Portland Pulls Two Cops to Avoid Second Contempt Finding

Thousands march through downtown Portland, Oregon, on Monday, July 20, in a protest against police brutality. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)

PORTLAND (CN) — The city of Portland, Oregon, agreed on Tuesday to remove from the streets two officers accused of multiple violent incidents against journalists and legal observers in an effort to avoid a second finding of contempt for the handling of ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism. 

Two members of the city’s Rapid Response Team, which polices the protests that erupted in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, are no longer responding to protests while the city investigates their alleged role in half a dozen acts of violence against journalists and legal observers. The incidents include one in which police allegedly dislocated a woman’s shoulder by yanking her up from the ground by her arms when she was handcuffed, another where police who were shoving legal observers allegedly grabbed another woman by the throat and multiple incidents where a journalist says officers assaulted her in retaliation for filming them pepper spraying and assaulting protesters.

Journalists and legal observers sued the city in June, claiming police were targeting them for assault and arrest in retaliation for their attempts to do their jobs — documenting an historic uprising and the police response to it.

In July, the city agreed to a preliminary injunction barring police from arresting or assaulting journalists and legal observers unless they had probable cause to believe that person had committed a crime. When federal agents descended on the city, the journalists added the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service and Federal Protective Services as defendants in the case. The federal agencies fought against the injunction the city had agreed to, and that flank of the case is currently pending before the Ninth Circuit.

In a separate case filed by protesters against Portland police, Judge Marco Hernandez last Tuesday held the city in contempt of court, finding that in three instances police had fired rubber bullets and paint balls at protesters who were complying with police orders or who were not otherwise an imminent threat.

The officer whose actions led to contempt in that case are not the same ones whose behavior is at issue here. It was the violent actions of Portland police officer Brent Taylor that caused Judge Hernandez to hold the city in contempt.

And in this case, although their names are redacted in court documents, individuals familiar with the case say they are Sergeant Justin Damerville and Officer Craig Lehman. Independent journalist Maranie Staab says she was assaulted by the two officers and was close enough to see their faces and badge numbers. Their names were confirmed by a second person with knowledge of the legal matter.

The city already agreed to let journalists and legal observers remain behind police lines in order to document arrests and other police actions. But journalists say video evidence shows that police continued to shove, attack and arrest them for doing their jobs. Court procedure required them to ask the city directly for changes before filing a motion to hold the city in contempt.

And on Tuesday, the city agreed to take action to avoid risking contempt a second time, signing a stipulation in lieu of a motion for contempt — basically a document where the city promises to provide the kind of changes the journalists would have sought by asking a judge to hold the city in contempt of the injunction.

The stipulation says the city will keep the two officers from carrying out any duties that would put them in contact with the public, pending its investigation of six incidents where the men are accused of threatening or assaulting journalists and legal observers. And if it decides to return either officer to public duty, the city promised to give the journalists at least three days’ notice, so they can file their contempt motion before that happens.

The city did not admit any wrongdoing in the stipulation. But the two officers have already been off protest duty for weeks, according to people familiar with the matter. Also on Tuesday, protesters prevented police from evicting a Black and Indigenous family from a historically Black neighborhood in North Portland. Police, who claimed the state’s Covid-19 eviction moratorium does not apply to foreclosures like the one faced by the Kinney family, were expected to return, but a rowdy crowd routed them Tuesday morning, chasing police down North Mississippi street and even slashing a tire of one police SUV.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced Tuesday night that he was sending police back to complete the eviction using “all lawful means.”

“I am authorizing the Portland Police to use all lawful means to end the illegal occupation on North Mississippi Avenue and to hold those violating our community’s laws accountable,” Wheeler said in a statement. “There will be no autonomous zone in Portland.”

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