TOP STORIES: Police policy ignored, an unusual city departure and mobile crisis teams

It’s been another busy year in our state’s capital.

Since I first started covering criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter a little over a year ago, my chief priority has remained the same. I want to do thorough, fair and accurate reporting on matters that are important to the Salem community – the good, the bad and everything in between. Through all of it, I’ve felt grateful for the support of our readers that’s helped keep that focus front and center.

I heard Melissa Pola speak briefly about her recovery from addiction and her work as a drug and alcohol counselor the first time I attended a Marion County Board of Commissioners meeting. After, I told her I wanted to learn more. She shared how her past struggles led her to now helping other women in Salem recover from their addictions through Her Place, a transitional living program run by Marion County.

Richard Meyers was the first of three people shot and killed by Salem police this year. Through all the news releases, social media rumors and grand jury reviews, I think it’s important to learn about the people directly impacted and their story beyond a single incident. I’m thankful that several of Mr. Meyers’ relatives took the time to talk with me about his love for working on cars, his lifelong struggles with mental illness and addiction, and the questions they had in the days following his death.

It felt grim in downtown Salem the day that a sports coupe drove through a roadside homeless encampment early that morning at the intersection of Northeast Front Street and state Highway 99 East, killing Jowand Beck, 24, Luke Kagey, 21, Joe Posada III, 54, and Rochelle Zamacona, 29, and injuring two others. As city crews prepared to clear that camp and others, I talked with people who had sat just a few feet from where the crash occurred hours earlier. Beyond a fatal crash caused by a drunk driver, this tragedy seemed an indictment of the homeless crisis in Salem and across the state. 

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program was one of the first Marion County efforts I learned about, and I was eager to write this story as I tried this year to do more in-depth reporting on the county’s spending of public money. Program coordinator Josh Wolf talked with me in detail about how they have been able to get people who are homeless or struggling with addiction away from the criminal justice system and into services.

My first day at Salem Reporter, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office sent out a press release about an arrest made in a decades-old murder case, and our editor Les Zaitz said there had to be a deeper story. I talked at the time with the detective on the case, but it wasn’t until a year later that I finally got to write the story after Brian Clifton pleaded guilty to murdering his wife, Kathy Thomas. One of her relatives called me to tell me her family appreciated the story and that every detail was accurate, which is perhaps the most rewarding feedback I could ever receive.

I immediately recognized the homeless man I saw being tased and restrained by Salem police in a video posted to social media in September. I didn’t know Peter Leonard by name, but for months, I saw him all the time with his little dog in the area of Northeast High and State Streets near our office, talked with him briefly on two occasions and clearly noticed signs of mental illness. The first police report I got didn’t sit right with me, and I asked for the Salem police policy on dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis. I came to learn that the arresting officer ignored that policy in seeking to detain Leonard. 

Salem officials have stayed quiet about the unusual departure of Deputy Chief Steve Bellshaw from the Salem Police Department in the five months since we started reporting on the matter. We’ve several times had to seek legal recourse to get the city to turn over public records – and when that didn’t stop us, the city hit us with a $4,200 fee for documents. Of the many stories on this matter, I included this one because readers stepped up and covered the bill, demonstrating the public’s interest in getting answers. You expect us to continue our reporting until we get to the truth, and that’s exactly what we’ll do.

It was one of those moments where I dropped what I was doing and sat up in my chair when our managing editor, Rachel Alexander, told me she’d just learned that Marion County intended to start up a program where mental health workers respond to some crisis calls instead of police. We teamed up to untangle that plan, which seemed a long time coming but still came as a surprise one year after the county had passed on a similar idea.

This story should have been published days before it was. It was troubling that the Marion County Sheriff’s Office announced that William Schultz died in its jail a week after he died – and two days after I first asked about his death. While the sheriff’s office provided little information to report, it was important that we highlight its delayed and opaque statement about a death in government custody.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.