Leonard Salanitro: Unarmed, undressed, and Washington County’s inquiry undone

Editorial column by Steve Duin, published in the Oregonian, September 29, 2011

This article may not have anything directly to do with mental illness in the Portland Metro area, but we include it because of our continuing interest in police engagement with persons who have a diagnosis of mental illness, and in police accountability and civilian oversight.

Steve Duin

Steve Duin

Fifty-three weeks ago, Leonard Salanitro woke — at 10:38 p.m. — to a ruckus outside his bedroom door.

Salanitro, 49, was a guest in the Aloha home of Dale and Sue Anne Fortune. I have no idea how well he knew the Fortunes, but apparently well enough to wander out into the dining room in his underwear so that he could ask everyone to shut the heck up.

Unfortunately for Salanitro, the Fortunes were tussling with two uninvited guests: Cpl. Patrick Altiere and Deputy James Wheaton from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, who stormed into the house in response to a neighbor’s complaint that Dale Fortune had kicked his truck.

And if we’re to believe the complaint Salanitro filed last month in U.S. District Court, Altiere wasted no time in pulling his revolver and plugging Salanitro in the abdomen.

Without warning, the suit alleges. Without probable cause. However imposing Salanitro might have been in his briefs, he was otherwise unarmed.

Salanitro spent the next six days at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, invariably with one wrist handcuffed to the bedrail and a deputy standing watch.

Fifty-three weeks later, Salanitro has not been charged with a crime.

Fifty-three weeks later, Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon has not conducted an internal affairs review to support his claim that the shooting of an unarmed and undressed man was justified. (Altiere’s actions “were righteous,” Gordon told The Oregonian’s Emily Smith. “He did the right thing.”)

Fifty-three weeks later, District Attorney Bob Hermann still hasn’t released the police report.

View WC officer-involved in a larger map

Washington County officer-involved incidents, fatal and non-fatal, since 2001. (29)
Location of icons is approximate. Blue=non-fatal. Red=fatal.

And no one will comment on whether this case will be presented to a grand jury. In Washington County, officer-involved shootings rarely are, not since former DA Scott Upham decided, back in the ’90s, that those dog-and-pony shows were too stressful for the officers involved.

It’s an interesting place, Washington County. Prosecutors didn’t pull out the kid gloves when they were going after Veronica Rodriguez, the 23-year-old social worker who was convicted of sex abuse for pulling the head of a 13-year-old against her covered breasts in a busy game room at Hillsboro’s Boys & Girls Club.

They were so convinced that offense was a Measure 11 crime — for a woman with no criminal record — and one warranting a 75-month prison sentence that they pursued the case until the Oregon Supreme Court told prosecutors to stand down.

Officer-involved shootings, however, don’t spark similar passion with the DA or the voters. Out of 29 officer-involved incidents since 2001, only one — the fatal shooting of Rodney Ray Layman by Deputy Shawn Blalack 10 years back — was submitted to a grand jury.

The Salanitro shooting? Fifty-three weeks later, grand-jury discussions are off-limits.

Fifty-three weeks later, Sheriff Gordon is convinced that Salanitro deserved to be shot but can’t figure out whether to charge the Orange, Calif., resident with a crime.

Thank goodness, Sgt. Dave Thompson tells me, the “major crimes” unit is still investigating.

According to his federal civil suit, Salanitro suffered multiple bowel injuries and a pelvic fracture. He lost his job. He doesn’t sleep as well as he used to.

And that might be because no one at the county has lost a minute of sleep over this gut shot.