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Mejia fallout continues to haunt police, city

Estate files suit as citizen group votes to check into charge of excessive force

Lawyers representing the estate of Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot say they will file a $10 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the city this Thursday.

Mejia is the Mexican national arrested nearly two years ago and later shot to death by a Portland police officer in a Sellwood psychiatric hospital. He suffered from epilepsy and and had not taken medication for several days before the shooting, according to a state report.

Although attorney Charles Paulson would not discuss the suit in detail, he said: 'We're planning on filing a civil rights case on the 13th. I don't want to comment on it, but essentially, it's that they (police) used excessive force, they didn't do a good job training the officers to deal with people who are mentally ill, and there's a separate claim in there for violations of the Americans With Disability Act.'

According to an advance copy obtained by the Portland Tribune, the suit names the city of Portland, Portland Police Bureau, Police Chief Mark Kroeker and the three officers involved in the shooting incident as defendants. It alleges that Mejia posed no threat to the officers when they shot him.

Attorneys for Mejia's estate filed a civil wrongful death suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court in 2001 against the city and the hospital. Attorneys Paulson and Linda Ramirez dismissed the suit against the city after accepting a $750,000 settlement from BHC-Pacific Gateway Hospital in Sellwood.

Last week, the Citizen Review Committee of the Independent Police Review Division, which is overseen by the city auditor's office, voted 7-1 to review a complaint that police used excessive force when they arrested Mejia.

The vote has created a split between the committee and the two city officials charged with assisting it, division director Richard Rosenthal and city Auditor Gary Blackmer.

Rosenthal and Blackmer do not believe the committee can legally review the arrest because it happened nearly two years ago, on March 30, 2001. In addition, Blackmer said both the arrest and killing are a single incident, and the committee is prohibited by city code from reviewing police shootings.

'The entire incident began with the arrest and ended two days later with the tragedy. It's outside the committee's jurisdiction,' he said.

Committee member T.J. Browning disagreed, saying the arrest is a separate issue from what happened in the hospital.

'I believe the committee will lose all credibility with the public if it refuses to review the arrest,' Browning said.

Activist Dan Handelman said the outcome of the Mejia appeal will determine whether the committee is independent or not.

'Who makes the decisions here, the committee or Rosenthal and Blackmer?' asked Handelman of Portland Copwatch, an advocacy group that has pushed for greater civilian oversight of the police bureau.

The council created the independent review division to handle complaints from citizens who disagree with the outcome of police Internal Affairs Division investigations of nonshooting incidents. Such findings can be appealed to the division, where they are reviewed by Rosenthal and his staff before being presented to the nine-member committee for consideration.

If the committee disagrees with the findings, it can request that the bureau change them. If the bureau refuses to honor the request, the committee can appeal the case to the council, which can order them changed.

Turbulent days lead to death

Mejia was arrested early on a Friday morning after a TriMet driver told police the 29-year-old man had paid only a dollar of the $1.20 fare and was behaving strangely. After the officer removed Mejia from the bus, a confrontation erupted and a number of officers forced Mejia to the ground, pepper-sprayed him and handcuffed his hands behind his back.

Several witnesses on the bus and others who saw the arrest from a nearby convenience store said one officer hit Mejia about the head with a flashlight, though statements by other witnesses who appeared before a county grand jury were contradictory. And a report filed later by the state medical examiner said Mejia did not suffer injuries that would have been caused by such a beating.

After his release from the county Justice Center later that day, Mejia was seen acting disoriented by a police officer and eventually was taken to BHC-Pacific Gateway Hospital in the early morning of March 31 .

Hospital staff called the police April 1 to say that Mejia was out of control. A Multnomah County grand jury ruled the shooting was justified. According to police reports, Mejia was shot and killed after he advanced toward the two officers with an aluminum rod in his hand. The federal lawsuit contradicts this, saying Mejia did not charge the officers.

Officers receive medals

In the weeks following the shooting, two Portland residents filed excessive force complaints with internal affairs over the arrest. The people who filed the complaints had not witnessed the arrest but based them on published eyewitness accounts.

The investigation exonerated the officers in April 2002, saying they used reasonable force to make the arrest.

One of the complainants, Ruth Asher, appealed the findings to the review division in July of that year. The committee rejected the appeal after Rosenthal said she did not have standing because she was not a witness, however.

Asher has since died.

The controversy was rekindled late last year when Kroeker awarded medals to the officers involved in the shooting for following proper police procedures in difficult circumstances. Hispanic community leaders called for Kroeker's resignation, but Mayor Vera Katz kept him on.

Then in February, Marta Guembes, chairwoman of the Hispanic Round Table and the other Portland resident who filed the original internal affairs complaint, sent a letter to the review committee asking it to reconsider the outcome.

In a Feb. 12 letter signed by dozens of other Hispanics, Guembes argued that Asher's appeal should not have been rejected. The letter quoted the ordinance creating the division as saying it shall accept complaints from 'any source.'