Just after midnight on Halloween, a blaring car alarm and a loud banging sound startled Mirella Castaneda and woke her young son.
A man stood in her driveway in Forest Grove, Oregon, slamming his fist into the Black Lives Matter flag draped over the metal garage door as the security alarm on the family’s pickup truck continued to beep.
Ms Castaneda immediately called 911 - but when police showed up they recognised the man as an off-duty officer named Steven Teets.
Instead of arresting Mr Teets, though, one of the responding officers simply drove him home.
Now, Mr Teets and that officer, Bradley Schuetz, face criminal charges in the incident that Ms Castaneda’s lawyers say “terrorised” her family.
A grand jury has indicted Mr Schuetz for official misconduct, following an outside investigation by the Beaverton Police Department, the agency said in a statement Friday. Ms Teets was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct last year. A second responding officer, Amber Daniels, will not face charges, officials said.
An attorney for Mr Teets did not respond to a request for comment.
Steve Myers, who is representing Mr Schuetz, told The Washington Post that his client had limited options after confronting Mr Teets because the local centre where police take intoxicated individuals had been closed and the county jail was not holding people charged with misdemeanors, because of the pandemic.
Mr Myers said Mr Schuetz said taking Mr Teets to his nearby home was the best way to handle the unusual situation. He added that Mr Schuetz knew an outside agency would be taking over the investigation, so he declined to interview Mr Teets or write a citation to preserve the Washington County sheriff’s investigation.
“It’s hard to believe that this grand jury could find probable cause,” Mr Myers said, noting that a charge of official misconduct requires that an officer intended to benefit or intentionally harm another person.
Mr Teets has been on administrative desk duty since late last year, and Mr Schuetz is on paid administrative leave, the Oregonian reported.
The charges raised questions about how police handled the investigation, including whether the officers involved treated Ms Castaneda differently because of her support of the Black Lives Matter movement that has challenged police across the United States over fatal shootings and violent arrests. The Forest Grove Police Department has also recently drawn public scrutiny over the death of James Marshall, who died after police used a stun gun to subdue him as he was having an apparent mental health crisis.
A lawyer for Ms Castaneda provided The Washington Post with a tort claim declaring her intent to sue the Forest Grove Police Department. The claim describes how police allegedly “worked in concert, either intentionally, or subconsciously due to implicit bias, to deprive Ms. Castaneda of her Constitutional rights” as they investigated the incident last October.
In a statement addressing the charges against Mr Teets and Mr Schuetz, Forest Grove police chief Henry Reimann said he could not release any information about the October incident until the criminal cases are resolved.
“Sharing such information at this time (or rushing to make decisions based on partial information) could do more harm than good and could potentially hinder the City’s ability to address these important issues,” he said in the statement. “Once the criminal process is complete for each of the officers, an outside law enforcement agency will evaluate if policy violations occurred.”
In the suburb about 30 miles west of Portland, Ms Castaneda is one of the only homeowners who openly displays Black Lives Matter banners and signs, according to her claim. About 25,500 people live in Forest Grove; more than two-thirds of those residents are white, nearly 23 per cent are latino, and fewer than 1%of residents identify as black, according to census data.
The signs allegedly attracted Mr Teets’s attention in the early morning hours of 31 October, when he allegedly strode up Ms Castaneda’s driveway, setting off the security alarm on the family’s pickup truck and pounding on a Black Lives Matter flag. Mr Teets allegedly kicked the front door, shouted at the family inside the home, and refused to leave.
“Officer Teets terrorized Ms Castaneda and her family and yelled at them to fight,” according to the tort claim.
Fifteen minutes after Ms Castaneda called 911, two Forest Grove police officers arrived at her home and identified Mr Teets as he was walking in the street nearby, according to court records.
Investigators ultimately revealed that Mr Teets appeared to be “highly intoxicated” when Mr Schuetz and Ms Daniels arrived on the scene, according to a memo reported by the Portland Tribune last month.
Mr Teets allegedly “squared up” with the two officers, fists raised as if he wanted to fight them. He did not recognise his colleagues, the memo said.
The responding officers did not check Mr Teets for weapons, according to Ms Castaneda’s tort claim. Then, Mr Schuetz drove Mr Teets to his nearby home, “only blocks away from the Castaneda family,” according to the tort claim, and helped the intoxicated officer to his front door.
The officers who interviewed Ms Castaneda on Halloween did not tell her that they had identified Mr Teets as the man who attacked her home, nor did they divulge that they had already taken him home.
“For my own sanity and my family’s, I just felt like I needed to know what happened,” Ms Castaneda told the Tribune. “This really shook my sense of safety.”
Nearly three days later, officials finally disclosed Mr Teets’s name and let a shaken Ms Castaneda know that he had been arrested.
Ms Castaneda has alleged that officers violated department policy and Oregon law when they “failed to tell [her] that the suspect lived near her family and carried a firearm as part of his job as an officer.”
Even after providing Mr Teets’s name, investigators did not tell Ms Castaneda that he was a police officer. According to her tort claim, she only discovered that Mr Teets worked for the Forest Grove Police Department after she searched for his name on the Internet.
Her attorney, Michael Fuller, also said police did not document the possible political motives at play when Mr Teets targeted Ms Castaneda’s home. The responding officers did not turn on body cameras during the investigation as required by department policy, nor did they note the existence of the Black Lives Matter flags prominently displayed on Ms Castaneda’s property in their reports.
Mr Myers said Mr Schuetz simply forgot to turn his body camera on while determining how to handle the incident and noted that the Forest Grove Police Department had implemented the body-worn cameras in January 2020. He also said the victim’s Black Lives Matter flag had not been damaged.
“The treatment of Ms Castaneda as a second-class citizen based on her political viewpoint by the investigating officers added insult to injury, and further compounded the emotional trauma she and her family had experienced at the hands of Officer Teets,” her lawyer said.
The Forest Grove Police Department ultimately passed the criminal investigation over to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, which brought charges against Mr Teets in November. Mr Reimann, the Forest Grove police chief, also requested an administrative investigation be done by the police department in nearby Beaverton, which charged Mr Schuetz last week.
Mr Fuller told The Post that the criminal charges have given Ms Castaneda hope that the city will address the failures that may have inhibited prosecutor’s ability to pursue more aggressive charges in the case against Mr Teets.
“I honestly didn’t expect much to come from the internal review, certainly not a criminal probe of the police officers involved,” Mr Fuller told The Post in an email. “The charge of official misconduct substantiates what my client and I have been alleging for the past six months.”
The Washington Post