Forest Grove police face community pressure
Early last Halloween morning, off-duty Forest Grove police officer Steven Teets allegedly "terrorized" a local family by banging and kicking at their front door, while challenging them to a fight.
Teets was later arrested. But the circumstances surrounding his arrest have come under scrutiny, as the community awaits the results of an ongoing investigation of the incident and the Forest Grove Police Department's subsequent treatment of Teets.
Teets was reported to have stumbled onto the victims' property around 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 31, and twice activated their car alarms before flailing at their Black Lives Matter flag hanging above their garage, charging their front door and challenging them to a fight.
The incident was first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive.com.
After leaving the property, Forest Grove police quickly caught the alleged intruder about 50 yards away and recognized him as one of their own. Instead of detaining him, they gave Teets a ride home, investigators have confirmed.
Following a 9-1-1 call, Forest Grove police responded but didn't acknowledge they had already picked Teets up, instead asking if neighbors would be able to recognize him.
Body camera footage of Teets' escort home doesn't exist, the police department says. The officer who picked him up and gave him a ride home had a body camera that was not recording, a potential violation of department policy that is part of the investigation, according to Police Chief Henry Reimann.
It's those policies, and more specifically the police department's alleged failure to follow them, that has Clare Collins and other community members demanding better.
"If you look at data across police departments nationwide and in Forest Grove, I think there are systemic issues that we need to address," said Collins, who has participated in protests outside the police station in downtown Forest Grove. "So for me personally, I know that local activism can make a big difference and can raise awareness to issues like these."
Collins said she hopes that the protests, which have been small but energetic, will help facilitate what she believes to be necessary upgrades in how our laws are enforced.
"My conversations with Chief Reimann and as I look at recent incidents, they don't put a good taste in my mouth," Collins said. "I'm sure there are nice people in the department and I'm not against everyone in the department, but I think as a whole, it needs a lot of changes."
Reimann isn't deaf to the concerns, which he said he understands.
"I do understand the community's concern," Reimann said. "Personally, I try to respond to every call, every email, and assure those community members that we are taking this very seriously. But we have to let due process take its course."
Reimann said the incident required two separate investigations: the criminal investigation into the incident itself, and a city probe into how officers responded. The former, Reimann said, has been completed, and Teets is scheduled for an upcoming hearing for criminal mischief, while the latter continues — it's being conducted by an outside agency, Reimann said — and could take months to complete.
"They're examining all the evidence on what took place that evening and will decide at some point, whether or not to present this as a criminal case or as an internal investigation," Reimann said. "They're probably a ways out on that, and I don't have their timeline, because it's not my investigation, but I would think it'd take a couple months, all said and done."
Events of the past year signaled that many are fed up with what's perceived as deeply rooted, systemic issues within law enforcement. Protests erupted across the country last spring after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police officers while a bystander recorded his pleas for help on her phone. Since then, a litany of demonstrations nationwide have communicated much of the populace's frustration with law enforcement in Minneapolis and well beyond, with some of the most vigorous protests — devolving at times into violence, sometimes instigated by street activists and other times initiated by riot officers or uniformed federal agents — happening throughout the summer in downtown Portland.
"I know that nationally, there's a loss of trust, but I appreciate our citizens and community members' voice and activity," Reimann said. "They're part of the checks and balances there to make sure we're not cutting corners and that we're doing our due diligence."
Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax said he appreciates both the community's involvement and the city's police force, although he declined to address the situation involving Teets.
"I can't really talk about this situation while the investigation is ongoing," Truax told the News-Times. "I do support the right of people to exercise free speech, but I also feel I am protecting others' rights by refraining from comment at this time."
The Teets incident came just weeks after 44-year-old James Marshall died following an encounter with Forest Grove police officers.
Police said Marshall was erratic and uncooperative after questions regarding damaging church property. As police attempted to detain Marshall, he punched an officer in the face, which led to officers taking him to the ground and discharging a Taser "stun gun" into his back as he continued to struggle, according to authorities. After being shocked by the Taser, Marshall stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest.
Marshall died at an area hospital two days later.
Marshall's death remains under investigation, and the Washington County District Attorney's Office will conclude whether Forest Grove police officers' actions were justified — standard practice when a person dies at the hands of law enforcement officers.
Their "preliminary analysis," as released to the public later in October, is that body camera footage shows the officers violated "no laws" and "did not act in an assaultive manner and did not do anything that would directly explain Mr. Marshall's medical crisis."
Nonetheless, the events of October have community members like Collins questioning the policies and procedures of their police force.
"I think some people are about departmental and procedural change, while others are more about defunding or reallocating resources," Collins said. "Personally, I'd like to see policy change that limited armed officers and provided us unarmed authorities that dealt with things like traffic stops and mental health issues. Armed officers aren't always necessary."
Despite Marshall's death and Teets' arrest last fall, Reimann believes his department is doing a pretty good job, and he noted he's not alone in that sentiment.
"I hear from a very small percentage of the community regarding questioning the system and processes," Reimann said. "I think there's still a lot of trust in the community and in the good work that our officers do. We went to 22,000 calls in 2019, so I think the department's doing a great job in responding to all those contacts.
"Sure, you can always do better, and it's our goal to always strive to do our best, but overall, I think we're doing good."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.