Old Town's "entertainment district"—touted by Mayor Charlie Hales and the city's cops as a way to make weekend revelers more safe—has drawn what might be its first lawsuit, a $65,000 complaint for police brutality.
It stems from an incident on Saturday, April 27, when 32-year-old Portlander Stephen Stiffler ventured his bike into the district. That's not allowed. When the entertainment zone is in effect on Fridays and Saturdays, only pedestrians are permitted in the cordoned-off swath of NW 3rd from Burnside to Everett. Pedicab drivers will sometime awkwardly walk fares through the zone. It's weird.
Stiffler was headed west on Couch and had just reached 3rd when he ran into Officer Charles Harris—literally. The officer, spotting Stiffler, reached out and snatched the cyclist off his single-speed, breaking Stiffler's right clavicle and "wrenching, stretching, twisting and tearing" his shoulder tissues, says the lawsuit.
Harris, meanwhile, contends he'd merely held out his arm to indicate Stiffler needed to walk, yelling "Hey, stop!" In a report, Harris wrote the cyclist made a sharp turn, essentially running into his outstretched arm. "If the bicyclist would have gone straight, he would have passed me by with about 5 feet of clearance," Harris wrote. "Instead, due to his turn, he rode into my arm." Bouncers at nearby clubs corroborate that version of events, the report says.
Stiffler, who was not cited in the incident and left the area in a cab, tells the Mercury that's calumnious.
"It's horrible," Stiffler said of the cop's version of events. "At the last minute the officer turned around and clotheslined me, basically. Fucking pulled me off my bike."
The Portland Police Bureau could not comment on the pending litigation, according to spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson.
Stiffler's lawyer, meanwhile, was happy to talk.
"People don't just crash their bikes for no reason," said Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney well known for taking on the police bureau in use-of-force suits. "The reality is, he was basically grabbed and thrown down by the officer. The officer reacted to him passing by locking arms and taking him down."
Stiffler's lawsuit is making a tentative claim for $65,000, a number which Kafoury says could change, depending on how well his client heals (Stiffler told the Mercury he's pretty much recovered).
It is not a big or overly scandalous case, Kafoury concedes. But, in the context of the much-debated entertainment zone, it's actually pretty interesting. Hales has been a continuous champion of the district (which got momentum under then-Mayor Sam Adams), pushing his city council colleagues to extend the street closures through the fall while making promises the program would see improvements. Many of those things—roadway beautification, portable toilets, food carts, and a general "street festival" atmosphere the Mayor's talked up—haven't taken place. There's not money for them, and Old Town doesn't seem in any rush to pony up.
Business owners in the area have complained the closures hurt sales, and Old Town residents have pushed back against the program, which they think gives legitimacy to rowdy and disrespectful weekend debauchery.
Among past critiques of the program: Unclear signage that leaves people wondering why the streets are closed off. Whether Stiffler was thrown off his bike or ran into the officer's arm, it's possible that confusion ultimately led to this incident.
"I don't think he knew that it was closed to bikes at the time," Kafoury said of his client. "I think he knew it was closed to cars."
This suit is familiar territory for Kafoury, who in 2010 won $306,000 for a client beaten up by cops nearby (the city has since decided not to appeal the judgment). He says Stiffler's misfortunes are just more of the same.
"Why is an officer slamming some nice young guy to the ground and breaking his collar bone? It follows a pattern of Portland Police and excessive use of force."