A bike cop's arrest of a downtown street kid shocked bystanders last week—and raised questions for homeless advocates over how the mayor's controversial Sit-Lie Ordinance might be enforced in the spring.
In a picture taken by one anonymous onlooker with a cell phone (see larger version here), bike patrol Officer Craig Dobson appears to be holding a suspect by the throat against a Pioneer Place store window, as Sergeant Ronald Mason and a downtown Portland Patrol, Inc. security officer look on. The incident occurred around 3 pm last Friday, February 23, by the SW 4th and Yamhill MAX platform.
"The man in the photo said something that made the officer mad, and the cop grabbed him by the throat for well over a minute," says the witness, who sent the photo to the Mercury. The witness also reported that the young man and his two friends were initially approached by a patrolling security officer, who saw them sharing two cans of Hamm's beer and alerted police.
"It was clear the [suspect] was in pain when the other cop spoke in a low voice to [Dobson]. That's when [Dobson] let him go. People around me were shocked at the officer's behavior," the witness adds. "One girl was crying and pleading to the police to explain why they were taking the man away."
The photograph has surfaced as the mayor's controversial Sit-Lie Ordinance awaits a vote by city council in the spring—if passed, it would make sitting or lying on the sidewalk illegal; a law likely to be enforced by street officers like Dobson. Critics of the ordinance are concerned about its enforcement and potential use as a tool to target homeless people in the downtown area. (The mayor's office declined comment.)
"We hope that the enforcement of any sit-lie law will be carried out in a way that is humane, and has homeless people's rights in mind," says Street Roots Director Israel Bayer. "Images like this raise questions on the validity of so-called livability laws affecting people on the streets."
The cops see things differently, saying the man was one of three suspects arrested for drinking alcohol on the street, and that he was belligerent during a search. According to Dobson's arrest report, the suspect said, "fuck you" numerous times. The cops say no use of force report was filed with the arrest report, because Dobson's actions didn't constitute an official use of force.
"If you take the photograph out of context it gives a necessarily inaccurate reflection," says Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese. "The officer is definitely not choking him, it looks to me like he is using his thumb to force the man's face away, as we are trained to do. Obviously you do not want to have his spit on you."
Reese adds that the issue of officially using force is difficult, because "having your hands on someone" does not always count as using force. But he encourages anyone concerned by the actions of the police to call the Independent Police Review.
Dobson, who spoke to the Mercury on Tuesday, February 27, says the subject refused to face the wall three times during the search. (Dobson also claims the kid and his friend polished off the beer in front of the cops, after they'd been asked to stop).
Moreover, Dobson says he was not holding the kid by the throat, but turning his chin—and not for a minute, as the witness reported, but for "moments."
"Eventually I pulled the guy's hat down over his face so he would not spit on me," says Dobson. "But where are the photographs of that?"
Dobson says the photo also does not show that the crowd gave him a round of applause for arresting the men—whom the Mercury were unable to contact—adding: "What frustrates me is, people will outright lie... take something out of context and show it as something different."
Dan Savickas contributed to this story.