at it. And as the years have passed, they were very correct in demanding that."

Brooks found that the situation would have been extremely difficult to resolve even for an experienced negotiating team.

But the SERT team was not called to the scene that morning nearly three years ago.

Many of the report's recommendations already had been adopted. Training has been improved and will be increasingly emphasized, Moose said.

He also said officers were being assured that calling in the SERT team was something to be praised and should carry no stigma, as it sometimes has in the past.

Early the morning of Jan. 16, 1992, Bryan French, a 20-year-old with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, broke into the Thomas home and held a knife to Nathan's throat.

After a failed attempt to shoot the intruder through a window, the officers rushed up a stairway and opened fire from close range. French died at the scene. Two shots struck the boy, who was rushed to a hospital, where he died a short time later.

"Most people would move directly to some type of litigation and actually seek some type of financial resource," Moose said. "That's why I have so much admiration for Dr. Thomas and his wife. What they've done is said they want something that would help their community and help their friends."

Moose said he would not follow two of Brooks' recommendations because he didn't feel they were necessary. One would establish an inspector position to review critical police incidents and the other would establish a full-time special weapons response team.

If supervisory personnel do their jobs properly, another level of management is not needed, Moose said.

Thomas and McMurray said they understand the chief's feelings and are only concerned that proper procedures are followed and that the use of deadly force is followed by a thorough, public review.

Thomas and McMurray live in the same house where the shooting occurred. Their surviving son Benjamin, now 10, continues to undergo grief counseling.