Forest Grove police officer's firing shouldn't be the end of the story
Steven Teets's victims are now breathing easier.
Teets, who was fired Dec. 9, was a Forest Grove police officer — albeit off-duty and drunk — when he traumatized Mirella Castaneda's family late one night in October 2020 as he walked home from a bar in downtown Forest Grove. Castaneda, her husband, 59-year-old mother and teenage son all huddled in the living room as this inexplicably violent stranger yelled at them and tried to break down their door.
But the impact of Teets's actions spread beyond one family.
That's because Castaneda's house was the only one Teets passed that displayed not only a huge Black Lives Matter flag hanging against the garage door but also "Black Lives Matter" and "BLM" painted on the windows of the family's vehicles.
According to Castaneda, the first thing Teets did was kick and bang on one of those vehicles. The second thing he did was march up to the Black Lives Matter flag and pound on it with his fists. When he spied Castaneda peeking out at him, he charged toward her and attacked the front door.
How are Forest Grove's Black residents supposed to feel about this?
One interpretation of Teets' acts is that he hates Black people, although some who know him say that's not true.
Another interpretation is that he sees Black Lives Matter as an anti-police movement, a threat to his profession, a smear on the "brotherhood" he loves.
Motivations aside, Teets's actions show a deep lack of knowledge about the complicated history of Black people in this country. A more-informed police officer could mourn the anti-police element of Black Lives Matter while still adamantly supporting the movement and those signs — even when excessive alcohol consumption reveals their true feelings.
But such a complex approach to race and privilege is rare in our outraged, polarized society and it's nearly impossible with white police officers who haven't internalized the injustices Black people experience.
How many Forest Grove Police Department officers have watched "Thirteenth" or read "When They Call You a Terrorist," "The Warmth of Other Suns," or "We Were Eight Years In Power?"
I hadn't read any of those books before I retired from journalism four years ago. When I finally picked them up, I was stunned at my ignorance.
Without these history lessons and first-person accounts, white Americans can't understand how the injustice inflicted on enslaved and sharecropped and lynched and Jim-Crowed and redlined and mass-incarcerated Black Americans still significantly affects their descendants today.
But whether we're conscious of it or not, we white people are still well aware of the unfair treatment and negative stereotyping. As comedian Chris Rock notes in one of his routines, "There ain't a white man in this room that would change places with me, none of you. None of you would change places with me — and I'm rich!"
Ironically, the anti-police upheaval sparked by George Floyd's murder may have given white officers a sharper taste of what it's like to be Black in America — to have people think demeaning or suspicious or terrible things about you, no matter how upstanding or good-hearted or brilliant you may be, simply because of your outward appearance.
But here's the difference between the "blue life" of a police officer and a Black Life.
Blue Lives can take off their blue every time they finish their shift or go on vacation or leave their job.
Black Lives can never take off their black.
Castaneda has done enough homework to understand all these things, including the complexity she must sometimes embrace. That's why she strongly supports the Black Lives Matter movement, even while she has relatives who are police officer. She would never describe herself as anti-police, just anti-bad police, whose conscious or unconscious racism ends up hurting people of color.
Castaneda said she was terrified by Teets's attack and frightened just knowing he was still on the force, so she's relieved to hear he was fired. And she'd like him to be convicted of the misdemeanor charges he faces.
But Castaneda also has empathy for Teets, knowing he's a veteran, and wants him to get the help he needs. That's why, although fearful of seeing Teets in person, she still wants to engage in some form of restorative justice, which will require sitting down and talking with him face-to-face sometime after his Feb. 9 court date.
I admire her courage. It will be a difficult meeting for both of them. I wish Teets and Castaneda the best with that encounter. May their hearts be open and strong enough to hold many painful, complicated feelings. And may the outcome help heal them both.
Jill Rehkopf Smith is the former editor of the Forest Grove News-Times and a member of the Steering Committee of Western WashCo for Racial Justice.
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