PDXS, Volume 5, Number 15, Oct. 22, 1995

Drug War Hits Home

True Stories from the Front Lines

by Paul Richmond

For some reason, bad things seem to happen whenever Portland formally celebrates its diversity. The day after hundreds of city residents marched to support Azalea Cooley, she was arrested for faking hate crimes against herself. Within four days of the City Council proclaiming Portland a "City of Diversity," the police ran amok at the infamous Anarchist Riot outside the now defunct X-Ray Cafe. And then there were the conflicting events on Saturday, August 21, 1993.

That morning, approximately 2,000 City Hall functionaries, followers and gawkers had gathered on the west side of the Willamette River for a $75,000 public rally to celebrate Portland's diversity. At 7:30 that same August morning, the east side of the Willamette experienced a dramatically different version of the government. Johnny Senteno, an innocent bystander, was almost killed by the escalating War on Drugs.

The incident happened on on the small cul de sac off SE 104th and Liebe Street, one of the most economically depressed in the area of Multnomah County recently incorporated into Portland. The houses are generally small, old, and run down. Their driveways are filled with older dented, rusting cars. The street itself is unpaved earth, unevenly sprinkled with gravel and inundated with pot holes.

On this particular Saturday morning, the cul de sac filled quickly with armored vehicles and soldiers in combat camouflage. Several private residences were quickly and forcibly entered. Dale and Penny Randall claim they were asleep in bed when members of the Oregon State Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team crashed through the front door of their house. According to their allegations, the couple were taken naked from their bed at gun point. Without being allowed to dress, they were forced to endure nearly an hour of obscenities and insults as the OSP SWAT team ransacked their personal effects. Nude photos of Penny Randall, taken by her husband, presumably removed as evidence that day, remain missing.

By coincidence, Johnny Senteno was in front of the modest house at 10255 SE Liebe Street when the raid began. It was the first time he'd been to the house, and he had come to help an acquaintance haul scrap metal from the residence. Senteno was talking to a neighbor when he saw the man's face register abrupt shock. Turning, Senteno saw a National Guard M-113 armored personnel carrier (essentially a tank without a turret) filled with what looked like soldiers heading toward him.

The National Guard vehicle stopped a few feet short of Senteno's truck. Two members of the Portland Police Bureau's Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT), wearing full "camo" uniforms and face masks, leapt from the truck shouting obscenities and orders. They held strange weapons.

Before he could respond, Senteno was shot. The first impact struck his chest. The second shattered his arm, which he had held in front of his heart. Senteno describes the projectile which struck him as a "pepper bullet." It expanded to the size of a tennis ball. Upon impact it dispersed a burning talcum-like powder.

Though police refused to either verify or deny Senteno's accounts to reporters, an independent researcher identified the weapons as an ARWEN, a British manufactured "non lethal" riot weapon designed for use in Northern Ireland and Palestine. With an accurate range of 100 meters, it is, in essence, a highly portable and accurate grenade launcher. The ARWEN's manufacturer cautions that it is lethal at distances of fewer than sixty feet. Police bureau records show Senteno was fired upon at a distance of fewer than 15 feet. In other words, the two officers who fired at Senteno, identified only as "John Doe 1 and 2" in the police reports, may be guilty of charges ranging from negligent homicide to attempted murder.

Toward a More Military Police

How did this happen? Who authorized this extraordinary use of military force against an innocent, unarmed civilian? The federal Posse Commitatus Act is supposed to prevent the U.S. military from being deployed against the domestic civilian population. But it doesn't apply to the National Guard - despite the fact that the Guard receives federal funds, has been used in such military actions as Operation Desert Storm, and the invasions of Panama and Haiti. Although National Guard units routinely beat the best branches of the regular military in staged mock combat drills, the U.S. Supreme Court does not consider the National Guard to be a part of the U.S. military.

What makes this increased use of the National Guard more disturbing are some reports carried by the now-defunct Guardian newspaper. These reports documented a low visibility growth in federal assistance to the National Guard, which neatly paralleled former President Jimmy Carter's high profiled "downsizing" of the peace time army. In other words, to all available evidence, resources to the military were not cut, but merely transferred to a branch capable of acting against the domestic citizenry.

The National Guard was initially limited to working with federal agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Through its involvement in the war on drugs, aided by a series of Congressional decisions, the National Guard has acquired the ability to work with State agencies. While this arrangement may seem esoteric to a city dweller, residents of Northern California and Southern Oregon have grown over the last decade to view National Guard intervention as commonplace. The Guard is frequently used in marijuana raids, but residents in those areas say they are often the target of intrusive government scrutiny, even when they themselves are not actually engaged in illegal activity.

The arrangements with state agencies generate links with the local ones. For example, the OSP is involved with police forces from a variety of cities through groups such as ROCN, the Regional Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force. To allow for the participation of the various local agencies in groups like these, there are Memorandums of Understanding which are routinely signed by the elected representatives of the varied jurisdictions. These memoranda give the local agencies powers to utilize agencies such as the Guard entirely at their own discretion.

As the National Guard has become more militarized, so have the police departments themselves. A concrete example of this is found in a 1994 report on the deployment of the Portland Police Bureau by the City of Portland's Auditor's Office. Despite the repeated rhetoric of getting more patrol officers on the street and having more face-to-face contact, the numbers cited by the Auditor's office show that the real transition which has occurred under the auspices of "Community Policing" is to a more militarized, tactically oriented force.

These are the numbers presented in the report: Between June of 1989 and January of 1994, the Portland Police Bureau hired 143 more officers. This did not increase the ratio of officers on the street to Portland residents, however. In 1989, Portland had 437,319 residents and 440 patrol officers - a ratio of slightly more than 1 to 100. By 1994, the number of patrol officers had only grown to 481 while the number of Portland residents had increased to 493,825 - a ratio of less than 1 to 100.

Where did the other officers go? Significantly, from 1989 to 1994, the largest growth in the Portland Police Bureau occurred in the Tactical Operations Branch, source of the SERT and Gang Units. During the four year period cited in this report, the number of officers in the Tactical Operations Division increased from 2 to 56. That's an increase of 2,800 percent in less than five years.

The Liebe Street Raid

Johnny Senteno was shot during a drug raid conducted by an inter-agency, multi-jurisdictional task force. By coincidence, Senteno was standing in front of the presumed residence of Robert Cozzi, the target of the raid. Cozzi had been fingered as a drug dealer by a "Confidential Reliable Informant" (CRI). As often as not, CRIs are criminals pressured into working with the police. As politicians lean on the police to come up with more arrests, the police in turn pressure the CRI's for information to generate these arrests. The results are predictable. In this case, the CRI, whose identity is still in question, branded Liebe Street a drug infested area dominated by Cozzi and the Randalls.

Cozzi may also have been targeted because of complaints by a newly created branch of the Portland Police Bureau called the Neighborhood Response Team. In an interview conducted shortly after the raid, Cozzi was described in a matter of fact way by his neighbor, Guy Gurneau, as a "packrat." Gurneau wasn't being judgmental. Cozzi kept a lot of things some wealthy people might consider broken and useless. But to his mostly lower income neighbors, Cozzi's collection of materials - ranging from odd building supplies to toys in need of repair - seem more often than not to have been an asset. In a city which publicly stresses recycling, Cozzi's activity might have seemed a logical and creative solution for a group of people who frequently had to make due with less. Instead, the NRT had labeled the yard a nuisance and ordered the removal of all property.

There may be a third reason why the task force had targeted Cozzi, however - to seize his property. Under state and federal forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies may seize and sell the property of people arrested for certain crimes, like drugs. According to a series in the Pittsburgh Press, more than 80 percent of people whose property is seized are never charged with any crime. Between 1985 and 1989, the value of federal asset forfeitures increased nearly 2,400 percent - from $27 million to $664 million.

But the task force made a mistake in Cozzi's case. He and his wife, Marjorie Mueller, had moved from their house three weeks before the raid, renting it to another family. Senteno had shown up to haul off some of the scrap, as demanded by the City.

Sorting through the Aftermath of a Local Paramilitary Debacle

In the weeks following the Liebe Street debacle, this reporter had the opportunity to speak with representatives of all the agencies involved, as well as their supervising elected officials. What was most surprising was their Machavelian candor. According to spokespeople for Portland Mayor Vera Katz and then-Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts, neither office had been notified of the incident.

Katz's top aid, Sam Adams, had these words: "Generally, these things are left as they should be, to the management of agencies involved." Then-Portland Police Bureau spokesperson Sgt. Derrick Foxworth supported Adams. "It's only on a need-to-know basis," he said. "The more people who know, it tends to compromise a case. And Lt. Col. Caldwell, spokesperson for the Oregon National Guard and brother of a certain Oregonian employee, was equally frank. "The Governor has the right to use the Guard as a police anytime she chooses," he said. "She has a militia - in this case the National Guard, 10,000 soldiers and airmen that she can employ any time she wants to if you get right down to it."

Ironically, Katz had recently made headlines in the Oregonian with the bold declaration, "I am in charge of the police department." To all appearances, neither the Portland daily or Katz's staff see the incongruity of these two positions.

Johnny Senteno is not normally a police critic. A number of his family members are employed in law enforcement agencies. His brother, Pete Venegez, has been with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the last seven years. Six months ago, he achieved the rank of inspector. Johnny's sister, Rosemarie Saldano, works in the property division of the Sacramento Police Department. Her husband, Oscar Saldano, works in the Narcotics Division of the same Department. He's also an instructor for the anti-drug DARE program. And Johnny's eight-year-old son, Sage, has wanted to be a police officer for as long as he can remember.

After the shooting, Senteno sued the City of Portland, which eventually settled for $100,000. Although he accepted the money, Senteno views the settlement as insult added to his injury. Between two years of lost work, a permanent physical disability, attorney fees, medical bills, he feels he lost money.

"They tried to kill me," Senteno says, his voice cracking slightly. "Then they're telling me, this is what my life is worth."

To put this in perspective, consider what happened to Ed Dakota, a neighbor of controversial cable access host Jim Spagg. Dakota sued Spagg after being vilified as an "Indian welder" on the show. He received a $125,000 court settlement from Spagg - $25,000 more than Senteno got after nearly being killed by the botched drug raid. (In a press release issued after the raid, the Portland Police Bureau admitted that it seized only a small amount of marijuana from a visitor to the Randalls' house.)

When asked how his law enforcement relatives view his experience, Senteno says, "They weren't surprised "They see this all the time. The majority of people it happens to don't push it. They're too poor."

Surprisingly, though he's lost his sense of trust, Johnny's son Sage still wants to be a police man. "You going to be a good one?" Johnny asks his son. "Oh yeah Dad. I'm going to give them a chance."



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