A Southeast Portland neighborhood became yet another battlefield in the "War on Drugs" on Tuesday, January 27th. A house occupied by Steven Douglas Dons was visited by the Police Bureau's Marijuana Task Force (MTF). Piecing together statements made by police spokespeople and the District Attorney's office to the Oregonian and other papers, this is what seems to have happened:
At 10:45 AM three officers visited the home and surmised that there was a marijuana growing operation there. While those officers went to obtain a search warrant, two other officers from the MTF called for backup. After the backup officers arrived, Sgt. Jim Hudson, officers Steven Morrow, Kim Keist and Colleen Waibel knocked on the door, yelling "Portland Police." The officers did not know if anyone was in the home. After receiving no answer, something prompted Hudson to use a paving stone to break down the front door, 23 minutes before the warrant was signed.
The officers were met with gunfire. Keist and Hudson were injured; Waibel was killed. Officers returned fire and Dons was shot once in the chest.
Hours after the injured officers were carried from the scene, police shot tear gas and advanced on the house with an armored vehicle. They found Dons lying shirtless on his kitchen floor. He reportedly flashed a peace sign at them. Officers responded with five "non-lethal" beanbag rounds from their shotguns. These rounds can cause serious injury or death when fired from a distance of under 25 feet (see PPR #12). It is unclear why police felt it necessary to fire them indoors at a paralyzed suspect. Police then removed Dons' pants and, rather than calling for medical help, dragged him to their vehicle. His naked body was placed on the bumper while officers posed with machine guns for a photo opportunity.
That day Mayor (and Police Commissioner) Vera Katz and Police Chief Charles Moose held a press conference at the hospital where the officers were being treated. This dynamic duo attempted to focus attention on everything BUT the apparently illegal police action that had just taken place. Moose lashed out at local news crews for covering the event, while Katz called for tighter gun control policies. When asked if the officers had a search warrant, Moose stopped answering questions from the press. Police spin-doctor Lt. Cliff Madison would not comment on why the officers broke down Dons' door. It wasn't reported until two days later that police claimed the officers smelled marijuana smoke and raided the home because they feared evidence was being destroyed.
At 4:45 AM on February 25, Dons was found dead in his medical cell at the Justice Center jail, where he was in custody of the County Sheriff. Although Dons was suspected of killing a police officer and wounding two others, he was not under guard. Authorities say they were checking on Dons through a window twice an hour. Police claim they found a sheet tied around Dons' neck at one end, and around the bed frame at the other. The official story is that Dons, weighing over 250 pounds and paralyzed from the waist down, tied the sheet around his neck and bed frame, then rigged the control for his hospital bed (using electrical tape and a wad of paper) to raise it until he was strangled. No one other than jail staff ever saw Dons with this alleged contraption in place. There was a surveillance camera in Dons' cell, but it was conveniently out of order and had toothpaste smeared over the lens. Some have questioned Dons' ability to kill himself while not only paralyzed, but heavily medicated.
A state medical examiner determined Dons' death to be a suicide less than 12 hours after the fact. The Sheriff's office, Multnomah County DA, Oregon State Police, and the FBI were all involved in the subsequent investigation of the jailhouse death. Their findings, along with a video-taped re-enactment, were presented to a grand jury, who unanimously found Dons' death to be a suicide. Fully convinced after hearing the testimony of the police and the police-friendly District Attorney, grand jury foreman Paul Driscoll stated: "[T]here will always be some people who will question our findings, but we are satisfied that there is no reasonable doubt that the death of Steven Dons was a suicide."
Indeed, there are many people who seriously doubt this sequence of cookie-cutter findings exonerating the police. Even the usually uncritical Oregonian called for an independent inquiry into the death. The day of Dons' death, call-in radio shows were abuzz with public outrage and disbelief. Even on the most mainstream stations, civilians called in to voice suspicions that police were somehow involved in Dons' death.
Whether this was the case or not, there is no denying that they had both motive and opportunity to do so. Aside from the crude purpose of revenge for Colleen Waibel, silencing Dons would have ensured that his version of the events on January 27th would never see the light of day. Dons' lawyers will not relate his version of events, citing attorney-client privilege. Officer Kim Keist was "relieved" when she learned of Dons' mysterious death. Jim McIntyre, senior deputy DA was quoted in the March 8 Oregonian as saying "It is ridiculous in this day and age that we can only judge [Dons'] guilt in a courtroom trial." Apparently, McIntyre isn't really concerned with whether or not there was foul play following Dons' apprehension and before he could be tried in a court of law. This supposed upholder of the public's constitutional rights seems satisfied that someone may have meted out some vigilante "justice" to Dons on February 25.
These disturbing events and the knee-jerk exoneration of law enforcement have moved more than a few Portlanders to wonder what they can do about what may be very serious police corruption. Unfortunately, most people are looking for a "quick fix" solution to this most recent example of out-of-control policing. Were the case of Steven Dons an isolated incident, it might be sufficient to call for justice with a one-time campaign or protest. However, what has happened to Steven Dons is only a recent and particularly extreme example of problems that are clearly systemic in nature. As long as the people have no control over the armed "public servants" who patrol our streets, there WILL be miscarriages of justice as grave as what we are seeing now.
So, what can be done about any of this? In the short term, demand that further investigation be done by outside sources not related to law enforcement. Though the FBI is known to be disdainful of local cops, it is unlikely that they would come down hard when a police officer has been killed. Documents presented to the grand jury indicate that those who stood to gain from Dons' death, from higher-ups in the Marijuana Task Force to Waibel and Keists' husbands, both of whom are police officers, were not interviewed.
If you're looking for a medium-term solution, you can call City Council and the County Commissioners to voice your disgust with what has transpired and demand a stronger civilian review board for Portland police and a similar review board for the County Sheriff. However, even if elected officials began listening to the people, there is only so much possible within the mechanism of a civilian review board. At best, such a board can make the public aware of the behavior of the police, and seek to provide redress to the victims of police misconduct. However, a review board will never be able to stop police misconduct before it happens. For this to take place, we must build a community culture that questions the actions of the police; we must demand accountability at every level--from the beat cop to the Chief.
(Oregonian, 1/28-30, 2/3&26, 3/8&21; PDXS 3/13; Willamette Week 3/25)
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