By Martin Gonzalez, the coordinator of the Justice for Jose Mejia Poot Committee and member of the Portland School Board, and Dan Handelman, who participated in the Committee and is a member of Portland Copwatch.
Today, April 1, 2011 marks 10 years to the day since day laborer Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot was shot and killed by Portland Police Officers responding to a 9-1-1 call inside a mental hospital. Such an anniversary seems a good time to examine where we were as a City then and what has changed.
Mr. Mejia did not have a mental illness, but rather was suffering a seizure from epilepsy when he found himself 20 cents shy of bus fare two days earlier. Officers called to the bus dragged Mr. Mejia out and reportedly beat him. Once released from jail, Mr. Mejia, a Native American from the Yucatan peninsula who did not speak English nor much Spanish, confused and penniless, was misdiagnosed as having a mental illness and brought to Pacific Gateway Psychiatric Hospital on March 30, 2001.
Two days later, a staff nurse called the police after Mr. Mejia got out of his room and allegedly threatened staff with a pencil. Officers responded, including the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trained officer who knew how to de-escalate a situation. Mr. Mejia was returned to his room without incident. A few hours later, he got out again, the nurse called again, but the CIT officer was no longer on duty. The officers who responded confronted Mr. Mejia, who allegedly grabbed the aluminum push rod from a door, and they shot and killed him.
To its credit, the City put together a series of forums to hear from the community about what they would want to see changed. The community had put forward a list of 10 demands for the City, the police and for Tri-Met.
However, a few steps taken drove the wedge between community and police further: Chief Mark Kroeker awarded two of the officers involved in the shooting with medals; then, community members seeking to appeal the finding of “no misconduct” for the beating on the bus were prevented from using the City’s Citizen Review Committee by administrative declaration of the Independent Police Review Division director, the City Auditor, and the City Attorney.
Since then, the hospital settled with the family and closed its doors; the City settled with the family for a small amount of money and an agreement to conduct at least one hour of CIT training and training about epilepsy for all officers, and the agreement to buy less lethal weapons as an alternative to firearms.
So what has changed at the Portland Police Bureau?
One of the community demands that grew out of the incident was to get CIT training for all officers. That happened, but not until after the death of James Chasse, Jr in 2006.
Among the ten specific demands from the community forums after Mr. Mejia’s death was the creation of a citizens police review board and changes to deadly force policies. The IPR was created in 2001 and strengthened some in 2010; however, it still falls short of community expectations for a strong oversight body. In 2008, Chief [Rosie] Sizer changed the use of force policy to encourage officers to use the least force necessary; that new rule is clearly up to interpretation as officers have been involved in 9 shootings since January of 2010. It is certainly a healthy change, however, that there have been no awards given out for controversial shootings in recent years, and that current Chief Mike Reese called the number of shootings “unacceptable” and pledged to find ways to avoid future incidents. Another demand was for diversity training, which has been offered to officers with mixed success and little input from the community.
Looking at other demands from 2001, the community wanted strict standards for officers dealing with individuals with disabilities, hiring officers to reflect the size of Portland’s Latino population, and for the City to pass an ordinance against police brutality. On these points, we are still waiting.