Cottage Grove police beating a man as they arrest him

A Police Beating in Cottage Grove

Witnesses say a mentally ill man was beaten by police officers on a city street 

When he walked over to the spot where he’d seen several Cottage Grove police officers holding down a young man who was being punched repeatedly, Duane Raley saw the blotch of blood left behind on the pavement. 

Alexander Harrelson, age 26 and schizophrenic, also lost two teeth in the Sept. 1 beating, Raley says. Raley watched what happened from across the street, as did Bookmine owner Gail Hoelzle. He says when he spoke to Harrelson’s mother after the incident she indicated that her son suffers from schizophrenia and autism.

It was Hoelzle who had called the police. Not to file an official complaint, she says, but simply to alert them. 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. A group of concerned citizens wants to ensure that Harrelson’s beating is investigated and such a thing doesn’t happen again in their city. 

Harrelson was playing with a sword, dancing around with it, while music played loudly at 2:40 pm on a Thursday afternoon behind a building in downtown Cottage Grove. “He’s very good at what he’s doing, and he’s not being threatening, but the music is loud,” she says she told the dispatcher. She says she was not concerned that anyone would be stabbed, but rather when Harrelson was swinging the sword from a strap on his wrist, she worried it would come loose. 

She says she was told by the dispatcher that “We will have somebody come over and say hello.” Instead she says she watched several officers, and a man who appears to be a civilian, hold Harrelson down as he was punched repeatedly.

Security footage from a nearby building tells the same tale. First Harrelson and a companion are seen hanging out behind the building while Harrelson dances with the sword. Then, after Harrelson has already put down the sword, the police arrive. Harrelson walks toward one of the officers with his hands above his head. 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 knew his name. Lane County arrest records show that Harrelson has been in and out of jail in the past. 

Eugene Weekly reached out to the Cottage Grove Police Department for comment, as well as to Eugene Police Sgt. Ryan Nelson, who is investigating the incident. An EPD spokesperson says “because it is an internal investigation, he won’t be making any comments on it.” The Cottage Grove police, whose chief is on administrative leave, did not respond before press time. The Cottage Grove Municipal Court docket shows Harrelson is being charged with disorderly conduct II, resisting arrest and assault IV.

Raley says Nelson has not reached out to him, despite him witnessing the incident firsthand. 

What Raley saw next perplexed him. Harrelson’s hands were being held behind his back by an officer. “He was calm; he didn’t struggle,” Raley says, “They could have just put the cuffs on him.” 

Instead, Raley says, the officers told Harrelson to lay down on his stomach, at which point Harrelson began to howl. He says he saw a burly officer knock Harrelson to the pavement. “Officers jumped on and began beating him severely.” 

Hoelzle says once the beating began she called the police again, concerned about what she was seeing.

The video footage shows at least one of the officers punching Harrelson repeatedly while several hold him down, and later Harrelson being put into a squad car with blood on his face. Medics were later called and arrived with a stretcher but left without taking Harrelson out of the car. Raley questions how officers expected Harrelson to get on his stomach “with four burly police officers beating him to a pulp.” He describes Harrelson’s face as looking like “raw meat.” 

He says after the incident he saw the police shake hands with the man in civilian clothing who had jumped in with the officers.

Hoelzle, who still feels guilt for making the call that precipitated the violence, says Harrelson’s mother stopped by The Bookmine to make sure Hoelzle was OK after witnessing the incident. His mother also gave permission for the video footage of the incident to be shared without blurring her son’s face, Hoelzle says. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden announced Sept. 12 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. In 2021, while campaigning for the legislation in Eugene, Wyden said that his brother was schizophrenic. 

Another citizen concerned about Harrelson’s beating is Bruce Kelsh, chair of Cottage Grove’s First Presbyterian Church Earth and Social Justice Committee. He says the committee created a “Passing on Kindness fund in the city budget that encourages officers to acts of kindness, building relationships, and adding to the positive image of the police in Cottage Grove.” 

He says, “We support the police and good policing, but we also support accountability so that the standards of good policing are upheld.”

Kelsh says the “event speaks loudly for the need for officers to have and use de-escalation skills and the creation of a mobile crisis group similar to CAHOOTS in Eugene, so something like this doesn’t happen again.”  

Harrelson currently sits in the Cottage Grove municipal jail, awaiting the city’s weekly Thursday morning court arraignment, represented by a city-funded public defender. The concerned Cottage Grove citizens say they are worried that Harrelson will wind up taking a plea bargain for allegations he is not guilty of and that they cannot reach his public defender.

An update on the story and a link to a GoFundMe for Harrelson’s legal and medical costs is here.

Update Dec. 22, 2022 here.