By ERIC A. HOWALD and CASEY CHAFFIN
Of the Keizertimes
On Feb. 7, 2018, just after 1 p.m., on Elizabeth Street North in Keizer, a Hispanic man was waiting by his truck outside his apartment for his son so they could go to work. Then John Ross Niko pulled up.
According to police reports, and verified by a witness who called 9-1-1, Niko got out of his vehicle approached the Hispanic man, began threatening him before punching him in the face, then got back in his vehicle and fled the scene.
On another day, in another instance, the words Niko used before the assault and during and after his arrest might not have mattered as much, but Niko is still facing charges of assault and second-degree intimidation because his actions appeared to have been motivated by racial bias. In Oregon, charges of second-degree intimidation are leveled against suspects when crimes are motivated by the suspect’s “perception of the other’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin.”
The victim told police Niko stopped his car and said, “Why are you standing here? Go back to Mexico,” then got out of the car and hit him in the face. The responding officer noted in his report that the victim was bleeding around his nose when he arrived.
A witness and the victim’s son said Niko instigated the altercation, and a struggle continued while the son tried to separate the two men. However, Niko appears to have had a history of targeting the the victim and his son. The victim told police Niko, 36, had previously verbally harassed him. The victim’s son claimed Niko once tried to run him over while walking the family dog.
Niko’s vehicle was found around the corner at his residence and the victim and his son were able to identify him as the assailant from a DMV photo. Police returned to Niko’s home and placed him under arrest while he protested against being “arrested for being attacked by an illegal.” Niko asked officers whether they knew the man’s legal status, but it is illegal for officers to ask that question in Oregon because it is a sanctuary state and has been that way for three decades.
When officers asked Niko how he knew the man was in the U.S. illegally, Niko responded, “because he does not speak English.”
The officer said Niko’s continued racially-motivated statements while in a police vehicle prompted him to activate his in-car camera to record them. Niko also said that he did have encounters with the son while walking a dog and that the last time it happened “he did not run him over, but he did not slow down for him and his dog.” He also claimed he was not speeding at the time.
Keizer Police Department Lt. Andrew Copeland said the incident was the only one of its kind he could find in Keizer in recent years. The last one was in 2010 and involved a threat painted on a curbside. Regardless, he said the Keizer Police Department wants residents to report such incidents if they are victimized or witness them.
“If we can establish a pattern of behavior for a specific group or person, where they’re continually slandering or inputting their bias against a specific race or gender or whatever, that would be very good to document for the police department so we can build up that case if something does happen,” Copeland said. “If we have a group that’s being discriminated against, we need to see what we can do to help them out.”
Ideally, he added, police would be able to confront the antagonizer before it rises to the level of physical harm.
Copeland and members of the KPD leadership know and understand that the department, currently, does not reflect the citizenship of Keizer.
“I think that we, as a police department, we don’t represent our city. It’s not that we haven’t tried, we just don’t,” Copeland said.
When the department put out a recruiting call for officers earlier this year, the top five applicants were all white males. This was after going to great lengths to lure a Spanish-speaking officer from another agency.
To bridge some of the gap, KPD began hosting its annual BLAST Camp with a goal of putting city’s youth in close proximity to police officers in non-threatening circumstances. Students at schools with predominantly low-income or minority populations are given access to early sign-ups for the camp.
One of the side effects of the camp being run by current and former KPD officers is that the officers themselves get the chance to see other sides of the community.
“We go out to the community and we interact with people, typically, on their worst day. They’re calling the cops, something bad happened – their house got broken into, they’re frustrated, they’ve been assaulted, domestic violence,” Copeland said. “So for an officer to come in and see youth full of life and love, it just brings meaning back to the job. It’s healthy for both, sometimes more healthy for the cops.”
As a point of contrast, in the Salem Police Department, Lt. Debbie Aguilar is a liaison to the Salem Human Rights Commission that works with victims of hate- and bias-motivated incidents. Aguilar educates fellow officers on what constitutes bias incidents and hate crimes and sets aside incident reports suspected of involving bias motives so they can be brought to the attention of the commission and dealt with.
Copeland said the thing the department needs most is more people and time to devote to connecting with the community. Even after the department added five officers, it remains relatively bare-bones for a city the size of Keizer. A community resource officer works on issues around community connection, but she only works part-time.
“If we had someone who could reach out and set up the meetings, to establish relationships, set up a meeting with an agenda” it would create an avenue for better communication and better dialogue about community issues between community members and the police department, Copeland said.