Cops cleared in Mejia shooting

From the Portland Tribune, April 27, 2001

Portland police officers on Thursday were cleared of wrongdoing by a Multnomah County grand jury in the arrest and subsequent fatal shooting of Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot on April 1 at a Sellwood psychiatric hospital.

The grand jury ruled that Portland police officer Jeffrey Bell did not act criminally when he fired two shots at Mejia, whom police say was wielding a metal bar.

The grand jury also found that officers who arrested Mejia on March 30, 2 1/2 days before he was shot at BHC-Pacific Gateway Hospital, did not use excessive force.

The medical examiner report did not support allegations of excessive force.

Several witnesses to the arrest told The Tribune they saw officers use excessive force during the arrest. They said they saw five officers kick, punch and pepper spray Mejia after he had been handcuffed and hogtied on the ground.

Other riders on the bus contradicted those witnesses before the grand jury.

Mejia was arrested for harassment and resisting arrest after a scuffle with a police officer on a Tri-Met bus.

A total of 42 witnesses, including hospital staff members and bus riders, testified before the grand jury.

Numerous police officers Ñ some who came into contact with Mejia in the days before he was killed Ñ also testified during the three-day hearing.

Bell, as well as officers Christopher Davis and Jeffrey Nelson, have been on routine administrative leave since the shooting. The three officers responded to a call from the hospital on the evening of April 1 to assist staff in controlling Mejia.

Sources at the hospital said there were no witnesses to the shooting besides Davis and Nelson. There also was no security camera in the hallway, where the shooting took place.

Police said Mejia was wielding a metal bar that he ripped off a door and was advancing toward officers. The officers used verbal commands, pepper spray and fired several nonlethal beanbag rounds before Bell fired two fatal shots, police said.

Mejia, a resident alien of Mexico, died of gunshot wounds to the head and chest and was buried last week in his native town of Mani, on the Yucatan peninsula.

Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, said before the ruling that officers took reasonable steps consistent with their training “to defend their lives from the actions of this person.”

“The circumstances that officers are placed in are usually not of their choosing,” he said. “There is no Portland police officer who wishes to use deadly force to resolve any incident or encounter with a citizen.”

It is routine for grand juries to investigate officer-involved shootings that result in death.

Community angered

The case has spurred outrage among activists in the Hispanic community, who claimed that communication and inadequate translation services were an issue at every stop along the way.

“We need to say, ‘That’s enough’ to all of the institutions that are treating us this way all over the country,” said Richard Luccetti, founder of the Hispanic Parents Association.

Carolina Urruela de Hess, chairwoman of the Hispanic Services Roundtable, said the case has gained international attention after the Spanish-language television station Univision aired an April 23 segment on the arrest and shooting.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of unrest and anger,” she said in anticipation of the ruling. “It’s reaching a lot of proportions that nobody anticipated.”

Police on April 10 launched an internal affairs investigation into the arrest.

However, Hess says an external investigation into the arrest also should be conducted. “We’re asking for an independent investigation to take away the perception of fault,” she said.

Police accountability activists agree. They also anticipated that officers would be cleared in the shooting and arrest, saying that this case is a prime example of why an independent police review board should have the authority to review police shootings and deaths in custody.

“The grand jury, even though they’re citizens, are not trained to look for policy issues or training issues or anything that might shock the conscience,” said Dan Handleman, activist leader of Portland Cop Watch.

The review board would consist of people trained in constitutional rights and historical issues instead of randomly selected grand jurors, said Dave Mazza, chief campaigner for a proposed ballot initiative that would create such a board.

The Portland field office of the FBI is still weeks away from finishing a separate report into whether Mejia’s civil rights were violated in the events leading to his death.