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Latino Community Members Seek Justice for José Santos Mejía Poot

On April 1, Portland Police shot and killed José Santos Victor Mejía Poot inside a psychiatric hospital. Three officers, who had been called by hospital staff, apparently could not overpower the 29-year-old indigenous Mexican laborer. Officer Jeffrey Bell, 25-year-old rookie cop, fired the fatal shots after the police had tried pepper spray and "beanbag" guns. Mejía was hit with one shot to the head and one to the chest. Police say he was "armed" with an aluminum rod.

Mejía's death was the result of a string of mistakes beginning two days earlier. Mejía suffered from epilepsy, a neurological disease which can cause seizures. Boarding a Tri-Met bus early on Friday, March 30, he apparently suffered a mild seizure and did not respond when the bus driver alerted him that he was 20 cents short of bus fare. When Mejía would not move to the back of the bus, the driver flagged down a nearby police car. (Tri-Met has since made adamant statements that their policy is to let people on, even if they are short of fare, and not to call for police in cases where people cannot pay full fare.)

The police, also unable to communicate with Mejía, dragged him off the bus and, according to witness statements printed in the April 10Portland Tribune, severely beat him. One witness claims a female officer hit Mejía in the head with a flashlight.

Mejía was transported to the Justice Center jail, charged with harassment and resisting arrest. Reports indicate that Mejía was beaten again in the jail, but suffered no injuries (Oregonian, May 1). He was released and was later found outside the jail, crying. Rather than show compassion and bring him home, the police then transported Mejía to the Providence Crisis Triage Center for evaluation of mental illness.

Although it turns out that Mejía had been to Providence days before on issues relating to his epilepsy, the Crisis Center diagnosed him with mental illness and assigned him to the bottom- of-the-barrel, privately-run Pacific Gateway Hospital in Sellwood. Gateway was privatized a few years ago and, to cut back expenses, relied on police rather than hiring their own security force. The sheer volume of 911 calls from that hospital--72 just in the year 2000--illustrates the inability of Gateway to handle its charge.

Although his father and other family members from the southern Mexican town of Mani also lived in Portland and were able to visit, it is unclear whether any of them realized why "Santos" was being held. It also may be that even Spanish-speaking members of the staff could not recognize their first language as a Mayan dialect, not Spanish.

In any case, on Sunday, April 1, KBOO talk show host and part-time nurse Marlene Smith was on duty as head nurse at Gateway. She called the police when Mejía was in a "quiet room" with a pencil, telling them, "He's violent now..he's flipping out." The first set of officers to arrive included a member of the Crisis Intervention Team, specially trained to de-escalate situations with people who may be mentally ill. Mejía was put back in the "quiet room" and the officers left. Shortly thereafter, Smith called 911 again, complain-ing in an unnervingly calm voice that Mejía had gotten out of the room, had pencils in his pocket and was "attacking staff, grabbing patients, and writing on walls" (KATU-TV Channel 2, May 1).

Psychiatric hospitals typically have rules against carrying guns inside, even for law enforcement, so the first team asked Smith to call her supervisor to allow them to violate that rule.

After the second call, Officer Bell and the others confronted Mejía, who they say tore an aluminum rod from the push-bar on a hospital door. That's when they killed him.

The fallout from this incident has been tremendous. Members of the Latino Community pulled together and organized a number of events in protest.

First, there were picket lines outside of the County Courthouse while the Grand Jury deliberated on whether there was criminal wrongdoing by police. Then, when no indictment was issued, a news conference was held outside of City Hall, listing a number of demands. The news conference featured members of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the clergy, the Mexican Consulate, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, student groups MEChA and Genacción, and others outraged by the incident and by the Grand Jury's focus on the hospital instead of the police. The Mexican Consul stated, "There is prevailing impression in this case that there was an unnecessary use of lethal force...there is reason to believe that Mr. Poot's civil rights were violated" (Oregon Public Broadcasting, April 27).

On Cinco de Mayo (May 5), the community organized a march demanding Justice for José Mejía Poot. Between 750 and 1000 people attended, the largest march for police accountability in recent Portland history. Snaking past festivities for the Mexican holiday at Waterfront Park, the march ended with a rally in Terry Schrunk Plaza. Members of the African- American, Asian-American and other communities spoke; a tribute song specially written for Mejía was sung; a relative spoke in her native Mayan tongue, followed by translation into Spanish and then English; and messages along the way were conveyed by Portland Copwatch and the Police Accountability Campaign (PAC-2002).

The following day, a Catholic "Mariachi Mass," scheduled as part of the Cinco de Mayo events, was held in Mejía's honor.

A week later, a mostly religious vigil was held at the apartment complex where Mejía lived. Several elected officials and spiritual leaders spoke, and a short procession wound through the back streets to the corner store where Mejía had been beaten after he was pulled from the bus. Chief organizers of the vigil were from the Portland Police Bureau's Hispanic Advisory Committee.

On April 25 and May 29, community forums were organized at St. Andrew's Church by AFSC, Voz (a Latino workers' rights group based in Portland) and CAUSA (based in Salem), aided by St. Francis Parish and others. At the first event, a primarily Latino audience voiced their concerns and created the initial demands that were presented after the Grand Jury decision was made. The second was a more ethnically mixed audience which expanded on and refined the original demands.

On June 19, the many groups listed above, assisted by County Commissioner Serena Cruz, pulled together a third forum, this time allowing the community to directly confront those responsible for the travesty of justice that ended José Santos Mejía Poot's life. Mayor Vera Katz, Police Chief Mark Kroeker, Sheriff Dan Noelle, the District Attorney, the head of Tri-Met, and two representatives of the Multnomah County health system showed up to face the music. In six smaller groups, initial demands and follow-up questions were presented. Some agencies had already taken action: Gateway Hospital was closed after the County presented a list of proposed changes; the County announced it would not renew its contract with Providence Triage; and Tri-Met decided to keep all videotapes of altercations on buses, even when they're not passen-ger-to-passenger or passenger-to-driver, since the tape of Mejía and the officer had been recorded over.

On the other hand, Chief Kroeker played his usual game of saying the Bureau was looking at ways to improve itself without offering any timeline. The most common question asked of him was, why do officers shoot to kill? According to the June 20 Oregonian, Kroeker told the crowd that one less- lethal alternative being considered is a device to deliver electric shocks. Perhaps this is a good warning to all of us in the community: We should be very careful what we ask for.

Other politicians at the June 19 forum took the stage to say how they "felt the pain" of the community. Some promised to come back to another meeting to provide updates on changes they make, which was a good sign.

It is clear that the death of Mr. Mejía helped bring about the addition of policy review regarding shootings and deaths in custody as a promised part of the revised police review board (see "IPR" article). It should also be noted that police shot five citizens between December 18 and February 22, but none between the April 1 shooting of Mr. Mejía and July 9 (see article). Change sometimes comes on the heels of tragedy; we can only hope more change will come before tragedy strikes again.

For more info or to get involved contact AFSC 503-230-9427 or Voz 503-233-6787.

The Mexican Consul has set up a fund for José Mejía's widow, Paula Vaillacis, at US Bank branches, called the "Widow's Relief Fund."

Unfortunately, Commissioner Cruz reneged on her promise to put together a commission to study the various agencies involved in Mejía's death and to formulate specific short and long-term recommenda-tions for change. She told Willamette Week (June 13) that things would be "very difficult" after Mejía's family filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against the hospital and the City.

On June 22, the Oregon Advocacy Center released a scathing report on Mejía's death. Its number one recommendation is that "Armed police should not be permitted in psychiatric facilities except in the most extreme cases."

In addition to the unifying drive this incident gave to the Latino community, it gave the fledgling twice-weekly Portland Tribune a chance to show its independent reporting ability. Even though it is owned by Robert Pamplin, who founded the private Police Foundation to help pay for new cop toys (see Kroeker's Korner and PPR #23), reporters Jim Redden, Jennifer Anderson and Christina Gonzales really kept focus on this case and provided much of the information we've shared here. The May 4 Tribune included a moving special section written by Gonzales with in- depth coverage of the family and the town of Mani just before and after Mejía's funeral. El Hispanic News has also done a lot of coverage on the activities, bringing police accountability to the forefront in a paper which sometimes skims over the experience of Latinos at the hands of police.

An Internal Affairs investigation into the beating was still not completed at PPR deadline.

  People's Police Report

August, 2001
Also in PPR #24

Police Shoot José Mejía In   Psychiatric Hospital
Police Go On Shooting Spree in   Early July
Review Board Overhauled
Profiling Proven by Statistics
May Day: Police Back Off
PIIAC's Last Stand: Old Review   Board Ends
Chief Kroeker, Repression & More
SERT Team Disbanded
Grand Jury Concerns
  • JTTF Own Worst Enemy
  • FBI Raids Activis Home
  • Dignity Village on Notice
  • Overtime Scandal Down 86%
  • Shooter Cop Gets Stress Pay
  • Chief Moose Supports Prostitution
  • Clackamas Sheriff Off Hook: Discrimination
  • Bend Cop Off Hook: Shooting
Quick Flashes
  • Sergeants Convicted in Beatings
  • Police Raid Three Homes
  • 3 Portland Beatings
  • PPB vs. Counterculture
  • County to Charge Inmates
  • Supreme Court: Thermal Image Unlawful
Washington County Sheriffs
  • Deputies Drop Knives
  • Tactical Team 'n' TNT
  • Pregnant Woman Escapes
  • Beavert on Cops Play Robbers
Letters to the PPR
Rapping Back #24

Portland Copwatch
PO Box 42456
Portland, OR 97242
(503) 236-3065/ Incident Report Line (503) 321-5120
e-mail: copwatch@portlandcopwatch.org

Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.

People's Police Report #24 Table of Contents
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