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Cop caught up in $600,000 civil rights settlement was investigated once before, but claim wasn't substantiated

PMG FILE PHOTO - Former West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus at a groundbreaking of a new police station in 2013.
Former Lake Oswego police officers accused Terry Timeus of racism long before the city of West Linn's recent legal payout for the ex-chief's role in the false arrest and prosecution of an African-American Portland man.

Timeus retired as the West Linn chief in late 2017, having made the jump from Lake Oswego more than a decade before. He's recently become newly controversial based on the revelation that, before retiring, he assigned his cops to work with the Portland Police Bureau gang unit to investigate and arrest Michael Fesser, a black man who'd complained of racism in the tow business of a friend of Timeus's named Eric Benson. The move —which led to charges being filed, then dropped — was intended to make it harder for Fesser to sue Timeus's friend, documents suggest.

Text messages in the case show Timeus's friend, Benson, using the n-word with West Linn police detective Tony Reeves and suggesting that West Linn, an affluent, predominantly white suburb, was not friendly to people of color. In a deposition, Timeus said he's used the n-word himself and heard Benson say it a half-dozen times.

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This is part of a series of articles related to Terry Timeus and the 2017 false arrest of Michael Fesser.

"I do not like the word," Timeus said, according to the deposition transcript. But the city nevertheless paid out $600,000 to Fesser based on the improper arrest and since then West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod has apologized, while state, local and federal officials have called for an investigation. But allegations of racism were not new for Timeus. A complaint filed in 2008 with the state Department of Safety Standards and Training accused Timeus of racism. It was shared with top West Linn officials including the city manager and members of the City Council.

However, most of the evidence related to the complaint, uncovered in city investigations, was never disclosed to the public. That's because the city of Lake Oswego sued to keep some of it hidden and because West Linn worked to conceal the rest from disclosure.

In March 2008, a former police officer for the Lake Oswego Police Department, where Timeus had previously worked, filed a complaint about Timeus to the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. Among the 17 incidents of misconduct it alleged, the complaint charged Timeus with racism and anti-Semitism. "Timeus is very well known for his 'off color' humor and has been documented using the word 'n-----'" on the job, the complaint read, while providing witness names.

It also charged Timeus with having used the term "NILO" at work, an acronym either standing for "Negro in Lake Oswego" or for "N----- in Lake Oswego."

The allegations of racism, which Timeus denied, also were reported to Lake Oswego's human resources department, which investigated internally.

But in 2009, when a reporter sought access to those records, the city of Lake Oswego first denied their release, saying the records didn't exist as requested, then denied the release of related documents, saying they involved personnel matters and weren't disclosable under state public records law.

The reporter appealed those decisions, involving the Lake Oswego City Council and city manager of Lake Oswego, in correspondence related to the dispute over records.

Officials in West Linn already had been copied on the complaint to the state certifying agency, including members of the City Council, Mayor Norm King and City Manager Chris Jordan, who referred the matter to attorneys to investigate.

An outside investigator did not find evidence to substantiate the racism or anti-Semitism allegation, or most of the others, according to a brief summary of the investigation that went to the Jordan at the time.

A reporter for the Lake Oswego Review and Pamplin Media sought a copy of the full investigation.

But because West Linn conducted its investigation through an attorney, a ruling by Clackamas County senior deputy district attorney David Paul decided the city was legally able to withhold the investigation under attorney-client privilege.

However, he questioned the city's reasoning, writing that the city's handling of the investigation "has the appearance of being designed to prevent public disclosure of the document contrary to public policy which favors public access to government records."

Meanwhile, in an appeal of Lake Oswego's attempt to withhold 241 pages of records pertaining to the "n----- in Lake Oswego" or "NILO" allegations, the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office did order Lake Oswego to release the records.

The city instead sued the reporter and the Lake Oswego Review to block access to the records. That suit was settled but the disclosed documents were highly redacted, limiting their usefulness.

Asked about the use of the term NILO, Timeus said at the time that he had heard it once or twice since joining the LOPD in 1986, but that he thought it was "very derogatory."

"It was just a term that somebody made up and they thought it was funny. I didn't find much humor in it," he said, noting professional standards had evolved since that time.

Lee van der Voo is an independent journalist who formerly worked for the Lake Oswego Review and Portland Tribune.

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