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West Linn case exposes police racism

Anyone who honestly believes that racist attitudes and police corruption don’t exist in Oregon in the 21st century need look no further than the case of a black towing company employee who was framed with a trumped-up theft charge by the West Linn Police Department after complaining of racial harassment by co-workers.

The 2017 case resulted in a lawsuit by Michael Fesser, who worked for A&B Towing in Southeast Portland. Fesser had complained about racist comments from his co-workers, who referred to him using racial slurs. One co-worker displayed a Confederate flag on his pickup, which he parked in the company lot.

The owner of the towing company, Eric Benson, told his “fishing buddy,” then West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus, that Fesser was going to sue him. The two men hatched a plot to wrongly accuse Fesser of embezzling money from A&B Towing. Fesser handled the auctions of impounded vehicles for the company.

In the process of “investigating,” West Linn police and the towing company illegally recorded Fesser at work without a warrant. The allegations had no connection to West Linn, and the detective conducting the investigation later admitted they found no evidence of wrongdoing by Fesser.

On his way home from work one day in February 2017, Fesser was pulled over by West Linn and Portland police (he lives in Portland, the towing company is in Portland and the traffic stop occurred in Portland). The officers told him he was accused of stealing money from his employer and took him to jail, where he was booked and released.

The theft charge was eventually dropped. Fesser proceeded with his lawsuit against Benson, and also sued the city of West Linn. Benson agreed to pay Fesser $415,000 in 2018, and the city of West Linn settled earlier this month for $600,000, one of the largest wrongful-arrest settlements in state history.

In the course of the lawsuits, racist and crude text messages between Benson and the West Linn detective who investigated Fesser came to light. Fesser’s attorney said the case exposed a “casual, jocular, old-boy-style racism of the kind that we Oregonians tend to want to associate with the Deep South rather than our own institutions.”

There is plenty of blame to go around in this case, including why the Portland Police Department allowed itself to be involved in an investigation by a neighboring department. Many questions remain to be answered, and city, state and federal officials have vowed to investigate.

The most recent development is a report in The Oregonian last week that a senior investigator for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries dismissed Fesser’s racial discrimination claim in 2017 without conducting an independent review. The investigator relied in part on a letter from Benson’s lawyer, who accused Fesser of stealing from the company even though the theft case already had been dropped.

Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who took office in 2019, has said the bureau failed Fesser and promised to find out why.

That this kind of racist behavior can take place in a police department in Oregon in 2020, forcing the victim to file lawsuits to expose it, ought to alarm every resident of this state. And it should stand as a grim reminder that such attitudes die hard.