West Linn Police: City officials express outrage at scandal
West Linn city councilors have added their voices to the cries of shock and concern over the unlawful arrest of a black man from Portland by West Linn police three years ago.
West Linn residents, Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have all expressed outrage at the incident and called for investigations.
"I share our communities feelings of disgust and dismay over these past incidents and the impact it has brought to our community and to all communities," Mayor Russ Axelrod wrote on Facebook Friday, Feb. 14.
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This is part of a series of articles related to Terry Timeus and the 2017 false arrest of Michael Fesser. Click here to follow the story from the beginning.
Also on Friday, the West Linn City Council submitted a letter to Billy Williams, U.S. state attorney for Oregon, urging the federal Department of Justice to open an investigation.
"We are committed to finding answers and join our community, state leaders, federal representatives, and our current Chief of Police in calling for a thorough outside review by the Department of Justice into the actions of the City of West Linn and the West Linn Police Department in this case," the letter reads.
The council also declared its "commitment to transparency and cooperation throughout the investigation process," adding, "It is our hope that by fully addressing the concerns of our community, we can begin to rebuild the trust that has been compromised by this case."
U.S. Congresmann Kurt Schrader, whose district includes West Linn, said he was horrified by what he's learned about West Linn police recently but added he was impressed with the city's response.
"The president saying things he does he makes it unfortunately more common for people to act out where you would never have seen that before and we've got to stop that," Schrader told the Tidings. "This blatant racism that is probably underlying a lot of the fabric of this country needs to be stamped out."
The congressman also believes this issue rises to the level of the Department of Justice, and he supports the DOJ getting involved in the investigation.
How it began
Michael Fesser, who is African American, alleged in a 2018 lawsuit that West Linn Police conducted an illegal investigation of him in 2016 at his job in Portland, which resulted in Fesser losing his job. Though neither Fesser, nor his workplace — A&B Towing — had ties to West Linn, the police department began its investigation when Fesser's boss, Eric Benson, came to his friend, then-Police Chief Terry Timeus, with complaints about Fesser. Benson allegedly feared Fesser was going to sue him for the racial harassment he faced at work.
Fesser, in fact, did sue Benson and was awarded $415,000, according to The Oregonian.
"Racism, cronyism and systemic discrimination should hold no place in West Linn. Black people deserve to feel safe and welcome in our community," Councilor Jules Walters wrote in her own statement on social media.
The Fesser case was not the first incident of racism amongst West Linn Police during the Timeus era.
In 2016, Officer Tom Newberry was dismissed after posting several comments on social media in which he suggested killing members of the Black Lives Matter movement. When he filed a complaint for wrongful dismissal, an arbitrator found he was entitled to backpay because superior officers, including Timeus, knew of his racist comments, and even "liked" some of them.
"That's not the views of the West Linn Police, it's not my personal views," Timeus said of Newberry's posts at the time. "And I take offense to anybody inferring that people don't have the right to protest, and derogatory statements against any movement or race."
Newberry's posts prompted West Linn citizens of color to come forward with stories of racial profiling by West Linn Police at an August 2016 City Council meeting.
"We take any allegations of racial profiling — or any type of discrimination — we take that very serious; it's not condoned in our profession," Timeus said in response to those stories.
The former chief also mentioned the training officers receive about cultural diversity.
But since details of the wrongful arrest settlement hit the national media last week, the police department has announced that the only officer still on the force connected to the incident, Sgt. Tony Reeves (formerly Poitras), has been placed on paid administrative leave. Capt. Peter Mahuna of the police department said Tuesday, Feb. 11, that Reeves had been disciplined previously by the department for his involvement in the investigation, but declined to comment on the nature of the discipline.
Timeus left the department in 2017 after he faced allegations of drunken driving, and received a payout of $123,394.
Former Detective Mike Boyd, who worked with Reeves to unlawfully investigate Fesser, left the department in 2017. Boyd went on to work as a detective for the Molalla Police Department and retired last year.
Former Lt. Mike Stradley, who got Portland Police officers to help with the arrest of Fesser by saying he was a "gang associate," is now employed as a skills manager with the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards And Training (DPSST), where most police officers and sheriff's deputies throughout the state receive their training.
DPSST Director Eriks Gambliks said Stradley has been placed on leave by the department, adding that he was very concerned when he heard the details of Stradley's involvement.
Fallout in the community
Reactions by the community to the initial reporting of the lawsuit in 2018 was subdued compared to the outcry seen since the settlement.
"All of this had happened at the same time Chief Timeus was running into trouble that there was stuff going on with Officer Newberry, but this one really made my jaw drop," West Linn resident Abby Farber said.
"Quite honestly, it faded from my memory, which I don't look kindly at myself about," Farber said. "I look at that, and think, 'I should have done something about this then and been a lot noisier about this whole thing and made sure that anybody in anyway involved in this, were off the force immediately. It faded away from memory. We all shouldn't have let it fade from memory."
Paul Buchanan, Fesser's lawyer, feels similarly.
If Fesser and Buchanan had not shared details of the case with the Oregonian newspaper when the settlement was imminent, Buchanan believes the city officials would not have had the same reaction.
"It's a little hard for me to credit these city council members saying 'Oh my goodness we had no idea,' when we really laid it out in quite a bit of detail right from the very beginning," he told the Tidings.
Buchanan said that Timeus's replacement, Terry Kruger, learned about the details of the case during deposition months ago, and presumes he would have shared with the city's lawyers.
"I think there was a lack of interest (from city officials)," Buchanan said.
He also noted the city's apparent lack of interest in the Newberry incident until the story was picked up by the media, at which point, city officials then expressed their outrage.
"You would think that at least the city council people who are entrusted with looking out for the city's best interest," he said of the initial news of Fesser's lawsuit. "You'd think even upon reading this story in the local newspaper, they would demand some kind of investigation to determine are those claims legitimate? Is there something to this here? Instead of just dispensing off to the insurance company and assuming it will get handled in some way and not trying to understand whether there's some broader problem that needs to be addressed."
Mayor Axelrod addressed the crisis on Facebook. "As soon as facts about the matter came to light over two years ago, the City took action to change the culture of the WL Police Dept," he wrote. "The City brought in a new Chief (Chief Kruger) for the specific purpose of rebuilding and changing the culture of our Police Dept."
Kruger was appointed chief May 18, 2018. Fesser filed the suit against WLPD July 16, 2018.
After the Oregonian Editorial Board took the mayor to task for failing to apologize to Fesser, Axelrod posted on Facebook again, writing, "I did miss apologizing to the person who most deserves to hear one. I am sorry for that, and offer my sincerest apologies to Mr. Fesser, his family and all others affected."
As part of the settlement agreement, Fesser and Buchanan will meet with Axelrod, Kruger, West Linn Police Captains Odis Rollins and Peter Mahuna and Interim City Manager John Williams.
According to Buchanan, this meeting is an unusual aspect of a settlement and was Fesser's idea.
"The meeting was a way to advance something broader and more productive out of this and to make sure the city and police understood there was really a problem here," Buchanan said.
A number of residents are expected to comment on the case at the council's coming special meeting, Tuesday, Feb.18, where — though it is not on the official agenda — councilors are expected to discuss the case.
Dana Haynes contributed to this article.
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