Citizens voice concern over Cottage Grove police officers’ use of force

Photo courtesy of Venice Rain

CGPD arrests Alexander Harrelson on Sept. 1, hearing held Sept. 15

September 22 - Cottage Grove Police Department (CGPD) officers’ use of force took place during a welfare check for Alexander Harrelson, a mentally ill, schizophrenic man known by police in the area on Sept. 1, 2022. The incident was recorded in The Sentinel’s police log on Sept. 8, occurring at approximately 2:45 p.m., with multiple callers alarming dispatch.

“An officer was dispatched to 29 North 7th Street. … The call for service was regarding a male swinging around a large sword causing a public alarm. According to CGPD Police Dispatch, there were multiple callers that had called in,” the police log stated. “A male was contacted in the alley way behind the US Bank. The male was told he was detained and a use of force occurred. The male was taken to the CGPD Jail and lodged.”

An Account of the Arrest

Harrelson and another individual (that has not been identified) were sitting in the delivery area of the Rural Organizing Project beside US Bank in downtown Cottage Grove on Sept. 1.

Witnesses began making calls to CG Dispatch sometime around 2:15 p.m. and described the men as playing music loudly and one handling a long, metal sword. In security camera footage, taken from multiple placements of the building surveillance, Harrelson can be seen wielding a sword and then calmly setting it down beside him. He allows the person he’s with to hold it briefly. Harrelson then changes his clothes and puts on a black hooded sweatshirt.

Harrelson then sits near items he has placed on the ground and briefly picks up the sword one more time, when he notices a Cottage Grove Police cruiser pull into the alleyway beside him. Harrelson immediately puts down the sword and has some words with two officers, one in the alleyway near the US Bank and another on Eighth Street that parked their cruiser close to Main Street. Harrelson walked up approximately 20 feet toward Eighth Street and placed his hands over and on top of his head.

A responding officer at the scene can be seen in the footage, taking control of Harrelson’s wrists and placing them behind his back. While another officer walks over to Harrelson and pulls his hood off of his head, and attempts to take control of Harrelson’s left arm. Harrelson becomes off balance and takes several steps forward, falling to the ground while one officer lands on him and the other loses the grip on his left arm. Harrelson looks to struggle with the officers during the arrest, and then, both officers can be seen punching Harrelson.

The footage shows Harrelson standing as both officers continue to struggle to arrest him. In what seemed like out of the blue, a citizen rushes over to assist the officers having trouble maintaining a hold.

Nearby witnesses describe the citizen holding Harrelson down while the officers continue their attempts to subdue.

The video shows another police cruiser approach, with this responding officer placing handcuffs on Harrelson. The melee was over and the citizen that helped with the takedown stood nearby.

The video footage then shows that Harrelson was placed inside a police cruiser. South Lane Fire and Rescue soon arrives, but their stretcher is denied.

Harrelson was taken to Cottage Grove City Jail and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault. The Sentinel has reached out to the Cottage Grove Police, but those calls were not returned as of press time.

Hearing and Aftermath

At Harrelson’s hearing on Sept. 15, several concerned citizens planned to arrive at noon as word spread about the incident through an article published by the Eugene Weekly on Sept. 14. But the hearing was moved to 11 a.m., causing frustration for those demanding answers over accountability in response to police tactics during this arrest.

The City of Cottage Grove released the following that afternoon:

“On Sept. 1, at about 2:15 p.m., the CGPD was called and asked to check on an individual who was seen waving a sword in public. Cottage Grove police officers made contact with Mr. Alexander Harrelson, who was subsequently arrested. As a result of this incident the CGPD received a complaint regarding the force used during that arrest.

“The CGPD takes all complaints seriously and immediately assigned an investigator to review and investigate the incident. That review and investigation is ongoing and no additional comment will be provided regarding that investigation.

“On Sept. 15, Mr. Harrelson appeared before the Cottage Grove Municipal Court and pleaded guilty to resisting arrest.

“Police officers are routinely confronted with unique and dynamic situations that require unique and dynamic assessments and split-second decisions. The CGPD uses every incident as an opportunity to review our tactics, policies and training and will constantly strive to improve when necessary and possible.”

Community Response

Harrelson’s mother Claudia Harrelson, who also lives in Cottage Grove, posted the following statement on a Facebook page: “He is an unmedicated bi-polar paranoid schizophrenic with ADHD, ODD and mild autism. He thought he looked cool sword dancing with a sword someone had made and given him. He had been doing it for a while there and was in no way aggressive.”

She reasoned that while her son has had multiple run-ins with the law, the police response was “obscene.”

"I just want people to know he's very good-hearted," she said. "He doesn't mean any harm. And he does need help."

Comments on social media and stemming from the accounts of the incident vary between those congratulating the officers for the arrest and those disappointed and even outraged by the use of force.

A group of people gathered outside the CGPD on Friday to protest the event and call for accountability. They held up signs saying, “Body Cams Now,” “Not OK” and even “Stop Police Brutality.” They requested policy changes, discipline against the involved officers and the use of body cameras on the police force.

The Sept. 1 event in Cottage Grove brings up the national conversation about police work and how it can differ from mental health crisis teams, such as Eugene’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets).

According to their website, “CAHOOTS is a mobile crisis intervention van in Eugene that responds to non-criminal situations including substance abuse, mental/emotional crisis, disorientation, welfare checks and dispute facilitation — providing assessment, intervention and transport to services as needed.”

The program run by White Bird Clinic requires a team of mental health professionals, trained and equipped to assist in a broad range of services. CAHOOT also “provides immediate stabilization in case of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, assessment, information, referral, advocacy and, in some cases, transportation to the next step in treatment. Any person who reports a crime in progress, violence, or a life-threatening emergency may receive a response from the police or emergency medical services instead of or in addition to CAHOOTS.”

People in Cottage Grove are now asking if a program like this could be used in future situations.

Healing After Violent Trauma

“South Lane Mental Health is deeply concerned by the recent conflict that occurred between Cottage Grove police officers and a member of the community we serve,” the health organization posted on its website. “Our agency is dedicated to healing trauma. We hope to provide a caring presence for all involved in this incident. We also look forward to continuing dialogue with the community, Lane County, the City of Cottage Grove officials, and the CGPD around mental health awareness, mobile crisis services and crisis de-escalation. In this time of heightened emotions, there is an opportunity for us to come together and reimagine how we can meet the needs of our most vulnerable community members.”

South Lane Mental Health Executive Director Alison Canino said her role at the agency is to protect their clients, their staff and to hold true to their values. Their motto is to restore hope and renew lives.

The organization is working closely with First Presbyterian Church, under a wrap-around program called ACT (Assertive Community Treatment), working with therapists that help build relationships with clients, help clients identify personal strengths, provide talk therapy, suggest resources needed to acquire skills and support and assist clients in developing and implementing individual plans.

Canino said there are general misconceptions of various types of mental illnesses that can affect each and every one of us. She sees a need for advocating with clients, schools and CGPD,

on approachable methods for those in distress.

Canino herself has been in alarming positions while responding to a crisis where safety is a factor and police are called. She said making decisions without proper training could result in serious actions and long-term consequences. She admitted that in her years as a trained professional, she has never seen anything like what happened on Sept. 1.

However, Canino has also seen Cottage Grove police officers take the opportunity to use a trauma-informed approach with community members, as many of the non-emergency calls that come through dispatch are for welfare checks.

She noted that coping with mental health challenges is difficult, but giving compassion to those that have mental illness could prove to be harder, considering that in any scenario where care and de-escalation is involved, one size does not fit all. A crisis management team isn’t the only solution.

South Lane Mental Health is currently not in a position to create a program like CAHOOTS, the agency is already facing staff shortages, but Canino advocates for still having those difficult conversations.

“We recognize that many of the institutions in American society have roots in institutionalized discrimination, which includes the mental health field,” she said. “We believe it’s important to recognize this as we move forward in our work with our community partners.  We hope to bring together local and county partners using a trauma-informed lens and to ease defenses rather than add to them. We feel the need to emphasize that our neutrality is not indifference. Vulnerability will create change.”

People who read about or saw the arrest may be affected by the incident. Canino recommends that those in the community who need to process their experience safely can come to places like South Lane Mental Health for assistance.

Ongoing

Until further answers come from CGPD and Harrelson’s hearing, Cottage Grove is left wondering about what is next. While the police department’s “review and investigation is ongoing,” Harrelson is dealing with the results of his hearing.

Meanwhile, a GoFundMe has been created to “retain competent legal counsel and for Alex's medical and dental costs once he is released from jail. Alex's family will receive and use the funds as needed to support Alex's recuperation.” As of the beginning of this week, $1,970 has been donated so far.

Additionally, 12 people have signed a Change.org petition to demand a civilian review of Harrelson’s case.

“We must demand the City Council allow a civilian review board, with their own investigative powers, including the ability to subpoena, as well as the ability to offer transparency to the community,” the petition stated. “It has become obvious, that only with a civilian review board will Mr. Harrelson get a fair investigation, and be able to hold the local law enforcement accountable for the harm they have caused him.”

The petition calls for transparency from all those involved in the case. “Something needs to been done,” Claudia Harrelson posted.

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