In February 2017, Portland police pulled over and arrested Portland resident Michael Fesser, despite not having any proof that he had committed a crime.
All they had was a West Linn police officer's assurance that his police department had the incriminating evidence needed to legally arrest Fesser for theft. The Portland officers did not consider questioning this claim at the time: If they had, that would have discovered that there was no such evidence, and that the arrest was just a way to retaliate against someone who irritated the West Linn police chief's friend.
Instead, Portland officers turned on their sirens, slapped handcuffs on Fesser, and took him to jail. (He was promptly released after Multnomah County prosecutors found no constitutional basis for his arrest.)
According to the city's Independent Police Review (IPR), this example of an unconstitutional arrest does not demonstrate any wrongdoing on behalf of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). In fact, investigators with the IPR—the city department responsible for reviewing police misconduct allegations—argue that all Portland officers involved in Fesser's baseless arrest were following PPB policies to a tee.
A report published Wednesday by the IPR finds that, while seven PPB officers "unwittingly helped arrest a man based on a deeply flawed criminal investigation... launched under murky circumstances," they did not violate any PPB rules in the process.
With the aid of federal court documents, the Oregonian detailed how West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus illegally surveilled, arrested, and detained Fesser as a favor for Timeus' friend Eric Benson. Benson was allegedly upset that Fesser, a Black man, had raised concerns to Benson about racist harassment from his coworkers at A&B Towing, the Southeast Portland towing company Benson ran. Benson feared Fesser would sue his company over the alleged racism.
As retribution, Benson convinced Timeus to investigate an unsupported claim that Fesser was stealing money from the towing company. That duty was passed on to West Linn detective Tony Reeves (who proceeded to send Benson racist jokes about Fesser via text message during the investigation). That's when, despite having no evidence to support the theft allegations, Reeves asked PPB officers to arrest Fesser on his drive home from work in Portland city limits. Reeves allegedly lied to PPB officers at the time, telling them that he had probable cause to arrest Fesser, meaning that the arrest would meet constitutional muster.
Fesser's perceived guilt was further embellished by West Linn Lt. Mike Stradley, a former Portland cop, who told the PPB officers that Fesser was a "gang associate," simply because Stradley recalled seeing Fesser hanging out with gang members in the 1990s.
Portland officers dutifully arrested Fesser on February 25, 2017. While the charges were dropped by the Multnomah County District Attorney's office, it wasn't the end of law enforcement's focus on Fesser. Six months after his arrest, Fesser filed a federal lawsuit against West Linn, alleging retaliation and racial discrimination. In response, West Linn police convinced the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office to revive the original theft case—and put out a new warrant for Fesser's arrest.
Fesser's baseless theft charges weren't dismissed by Multnomah County prosecutors the second time around, and a grand jury ended up indicting Fesser on five counts of first-degree theft. But after racist, plotting, and otherwise incriminating text messages from West Linn officers arose in March 2018, Multnomah County again dropped Fesser's criminal charges.
In January 2020, the City of West Linn agreed to pay Fesser $600,000 to settle his federal lawsuit against their police force. Importantly, this settlement avoided penalizing any of the involved officers, including Reeves, Timeus, Stradley, and all seven PPB cops who aided in Fesser's arrest. In fact, as the Oregonian reported at the time, Reeves was promoted within the bureau, Stradley got a job supervising statewide police training, and Timeus retired with a $123,000 payout.
Only after the Oregonian reported on the settlement did the city instruct IPR to investigate the Portland officers' involvement. The resulting report not only absolves Portland officers for their involvement in the retaliatory arrest, but offers little clarity on how PPB can avoid assisting officers in unconstitutional investigations the future.
"It is difficult to conceive of a policy that would allow PPB to steer clear of assisting other law enforcement agencies that may be violating civil rights," the IPR report reads."PPB regularly gives and receives assistance to and from other agencies based on communications that must, at times, be brief and limited due to dangerous situations and the sheer volume of collaboration between agencies in the greater Portland area."
In short, IPR determined that it would be unreasonable to expect Portland officers to independently establish probable cause for every arrest.
Yet, "in the interest of building public confidence," the report recommends PPB consider adding extra scrutiny to some requests for assistance from outside law enforcement agencies. It offers no advice as to how to make that determination.
The report ends with a foreboding conclusion:
"...This incident is a powerful example of how the criminal justice system can be turned against an individual by a very small number of bad actors operating inappropriately," the report reads. "The remedy in that situation is incredibly difficult to achieve."
News of IPR's investigation comes two weeks after the US Department of Justice concluded its investigation of West Linn police over Fesser's arrest, finding insufficient evidence to prove West Linn officers had violated Fesser's civil rights.