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Feds discuss decision not to pursue charges against West Linn officers involved in 2017 false arrest.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Michael Fesser attended a June Black Lives Matter rally in West Linn.Two months after federal prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against the West Linn police officers involved in the 2017 false arrest of Michael Fesser, some in the West Linn community and others in the Portland area are still disappointed and angry at the decision.

But they also have a bit of hope.

An FBI investigator and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon met with community members to hear their concerns and explain their decision at a virtual meeting April 20.

West Linn police falsely arrested Fesser, a Black Portlander, in 2017 as a favor to Fesser's boss, a friend of then-WLPD Chief Terry Timeus. The boss, Eric Benson, feared Fesser was going to file a lawsuit against him and his southeast Portland towing company for the racial discrimination he said he faced at work.

Fesser eventually sued Benson and A&B Towing and was awarded $400,000. He also sued the city of West Linn for violating his civil rights in the false arrest and was awarded $600,000. New details of Fesser's arrest that came to light in February 2020 sparked outcry from the community and local, state and federal officials.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon, along with the FBI, quickly launched an investigation into the circumstances around Fesser's arrest, announcing one year later on Feb. 19 that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the involved officers had violated Fesser's civil rights or federal public corruption statutes.

Frustrated that there would be no federal accountability for the officers' actions, the Urban League of Portland and the West Linn Community for Police Reform asked for a meeting with the U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI to explain the decision.

"My life could have been taken and we'd be sitting here having the same conversation that we're having about George Floyd and Daunte (Wright)," Fesser said.

Fesser, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president of the Urban League of Portland, and others at the April 20 meeting were clearly frustrated at the lack of accountability for officers involved in the case and felt the city of West Linn was hesitant to take meaningful action to address racism in the community.

"My life could have been taken and we'd be sitting here having the same conversation that we're having about George Floyd and Daunte (Wright)," Fesser said. "We're going to talk about this. What actions are going to get done? West Linn has had the opportunity to partner and bring in some Black guys and Black folks in our community to feel comfortable in healing. They haven't done it. We're just going to keep talking."

West Linn Community for Police Reform leader Martha Boyce, who is white, asked Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Craig Gabriel and FBI investigator Caryn Ackerman if they understood the message sent to Black community members when they declined to prosecute the case.

Gabriel responded, saying he understood the impression that a lack of federal action could be seen as an invitation for officers to act with impunity.

The assistant U.S. attorney added that it's up to communities, state authorities, regulators and attorneys to ensure that there is some kind of consequence for racist police behavior.

"The federal decision to decline a criminal prosecution is in no way the last word and in no way the complete word on what happened in West Linn and the city of Portland," Gabriel said.

He also suggested the outcome of the federal investigation may have differed if legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which had been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but not the Senate as of this week, had been law at the time of the decision.

Gabriel explained that the threshold for proving an officer violated a person's federal civil rights requires demonstrating the officer acted in their duties as a law enforcement officer, that they deprived the victim of certain rights and that they did so willfully.

Gabriel said investigators were able to prove officers acted in the "color of the law," meaning in their official capacity, but couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their actions violated Fesser's federal civil rights or that they had acted willfully.

Gabriel emphasized that the term "willfully" is a very high threshold and that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would change the language of the law to lower the threshold to require that an officer had acted "recklessly." Reckless actions, he said, would be much easier to prove.

One meeting attendee, Tara Stutsman, an aide for Sen. Jeff Merkley, said she appreciated the difficulty of proving "willful" actions but noted there was still a "comprehensive amount of evidence" for the case. She asked what additional evidence would have been needed to prove the officers had acted willfully.

"This situation would have never arisen if Michael Fesser had been a white guy instead of a Black guy," Gabriel said.

Gabriel said federal law prohibited him from answering that question. Ackerman clarified that the FBI wasn't prohibited in what it could investigate. She said investigators looked at every possible potential violation they could consider and that if she had found evidence to support charges, she would have pushed for prosecution to the best of her ability.

While Gabriel said DOJ employees could not speak about any "wrongdoing" in a case outside of court, he acknowledged the part Fesser's race played in the arrest.

"This situation would have never arisen if Michael Fesser had been a white guy instead of a Black guy," Gabriel said.

While most of the officers involved in Fesser's arrest are no longer working in law enforcement, Harmon Johnson brought up frustration that one officer is still employed: Mike Stradley.

Stradley, a former WLPD lieutenant, helped coordinate Fesser's arrest with Portland Police. In doing so, he mischaracterized Fesser in a police report to PPB, falsely stating that Fesser had threatened Benson and others at the towing company.

After he left WLPD in 2018, Stradley went to work for the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, teaching survival skills and tactics. DPSST placed him on leave last February and announced an investigation into his role in Fesser's arrest. He is still on paid leave and, as of March, had earned over $130,000 during the investigation.

Paul Buchanan, Fesser's attorney, added that he felt it was indefensible that Stradley's paid leave had lasted 14 months.

Gabriel said the DOJ and FBI had shared any relevant and disclosable information with other agencies investigating aspects of the case.

Harmon Johnson said Stradley was still employed with the state on the taxpayer's dime, because people find it easier to sit back than to challenge authorities. She also challenged those who claim this matter is closed because Fesser had received about $1 million in settlements from Benson and the city of West Linn.

"How much would it cost to have your child in fear for their lives and then to know that the people you pay, public officials who are sworn to uphold the constitution, would then do nothing about it? How would you charge to have your life changed, your child's life changed, your husband's life changed in that way, forever?" she asked. "I don't have a number, but it's certainly a lot more than what Michael Fesser settled for in these matters."


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