Column: Victim says sheriff's apology helped; she's still waiting to hear from Forest Grove police
A week before her Forest Grove home was attacked last fall, Mirella Castaneda relocated her large Black Lives Matter flag.
She'd hung it against the center of her garage door when she first bought it last summer, after George Floyd's killing. But now, near the end of October, she moved it to the left side and put a new large American flag on the right side.
Castaneda says she'd seen too many cases where the American flag was flown next to Trump banners or Confederate flags and she wanted people to know patriotism did not belong to a particular political viewpoint.
Besides, she saw Black Lives Matter as the spirit of America, where oppressed people have the freedom to call out injustice without fear of harm.
One week later, fear of harm came pounding and kicking on Castaneda's front door in the form of an intoxicated, off-duty Forest Grove police officer, Steven Teets.
That traumatic experience hasn't changed her attitude towards the Stars and Stripes.
Editor's Note: A crime story in Forest Grove cried out for follow-up. It's coming, thanks to an unlikely and lucky series of events.
Part 1: A chance run-in with Forest Grove's police chief led a retired journalist down the rabbit hole to find the truth.
Part 2: After her house was attacked, one woman works to protect her family and learn basic facts about their attacker.
Part 3: The case of an off-duty copy and a missing motive.
Part 4: A nightmarish trip to the Washington County sheriff's office.
Castaneda, 40, feels she's part of a battle to take back the flag and help fulfill America's "original promise" that all people are created equal.
And she doesn't want anyone to get the idea that support for Black lives or any other oppressed group is inherently anti-American.
But Teets's attack and its aftermath did change her feelings about local law enforcement.
As a child growing up in Forest Grove and Aloha, Castaneda heard negative stories about how some of her relatives and other Latinos had been treated poorly by police. But since she came back to Washington County at age 18, after three years in Mexico, she has had only positive impressions of its law enforcement agencies.
It helps that two of her relatives are police officers in the Portland metro area. Also, in the Washington County department where she works, some of her co-workers are married to sheriff's deputies and her supervisor previously supervised administrative staff in the sheriff's office. She has always had a good impression of the county's law enforcement agency.
Now she felt fear. At first it was focused primarily on Teets: He lived near her and passed her house. Would he come back for another attack? Would he bring his gun? What if she weren't around to protect her children?
The evasiveness and stonewalling she encountered at the Washington County Sheriff's Office also left her feeling unprotected and frightened. But that began to change when Sheriff Pat Garrett sat down to hear her complaints and then ordered an internal review of how Castaneda was treated.
"They were starting to listen to me," she says.
Her feelings about the office continued to improve after an apologetic letter from Garrett, talks with the detective who led the internal review, and finally an honest, five-page sheriff's office memo admitting all the misunderstandings and mistakes made by employees who improperly thwarted her attempts to get basic information on her attacker — and proposing plans to educate and train employees so those mistakes would never happen again.
It made a big difference "knowing they were actually looking into it," Castaneda says. "Once they started to acknowledge what I experienced wasn't normal, that was calming to me."
While her feelings about the sheriff's office improved, her feelings about Forest Grove police turned to fear.
As Castaneda was able to read more documents related to her case, it became clear to her that city police officers protected Teets while seeming to ignore or dismiss important details of her own experience.
"I have found myself having a physical reaction when I see any officer but especially a Forest Grove officer. Anytime I see an FGPD vehicle, my stomach clenches. I feel it in my throat," Castaneda says.
Indeed, while Garrett and others at the county reached out to Castaneda and have offered apologies, the Forest Grove Police Department has remained mostly silent.
Castaneda says Police Chief Henry Reimann apologized for not having body-cam recordings related to the incident — a protocol violation that is being addressed as part of a comprehensive outside investigation by the Beaverton Police Department.
Other than that, "he doesn't seem to know very much," Castaneda says.
Indeed, Reimann says he is deliberately not looking at reports or asking for information until all the investigating is done. He knows he might have to make a difficult disciplinary decision or perhaps even fire an officer and if he starts poking around before all the information is in, "I might start unconsciously (and unfairly) building a prejudice one way or another."
The Beaverton Police Department's criminal investigation is now in the hands of the county district attorney and Reimann will see it after the DA decides whether to press charges against any other officers.
Meanwhile, when Castaneda thinks of Forest Grove police, "the trust that I had that they would do things right is gone," she says. "I spent many nights wondering if I should consider moving out of the city."
Her husband, Pablo Weimann, is good at talking her down from those fears, she says.
Beyond Weimann's help, she wonders whether her fears would calm down if she got an acknowledgement from Forest Grove Police about the mistakes they made — along with plans for how to fix those problems so they don't happen again.
"I feel like I got that from Washington County," she says, "and I'm hoping that happens here."
Jill Rehkopf Smith was editor of the Forest Grove News-Times for five years before retiring in 2017. She is now a member of the Forest Grove chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, which aims to educate and organize people to help further racial justice. In a series of columns, she will share the perspective of Mirella Castaneda, a Forest Grove woman whose property was attacked by an off-duty officer and who has struggled to make sense of how law enforcement officials responded.
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