The city of West Linn failed to take seriously the allegations raised in a 2018 legal notice following the baseless investigation and racist arrest of Michael Fesser, a Black Portlander, according to a new report released by the city late Wednesday.
The report was commissioned by the city and conducted by the OIR Group, a firm that specializes in policing. It highlights a full system failure to get to the bottom of the openly racist conduct by law enforcement officers in the suburban Portland department.
The actions by West Linn police lead to the city paying a $600,000 settlement to Fesser in February, as well as the eventual firings of two police chiefs and a sergeant. The U.S. Department of Justice is currently conducting an investigation for civil rights abuses and criminal wrongdoing.
In 2017, Fesser worked for Eric Benson at A&B Towing in Southeast Portland. Benson believed Fesser was going to sue over racial discrimination and responded by alleging Fesser was stealing from the business. Benson contacted his friend, then West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus, asking that he conduct a criminal investigation into Fesser. Timeus opened one without evidence and put Sgt. Tony Reeves in charge. During the investigation, Benson sent racist text messages to Reeves. West Linn police officers surveilled Fesser and ultimately arrested him without probable cause on Feb. 25, 2017, with the assistance of five Portland Police Bureau officers.
On June 4, 2018, Fesser filed a tort claim with the city of West Linn, alleging officers had violated his civil rights.
The OIR report notes the city investigated the claims themselves rather than hire an outside investigator.
Acting Lt. Oddis Rollins led the city’s investigation. Rollins “was left to conduct the investigation into the myriad of allegations raised in the tort claim notice but eventually chose to investigate only a small subset of them,” the report states. “The decision by the Police Department to retain the internal investigation had serious consequences for accountability and deleteriously delayed the City’s actual knowledge about the gravamen and credibility of the allegations.”
Not only did the city not look to outside investigators, but the OIR report states the internal investigation by the West Linn Police Department was narrow and incomplete.
Rollins interviewed Reeves for 14 minutes, the report states. Reeves admitted to taking Fesser’s cellphone without placing it into evidence, and said he returned it days later. He also admitted to receiving racist messages from Benson and ignoring them, telling Benson that he shouldn’t let Fesser use the “race card.” Reeves also texted Benson that he was a “p***y” over his concerns about being sued.
Days later Rollins received texts between Benson and Reeves. “Rollins wrote that he observed multiple text messages from Reeves to Benson that could easily be considered lewd, obscene, inappropriate, and unprofessional given that Reeves was on duty and acting as a West Linn detective at the time the text messages were written and sent,” the report states. Still, Rollins didn’t interview Reeves again.
He concluded that Reeves violated booking procedures and the department’s policy about using profane or derogatory language. He also reported Reeves had not violated the police department’s policy on discrimination, favoritism or oppression.
Rollins’ superior officer accepted the findings and issued a written reprimand, the lowest formal discipline, the report states.
“Instead of a full and thorough investigation of the serious allegations lodged by Fesser, the actual investigation produced a limited amount of evidence and a gap-riddled review,” the OIG report states. That prevented the city’s leaders from a full understanding of the “magnitude of the offenses by Reeves and its former police chief” the report found, adding the lackluster investigation ultimately made it more difficult for the city to deal with the “conduct in more holistic ways.”
In August 2018, Rollins was promoted to captain, state records show.
Paul Buchanan, Fesser’s attorney, said the report underscores a failure among many police departments, which often assume a complaint against them is baseless. He noted the report shows West Linn was advised to have the tort claims investigated by a third party.
“Instead, they had members of their own police force conduct a slipshod, cursory review and they managed to convince themselves they’d done nothing significant that was wrong,” Buchanan said in an email. “Had they done the investigation that they should have, they may have spared everyone — themselves included — a huge amount of trouble.”
The report also gives considerable credit to Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Maxine Bernstein for highlighting the importance of the case and subsequent $600,000 settlement.
“It was not until the Oregonian article presented the public with a stark exposé of some of that misconduct that Council began to confront those issues,” the OIR report states.