Report: Officer was shielded after Black Lives Matter incident
Steven Teets, the off-duty Forest Grove police officer accused of criminal trespass against a Latino couple flying a Black Lives Matter flag last Halloween, was so intoxicated and belligerent when contacted by other officers that he was ready to fight his fellow cops, Pamplin Media Group has learned.
The new details, contained in a five-page Washington County Sheriff's Office memo, substantiate the account of Forest Grove resident Mirella Castaneda, which first received widespread media coverage in early November.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on Halloween, Castaneda poked her head outside to see who had set off the alarm on her family's pickup truck, at which point an unknown man charged at her in apparent rage, pounded on her front door and appeared eager to fight. She saw him bang on her Black Lives Matter flag as well.
"I have never encountered any one as aggressive and angry as this guy," Castaneda told Pamplin Media Group. "He was scary. ... This guy was violent."
Forest Grove police who responded to her call did not arrest Teets after recognizing him as a fellow officer. Instead, they gave him a ride home and a supervisor called in the sheriff's office because of the conflict of interest.
The memo obtained by Pamplin Media Group also confirms Castaneda's account that, for days, local authorities withheld details from the anguished mother, including the intruder's name and his identity as a police officer.
She feared a potential attacker unknown to her could still be nearby.
"For my own sanity and my family's, I just felt like I needed to know what happened," she said. "This really shook my sense of safety."
Dated Jan. 27, 2021, the sheriff's memo summarized an internal investigation of Castaneda's complaint about how she was treated by sheriff's staff and confirmed that deputies violated several policies by withholding information about Teets that is required to be shared with crime victims.
Only after days of trying, nearly 70 hours after Teets was contacted by police, did authorities finally divulge the intruder's name to Castaneda. She searched the internet and realized he was a Forest Grove cop.
The Washington County District Attorney's office indicted Teets on Nov. 10 for alleged criminal mischief as well as disorderly conduct in the second degree.
Teets, 43, has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled to begin in July. Teets, who is from Texas and Oklahoma, has been an officer in Forest Grove since 2010.
Responses to the incident
Asked about the investigation, Sheriff Pat Garrett said it validated Castaneda's concerns, though he defended his employees' intentions as based on an honest misunderstanding of the law.
"We came up short in some areas," he said. "We accept that. And we are in the process of learning how we're going to do that better."
Garrett described Castaneda's experience as "traumatic," saying the incident involving Teets "was a big deal."
Garrett defended his investigators as dutifully investigating the case to the point that it could be prosecuted — including the possibility that Castaneda's Black Lives Matter flag may have prompted Teets's actions. "It was a factor" in the investigation, he said.
"I know that it was because I just wasn't shutting up that (the investigation) went this far." — Forest Grove resident Mirella Castaneda
He declined to further comment on the pending case, but said that, generally, such a case could reflect on a police officer's suitability to be a witness in court or even to have a badge if they are found to have been motivated by conscious bias.
"From a police leadership standpoint, it absolutely contradicts what we need to be: public safety officers serving our community," he said.
Asked for comment, Teets's attorney, Derek Ashton, wrote in an email that "Steven is a 10-year Army veteran whose service included combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, he was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant, earned a bachelor's degree, and became a Forest Grove police officer. These are stressful times for the strongest among us. Steven is addressing a personal issue for which he deserves support and understanding rather than condemnation."
Cop arrested in a parking lot
More than 12 hours after Castaneda's 911 call, at about 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 31, two Washington County sheriff's deputies arrested Teets on suspicion of second-degree criminal mischief, the newly released memo shows. The deputies were brought in to address the conflict posed by Forest Grove police investigating one of their own.
The deputies first knocked on Teets's door with no answer; then called him on his personal cell phone to see if he was home, according to a Sheriff's report released in response to a Tribune records request.
The bulk of the 26-page report is redacted, completely blacked out.
The deputies soon met Teets in a parking lot — the sheriff's report was too redacted to tell precisely where. They informed him he was under arrest.
They issued him a citation instead of taking him to the jail, because COVID-19 restrictions prohibited bookings for most non-felony crimes.
Castaneda said she was at the sheriff's office when they informed her the intruder — whose name they still were withholding — had been arrested shortly before.
At around the same time, a family member called her to let her know the intruder had returned to their home and knocked on their front door, saying he wished to apologize.
According to the newly obtained memo, a sheriff's deputy then trespassed Teets from Castaneda's property, citing the potential for criminal witness-tampering.
The Forest Grove Police Department reassigned Teets from police duties to administrative tasks on Nov. 2.
According to his Nov. 10 indictment, Teets "did unlawfully and intentionally damage holiday decorations, outdoor lighting, and other items of personal property" belonging to Castaneda and her husband, Pablo Weimann, according to the indictment.
It also claims that Teets "did unlawfully and recklessly create a risk of … alarm" by engaging in "violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior."
Document provides details
The newly obtained memo provides far more detail, hinting at what the sheriff's redactions in the Teets arrest report may hide.
Among other things, it shows that:
• The Forest Grove officers who responded to Castaneda's 911 call told deputies they found Teets walking in the street and so "highly intoxicated" that his words were largely unintelligible. He did not recognize that one of the responding officers was a longtime personal friend of his.
• In response to his fellow officers' contacting him he "squared up" in a "fighting stance," his fists clenched.
• Eventually, a fellow Forest Grove officer drove Teets home, where he required assistance to get to his front door. He was too intoxicated to put his key into the lock.
• Brought in to investigate, sheriff deputies waited hours before connecting with Teets to arrest and cite him. Given his earlier belligerence, they hoped to allow him to "sober up" and avoid "escalated confrontation," the memo said.
• The sheriff's deputy who initially responded to Castaneda's call locked, or "privatized," the report from being accessed by others in his department — essentially disappearing the case from the department's officer-only records system — long after it could be justified, thus contributing to Castaneda's inability to learn who the intruder had been and whether he remained a threat.
The employee who "privatized" the report told investigators that the goal was to preserve the integrity of the investigation. But Garrett told Pamplin Media Group that as soon as Teets was arrested, his identity should have been released.
As Castaneda was denied the intruder's name or address, she begged sheriff's deputies to know what street the man lived on so she could warn her four kids to stay off it, she recalled.
"I had no idea where the threat was coming from, or why he was so freaking angry at us," she said.
Garrett noted that his staffer eventually gave Teets's name to Castaneda, but defended the decision to withhold his occupation.
"If it was, let's say it was a police officer, a county council person, a judge — you know, somebody with some power in the community," he said. "We would not want that to be have a chilling effect on the investigation by disclosing it at that time."
Badge led to unusual treatment
The memo concluded that Teets's status as a police officer caused his case to be handled differently, leading to Castaneda being improperly kept in the dark.
Not only was information about the case improperly withheld from Castaneda for days because the report was wrongly "privatized," but the deputies who interviewed her failed to give her the standard victim's rights card relating to her what information she was entitled to receive regarding the intruder, and how to get that information. Doing so could have spared her days of distress and the feeling of "getting the runaround" from officials, according to the memo.
The memo concluded that the sheriff's deputies did not intend to be unprofessional or disrespectful, but led Castaneda to feel that way.
According to the memo, internal affair investigators believed it was an isolated incident "that may have been significantly impacted because of the fact that an off-duty law enforcement officer (LEO) was involved. And, the lack of experience with deputies and supervisors alike in dealing with the various challenges associated with crimes involving LEOs. The case file was privatized because of Teets's (officer) status. Had Teets not been an (officer), it would not have been privatized."
Based on the report, Undersheriff John Koch wrote that the sheriff's office would implement eight recommendations made by its professional standards unit, based on the investigation of Castaneda's treatment, records show.
The recommendations included clarification of when records should be "privatized," as well as more training for records staff on disclosure laws. It also called for specialized training for deputies on how to investigate cases involving other police officers.
Castaneda, for her part, retained a lawyer, Michael Fuller, to help her get answers. Fuller is the same lawyer who filed a wrongful arrest suit against the West Linn police in the high profile case of Michael Fesser.
She and Fuller met with Sheriff Pat Garrett in November, asking for the department to address what felt like dismissive and disrespectful treatment to a crime victim. That's what led to investigation summarized in the five-page memo.
Garrett said progress is being made on all eight recommendations to prevent this from happening again.
"Let's say we arrest a law enforcement officer tonight in this very same scenario that Miss Castaneda and Mr. Weimann experienced, and we get a request for the report," he said. "I'm absolutely convinced that ... (sheriff's records staff) are going to get that information out in really timely way."
Castaneda filed a suit against Teets in November, with Fuller saying it was intended to preserve evidence.
Castaneda said she's gratified that her concerns were looked into and validated by the sheriff's memo, but she feels that if she hadn't been persistent, the whole thing might have been ignored.
"I know that it was because I just wasn't shutting up that they went this far," she said.
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