Choking wildfire smoke drifted away enough by Sept. 22 to reveal a blue sky that morning, when Sam and Jayden Becker arrived at Medford’s Hawthorne Park.
It was shortly before 8 a.m. and the siblings intended to film city police officers clearing the public park of a contentious homeless camp that sprang up in the wake of the Almeda Fire, which destroyed thousands of homes.
“We expected to film and stay out of their way,” said Jayden Becker, 22, of the police. “We were just trying to hold them accountable and film.”
But, within minutes, they’d both be in handcuffs.
The siblings’ footage captured the moments of their own arrests. Shortly after 8 a.m., Sam Becker, 24, filmed empty boxes strewn on the grass as multiple officers approached.
“Do you have a tent?” one officer can be heard asking Becker, while another stepped into frame and put on purple rubber gloves. “Are you camping?”
Becker replied no and said he intended to film the sweep, the footage shows. The officers insisted the park was closed, but Becker replied it was open.
“You’re being told — listen,” one officer said while another looked at his watch. “You have exactly five seconds to leave right now. You need to start leaving.”
An officer then starts a five-second countdown for Becker to leave, the footage shows. The officer counts “One, two, three” before Becker is handcuffed.
A short distance away, Jayden Becker, who identifies as nonbinary, was arrested near their car. Footage shows Jayden Becker putting a water bottle in the car and telling police they intend to go look for their brother. An onlooker filmed Jayden Becker arrested shortly after.
The two were among 11 people arrested that morning by the Medford Police Department, including a journalist there to report on the sweep.
A week later, attorneys for the people arrested say police acted unlawfully. One attorney, representing eight of the people, has already signaled his intent to sue the city of Medford, its police department and Jackson County, which runs the local jail.
The question at hand isn’t about the sweep itself, but whether Medford lawfully closed the park to the public, many who arrived that morning to observe, film and report on the sweep before their arrests.
The city said it did, but attorneys Justin Rosas and Stephen Houze dispute it. Rosas called it a pretext.
“Having watched the sweep, the initial intention and plan of the Medford Police Department was to go to journalists, legal observers and those assisting the unhoused and immediately intervene with those people,” Rosas told OPB.
Kristina Johnsen, a city spokesperson, said “no individual was arrested because they were filming the cleanup of the park. A number of journalists filmed the clean-up efforts from the entrance of the park and were not restricted from doing so.”
That day, reporters had been directed to a “media staging area” by police.
Rosas also said in a statement Sunday night his goal in suing isn’t exclusively to protect his clients, but also to provoke better treatment of people living outside in southern Oregon.
“The goal being to make our city more humane, responsive and deliberate in dealing with the homeless,” Rosas wrote.
OPB spoke with a handful of those arrested, their attorneys, volunteers at the encampment and officials with both the city of Medford and Jackson County to report on what transpired Sept. 22.
The interviews, coupled with testimony at public meetings, portray a community grappling with homelessness during two historic disasters — a sweeping wildfire and COVID-19 — before the rash of arrests.
City and county officials did not answer many of OPB’s questions about the events. City officials responded to specific allegations that they did not want to comment on situations pending an investigation.
Although Medford police cited and arrested 11 people that morning, no charges have officially been filed more than a week later. Municipal crimes are the city’s jurisdiction, and city attorneys said they are waiting to review reports before deciding whether to proceed.
“We will evaluate those and make determinations as to whether charges should be filed,” said Rick Whitlock, city attorney.
Hostilities before Hawthorne Park
Before the sweep and flurry of arrests, homelessness has been a tense issue in Jackson County.
More than 700 unhoused people lived there in 2019, state data show. One in four were chronically homeless — usually battling a severe combination of substance abuse and mental or physical ailments.
Every community forges its own approach to homelessness, often balancing things like law enforcement, social services and shelter infrastructure.
In the past 12 months, Medford has earmarked $1.2 million for a new “Livability Team” with its police department; and, after COVID-19 emerged, a $30,000-per-month low-barrier shelter with 25 beds.
“That’s the only way any of this works,” said Kevin Stine, a city councilor and mayoral candidate. “You do provide services, but then you also, in my opinion, you have to have the enforcement aspect as well. It doesn’t work if you don’t have both.
“You have to say here’s your option, and if you don’t choose the option, then this is a last resort — having enforcement,” Stine said. “Which is unfortunate, but that’s something every community faces.”
Reports say enforcement has been a priority for the Livability Team.
In the first eight months of its existence, the team connected individuals to housing 34 times, according to records obtained by Jefferson Public Radio, compared with 160 arrests or citations for trespassing or camping.
Then, over the Labor Day weekend, historic winds fed a wildfire that became the Almeda Fire. The blaze ripped through the towns of Phoenix and Talent, ultimately destroying more than 2,000 structures, according to county officials.
As the fire raged, resident Maig Tinnin said she and others checked on heavily wooded areas where homeless residents were known to camp. “Did they know how fast it was moving?” she said she recalled.
“A lot of people didn’t realize Phoenix and Talent were burning down,” Tinnin said. “They didn’t know they might need to evacuate soon.”
A camp settled at Hawthorne Park, not far from Medford City Hall. It was a natural draw, volunteers said, because hot meals are regularly given away there.
“Once the fire started, the feed became 24/7,” said Jesse Sharpe, a volunteer who also was arrested Sept. 22.
Volunteers estimate the camp, at its busiest, was home to 100 people. But, Sharpe noted, “it was never intended to be a permanent solution.”
However, the camp quickly drew concerns. Within a week of the fire, with skies still hazy, Tinnin said a police officer asked if the camp was affiliated with “antifa.” She noted a Black Lives Matter flag hung at the campsite.
When OPB asked city officials to confirm or deny the officer’s question, the official said the city is “reviewing reports and body camera footage related to the closure of Hawthorne Park.”
Tensions came to a head at a Sept. 17 city council meeting. Some defended the camp, while others opposed it, worried campers may start more fires, bring violence or health hazards, or drain local resources.
Nick Hines, a pastor at Family Life Church, said the park was too closely affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We have seen throughout this country when the presence of Black Lives Matter begins to take occupation in certain areas that the — let’s say — crime rate increases. It devolves into chaos,” he said, without evidence of the claim. “We’re not Portland. We’re not Seattle. We’re little Medford, Oregon, we shouldn’t govern like those places.”
At the end of the meeting, Mayor Greg Wheeler said that while the city “remains committed to helping the vulnerable citizens of our community, we do not endorse this urban campground setting as it lacks the infrastructure to house people in a safe and effective environment.”
Sweep, and disputed closure
Orange fliers soon appeared on tents at Hawthorne Park, notifying of an imminent sweep. Medford code prohibits camping on public property.
Those fliers, however, do not close the park to the public. As is common in communities like Portland or Salem, journalists and other members of the public visited the park that morning to legally observe the sweep. Others, like Sharpe, arrived to help take down tents.
“I went to help clean up,” Sharpe said. “Maybe three minutes later, they wrapped and arrested April Ehrlich with JPR. … They kicked the legal observers out of the park and they arrested everyone who was filming.”
Footage posted online from a bystander shows multiple officers arresting Ehrlich at the park, while more onlookers film from the park grounds. Ehrlich can be heard shouting “This is ridiculous” and announcing herself as a reporter.
Medford officials say City Manager Brian Sjothun effectively closed the park to the public at 7 a.m., using a provision in the city charter that says the manager “shall have general supervision over all city property.”
A city spokesperson said Sjothun sent an email on Sept. 18 to Medford’s police chief, the head of the city’s parks and recreation department and “other city staff” that the park was closed under that provision.
That spokesperson said signs were posted of the closure at Hawthorne Park on Sept. 21.
“I cannot respond to specific claims but I would say generally that we consider the closure of Hawthorne Park to all individuals for health and safety reasons to be a lawful closure of the park,” Deputy city attorney Eric Mitton told OPB.
Volunteers dispute any signs were posted. Rosas called the city’s justification a “specious legal argument.” Houze, Ehrlich’s attorney, mostly declined to comment. But he stated Ehrlich was “fully within her rights of the First Amendment to perform her duties as a journalist at the scene.”
According to Chad McComas, executive director of the homeless services provider Rogue Retreat, at least 20 people who camped at Hawthorne Park were directed to a shelter after the sweep.
Hours in custody
Soon after the sweep, the city dismantled the encampment, and a day in custody ensued for many of the 11 arrestees.
Their stints behind bars prompted several arrestees to notify the city of Medford, the police department and the Jackson County Jail they intend to sue.
Tort notices obtained by OPB allege neglected medical treatment, harassment based on political beliefs and denial of their release from bail. Arrestees detailed some of those allegations in interviews.
In the sweep’s aftermath, Derek DeForest and Graham Trim sat handcuffed in the back of a van to be taken to jail, arrested for trespassing. Another arrestee — an older man who lived at the park — dry heaved until he vomited.
According to DeForest, law enforcement handed a plastic bag toward them. With hands cuffed behind their backs, it was of little use, he said.
“They did not offer really any kind of empathy. They didn’t really seem to believe this was a real situation. I was in the van until we got to the jail and there was no offer of medical assistance,” DeForest said. “It was a totally scary situation because we don’t know if this person is having a heart attack or — we have no idea what’s going on with this person.”
The older man, also represented by Rosas, resumed dry heaving at the jail, according to several arrestees. The man was eventually taken to the hospital before being returned to jail.
Several men said another arrestee was denied medication, before being given a medication request form but no pen or pencil. The arrestee ultimately filled out the form, but the medication never came, the witnesses said.
Jayden Becker said jail staff shoved them and mocked their preferred pronouns. They said they and other female-presenting arrestees were also strip-searched. Most male arrestees were not, Rosas said.
“That was also the most traumatic humiliating, just horrible experience,” Jayden Becker said, noting a trainee was also present for the searches. “So that person got to just watch.”
Many arrestees spent more than 12 hours at the jail — long after posting bail.
Bail receipts show at least eight people posted bail between 11 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Most said they were not released until after 11 p.m. The Becker siblings posted bail at 1:44 p.m. and said they were not released until after midnight.
Medford Municipal Court, which handles bail for municipal crimes like trespassing, typically notifies the county-run jail when bail is posted. The jail was notified of the final payment at 2:37 p.m., according to city officials. And the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office policy manual calls for “expeditious” release of prisoners.
“I think they did want to make us uncomfortable, make us an example,” Sharpe said. “They could have cited us and released us. They held us for hours.”
Jackson County officials declined to respond to the arrestees’ allegations or answer follow-up questions, such as why some inmates were strip-searched or held for hours after posting bail.
“In general, we don’t provide comment on pending litigation,” general counsel Joel Benton said.
It remains unclear when Rosas will file a formal lawsuit. Houze, who represents Ehrlich, declined to disclose his legal plans.
Ehrlich, unlike many other arrestees, also received a citation for resisting arrest and interfering with a police officer. Johnsen, the Medford spokesperson, did not answer OPB’s questions on Tuesday why that is.
Johnsen denied allegations that police officers held any political bias or intent to “make an example” out of the arrestees.
“The decision to close the park was based on public health and safety concerns and was not limited in any way to any particular viewpoint or creed,” Johnsen said in an email.