Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ore. Civil Rights Chief Sues Boss Over Profiling

(CN) - The Oregon Department of Justice investigated its own director of civil rights after he mentioned the rap group Public Enemy on Twitter, the director says in a federal lawsuit.

The investigation made headlines in Oregon in November when the head of Portland's Urban League released a public letter to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who responded the same day.

Portland Urban League President Nkenge Harmon Johnson said in the letter that her husband Erious Johnson was the subject of a "threat assessment" search using software that queried uses of the Black Lives Matter hashtag, as well as #DontShootPDX and #FuckthePolice.

Erious Johnson is the director of civil rights for the state Justice Department.

Rosenblum responded that she was "appalled" by the spying, and launched an investigation into the search program.

"I have now seen firsthand how devastating profiling can be - written on the face of a member of my team," the attorney general wrote in response.

Erious Johnson sued Rosenblum and four other Justice Department officials in Eugene's federal court this week, claiming civil rights violations related to the searches.

The department used a program called Digital Stakeout to look for the hashtags on Twitter and Facebook. Defendant James Williams, an investigator with the department's Criminal Justice Division, found Johnson's image, according to the complaint.

Williams found tweets related to Black Lives Matter on Johnson's account and was concerned by a tweet that he believed was "threatening to the police."

The tweet in question, posted on Martin Luther King Day of 2015, featured the logo of rap group Public Enemy - a stenciled figure in crosshairs - along with the text "Consider yourselves...WARNED!!!"

That line comes from the spoken intro to Public Enemy's 1998 album "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," and does not actually reference any specific threat to anyone, police or otherwise.

Nonetheless, Justice Department employees prepared a threat assessment report about Johnson titled "Possible threats towards law enforcement by ODOJ employee."

No one spoke to Johnson about his tweets during this operation, according to the complaint.

A week after Williams presented the report to defendant David Kirby, a special agent in charge of the Criminal Justice Division, and described Johnson's post to Chief Counsel Darin Tweedt, who reviewed the report.

The report eventually made its way to the attorney general, who raised concerns that the department had racially profiled Johnson.

"Williams would sometimes conduct searches without being requested to by his supervisor based on 'what's hot in the news,'" the complaint says. "No supervisor told him he was prohibited from engaging in this practice."

Rosenblum put Williams on administrative leave only after the targeted searches became public, according to the complaint.

The follow-up investigation found there was a "lack of training on anti-racial profiling and/or anti-bias in the workplace" in the Justice Department, as well as a "lack of racial diversity and cultural competency" in its Criminal Justice Division.

Johnson is suing Rosenblum, Williams, Kirby and Tweedt in their individual and official capacities, along with Deputy Attorney General Frederick Boss and doe defendants. His claims include violations of his First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Johnson is represented by Beth Creighton of Creighton & Rose in Portland.

Johnson's wife Nkenge Harmon Johnson, who was also the communications director for former Gov. John Kitzhaber, claims in another lawsuit earlier this year that Williams investigated her husband's Twitter in retaliation for her work complaints. That case is still pending.

Harmon Johnson says the governor fired her because she sought legal advice after being told to work on his re-election campaign instead of state business, and she went public with her complaints.

The Oregon Department of Justice said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.