The more I learn about last Monday's killing of a man by three Salem police officers who fired their weapons after the man drove into Northgate Park following an attempted traffic stop, the angrier I get.
I'm angry that a homeless man with mental health problems is dead. I'm angry that the Salem Police Department won't say why the officers shot Richard Meyers or if he was armed. I'm angry that the Oregon State Police, which is investigating the killing, are using the grand jury system as an excuse to not provide any information about how and why Meyers died.
Let's look at my reasons for being angry.
Our local news sources, the Statesman Journal and Salem Reporter, are pretty much asleep at the journalistic wheel when it comes to the death of Richard Meyers. The Statesman had one story, basically a rehash of a Salem Police Department news release. Salem Reporter has been completely silent.
Fortunately, some Portland news outlets have been on the job.
KOIN News has reported that the Oregon State Police asked that a man who lives in the area delete a video from his surveillance camera that showed Meyers' car in the park, but not the shooting, after he gave a copy of the video to OSP. The story says about the man:
He didn’t say why they wanted him to delete the footage but guessed it was because OSP didn’t want it shared with anyone while they investigate.
Or, a less charitable view is that OSP doesn't want the public to see what happened.
Fox 12 News has reported that according to the sister of Richard Meyers, Rachel Coble, he was homeless and mentally ill, living in his car at Northgate Park. So when he drove into the park after failing to comply with a traffic stop, Meyers was going home.
Further, Meyers was known to police.
A Salem woman said she believes her brother was having a mental health crisis when he was shot and killed by Salem Police early Monday morning in a park.
Rachel Coble said her brother, Richard Allen Meyers, struggled with mental illness and addiction for much of his life and was homeless at the time of the shooting.
...OSP said three Salem officers fired their guns, hitting Meyers and his dog that was inside his car.
Meyers died in the hospital and the dog was later euthanized.
Coble said her brother had been staying at the park and sleeping in his car in the parking lot.
The details surrounding the shooting are still unclear and investigators have not said why police attempted to pull Meyers over, or what exactly led up to the shooting.
OSP has not said whether Meyers had a weapon at the time of the shooting.
It’s also not clear if Meyers was inside the car when he was shot or outside on the grass.
Coble told FOX 12 that her brother was no stranger to law enforcement.
“Salem PD has had contact with my brother on multiple occasions and they knew he was in crisis, and they knew he was homeless,” Coble said.
"Investigators have not said... OSP has not said... It's also not clear." So much for the public transparency that the Salem Police Department vowed to achieve in a recently-released strategic plan.
A news release issued by the Salem Police Department on the day of the shooting says, unhelpfully:
No further information will be released by Salem Police. All future media releases will be provided by the Oregon State Police. The next release is currently anticipated midday when additional information will be provided by the Oregon State Police. This timeline is subject to change based on the investigation.
OK. So I signed up for Oregon State Police news releases, since that's where Salem Police said to look for more information about the killing of Richard Meyers.
An OSP news release, also on the day of the shooting, contained the names of the four Salem police officers involved in the killing, but otherwise no pertinent additional information about what happened. The OSP news release ends with:
Standard next steps in this type of investigation include: the Oregon State Medical Examiner to determine cause and manner of death, additional witness (if any) interviews, evidence being analyzed and tested, and a Marion County Grand Jury review of the incident.
No further information will be released prior to the Grand Jury’s consideration to protect their objective review of the incident. Any future media release will be provided by the Marion County District Attorney’s Office. Due to the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys, which limits the type of information lawyers can release prior to anticipated judicial proceedings, additional information will only be released as appropriate after the conclusion of the Grand Jury proceeding.
So the Salem Police Department says to ask the Oregon State Police for information about the killing of Meyers. But the Oregon State Police says no further information will be released before a Grand Jury's consideration of the case, and maybe even not after the Grand Jury proceeding.
Great job, law enforcement agencies. You're constructed an impenetrable Blue Wall of Silence around the killing of a homeless mentally ill man.
If this sort of thing doesn't sound familiar, you haven't been paying attention to the many instances of police killings around the country in recent years. Also, in not-so-recent years.
After George Floyd's murder, Black Lives Matter and similar efforts cast light on how unjustified police killings often are swept under the rug rather than investigated in a neutral fact-based fashion. In many cases, our screwy Grand Jury system is at fault.
A bit of Googling revealed lots of criticism of how Grand Juries are used to allow police officers to get away with unjustified killings. You can check out some of what I found here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Basically, Grand Juries can be flawed when killings by police officers occur because unlike regular juries, only one side of a case is presented -- the prosecution's case. So a District Attorney can control what information a Grand Jury sees and what potential charges are considered. The proceedings usually are kept secret, so the public doesn't know if a reasonable decision was reached by a Grand Jury.
Here's an excerpt from a New York Times story, "Grand Jury System, With Exceptions, Favors the Police in Fatalities."
The extraordinary steps taken in North Carolina — along with the recent grand jury decisions to bring no charges against white police officers who killed unarmed black men in New York and Missouri — illustrate how the justice system can favor the police, often shielding them from murder or serious manslaughter charges.
The balance tips toward the police from the start: In most felony cases, an arrest is made and a grand jury indictment follows within a prescribed period of time. But in police fatality cases, prosecutors generally use special grand juries sitting for lengthy periods to investigate and gather evidence before determining if an arrest and indictment are warranted.
Another hurdle is the law itself. Most states give officers wide discretion to use whatever force they reasonably believe is necessary to make an arrest or to protect themselves, a standard that hinges on the officer’s perceptions of danger during the encounter, legal scholars and criminologists say.
“The whole process is really reluctant to criminalize police behavior,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “The grand jurors are, the jurors are, the judges are, the appellate courts are.”
The sad thing in the screwy way police killings are handled is that there's a large gray zone between the extremes of Killing Richard Meyers was totally justified; couldn't have been handled any better, and Police officers were guilty of negligent homicide or manslaughter in the killing of Richard Meyers.
When all the information about Meyers' killing isn't shared with the public in a timely manner, there's no opportunity for a community discussion about how the Salem Police Department handled the Meyers incident, or a broader discussion of how police respond to homeless people with mental health problems.