Public safety

Family, witnesses react to Cottage Grove police beating

COTTAGE GROVE – Alexander “Alex” Harrelson, 28, has lived in Cottage Grove his whole life. He’s been homeless on-and-off for 10 years – and an addict for longer. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and autism. On Sept. 1, a downtown business’ video surveillance system captured Harrelson holding his hands above his head before being beaten by Cottage Grove police officers. He lost two teeth. 

“His face looked like raw meat,” said Duane Raley, a Cottage Grove resident who witnessed the incident.

Cottage Grove Police officials released a statement following the event that said, “Police officers are routinely confronted with unique and dynamic situations that require unique and dynamic assessments and split-second decisions,” adding that the department is using this opportunity to review its “tactics, policies, and training,” and will “strive to improve when necessary and possible.” 

Eugene Police Sgt. Ryan Nelson, who is investigating the incident, declined comment. An EPD spokesperson said that because the investigation is conducted internally, Nelson won’t “be making any comments on it.” The Cottage Grove Police also declined comment. 

In the police report obtained by The Chronicle through a public records request, the officers identified in the incident are CGPD school resource officer Cory Stevens, CGPD officer Jarrod Butler, CGPD officer Wendie Jackson and CGPD officer Brady Dunlap. The report reads, “A male was contacted behind the US Bank. The male was told he was detained and a use of force occurred.” 

Raley watched the scene from across the street, with Gail Hoelzle, owner of the Bookmine book store in downtown Cottage Grove. As Harrelson lay on the ground, held down by four officers, security video shows at least two officers punching him. Off-duty Eugene Police officer Danny Lane, dressed in civilian clothing, hopped out of his car, and began assisting police.

Officer Dunlap wrote in his report that Harrelson resisted arrest multiple times and that it was possible Harrelson had a weapon. Dunlap intended to arrest him for disorderly conduct, and when placed on the ground, “Harrelson was given orders to relax his body, but did not,” increasing Dunlap’s suspicion. Dunlap reported punching Harrelson in an effort to gain control. 

“He was calm,” Raley said. “He didn’t struggle. They could have just put the cuffs on him.” 

Instead, Raley says, the officers instructed Harrelson to lay on his stomach at which point he began to howl, “like a dog or a wolf.” Hoelzle says once the beating began she called the police again, concerned about what she was seeing.

The video footage shows Harrelson, with a bloody face, being put into a squad car. Medics were later called and arrived with a stretcher, “so close I could reach out and touch it,” Hoelzle said, “but they never used it.”  The report says Dunlap put Harrelson on suicide watch upon reaching the hospital. 

Raley says after the incident he saw the police shake hands with Lane, the off-duty officer.

Hoelzle initially called the police, something she “feels terrible about,” and asked them to “come by and say hello,” after a few customers reported Harrelson outside playing with a sword. 

Harrelson’s “very good at what he’s doing, and he’s not being threatening,” she says she told the dispatcher, noting that her only concern was that Harrelson would lose control of the sword.

After her initial call, Harrelson put down the sword before the Cottage Grove police arrived. The footage doesn’t have audio, but Raley says the officer said to Harrelson to put his hands in the air and “Come over here, and you won’t be arrested.”

Hoelzle says it looked like the officers were familiar with Harrelson and called him by his first name. 

“They all know him,” said Claudia Harrelson, Alexander’s mother. “Every time he’s been arrested, it’s been in Cottage Grove to start. They called him by his first name.”

Before this, Claudia says she was an adamant supporter of the police.

“There is good and bad in everything,” she said. “It’s what we’re taught from a young age, what you teach your children, to find a policeman if you need help. I still back the police, but maybe if they had more training, this wouldn’t have happened. That’s the good with the bad.” 

Claudia, who’s been in touch with Alexander in jail, says he asked for mental health services but has yet to be seen by a professional. 

“Every time he’s been taken in, we always say he needs to be seen by a doctor, he needs help, and the cops say there isn’t anything they can do,” she said. 

Claudia has supported her son through a series of arrests, a restraining order and homelessness. She says her family “does what they can,” to show him they “will always love him,” even though it’s clear drug addiction and mental health issues have “taken his life.”

“In the situation he lives in, with his mental health and the drugs and living out here on the street, you always have it in the back of your mind, a call or knock at the door,” she said. “So, when the hospital called, I was scared. I thought that could be it.”

She says they haven’t talked about the incident much, only that Alex told her, “I can take it. So better me than anyone else.” 

Claudia said that, “In all the times Alex has been arrested he has never resisted, always complied with officers. So when he was charged with resisting arrest, I knew something was wrong.” 

According to court officials, Harrelson was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and assault. Sentencing documents obtained through a public records request show on Sept. 15, Harrelson pleaded guilty to all three charges. 

Hoelzle, who is on the board of South Lane Mental Health, says the situation called for a CAHOOTS-like response, but unlike Eugene, Cottage Grove does not yet have a mobile crisis unit to defuse such situations, something Hoelzle and others hope to change. 

“If we can reduce the possibility of the police intervening with unnecessary and excessive force, Cottage Grove would be a better community for it. There is a growing group of us who want to bring that forward,” Raley said. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden announced last week that Oregon is the first state to earn federal approval for Medicaid reimbursement of community-based mobile crisis intervention services like CAHOOTS that help people struggling with mental health and substance use disorders; however, a program like this has yet to be established in Cottage Grove. 

County Commissioner Heather Buch, who has partnered before with organizers to fund health clinics in rural Lane County said she’s long been an advocate for funding a mental health stabilization center, aimed at “breaking the vicious cycle,” of homelessness and addiction. 

Buch says that funding is now available for a mental health crisis response team, but a Request for Proposal put out by the Lane County Health and Human Services early this year yielded no responses from area providers. She hopes that the recently passed federal funding will incentivise community partners to step up to the plate. 

“The pieces are in place, but these things take time,” Buch said. 

In a statement released on Sept. 13, Alison Canino, executive director of South Lane Mental Health said, they, “look forward to continuing dialogue with the community, Lane County, the City of Cottage Grove officials, and the Cottage Grove Police Department around mental health awareness, mobile crisis services and crisis de-escalation.” 

Since July 29, in unrelated incidents, Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd and Capt. Conrad Gagner has been off-duty, pending an internal investigation – and the city of Cottage Grove has enlisted the support of Eugene Police Department officers and the Lane County Sheriff’s Department to fill their vacancies.

The Chronicle has filed additional public record requests as it relates to these incidents.