photo by Matt Davis

A TRIAL in Multnomah County Circuit Court this week has raised new safety and oversight questions about the role of private armed security officers working for Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI) and patrolling the city's parks.

Steven Lee Johnson was charged with failure to obey a park officer and assault in the fourth degree, among other charges, following an altercation in Waterfront Park with PPI Officer Ron Cash on May 27, 2007—just three weeks after the Mercury ran an article entitled "Trust Me, I'm a Rent-a-Cop," [May 3, 2007] raising concerns about oversight for PPI officers like Cash.

Accounts of the altercation differed sharply at trial, but there was no dispute that Cash broke Johnson's finger, wrestled Johnson to the ground, and pepper sprayed him in the face.

Johnson, a social worker, had been talking with a homeless friend of his, Dale Box, in the park that morning, and was warning him about Cash's approach. In court, Johnson said he suggested they go and get some breakfast at the Portland Rescue Mission to avoid the risk of Box being moved along by Cash under the city's controversial anti-camping ordinance. Cash approached and told Johnson's friend to leave the park, when Johnson told him, "It's cool, we're on our way," Johnson testified. Then, Cash allegedly told Johnson to leave the park, too.

Johnson says he pointed his finger at Cash and told the officer, "I know my rights," when Cash reached out, twisted, and snapped his left index finger. Johnson said he punched Cash twice in the face with his right hand in self-defense, before running away. Johnson said Cash chased him, wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, and then pepper sprayed him in the face before the police arrived.

For his part, Cash told the court that Johnson was confrontational, and had elbowed him in the side before he broke Johnson's finger in a reflex reaction. Cash told the court that he wrestled Johnson to the ground and pepper sprayed him before handcuffing him because he did not want Johnson to get hold of his 9mm Glock pistol, which was on his left hip throughout the encounter.

Cash admitted his actions were not in line with PPI's stated policy of "observe and report," or its "no hands on" policy, but said PPI officers are allowed to defend themselves from assault if necessary. Cash alleged that Johnson punched him at least six times with both hands, not twice.

A jury was still deliberating on the case when the Mercury went to press Tuesday night.

Asked if a passerby might have been concerned by the situation, Officer Cash said "absolutely." 

"They would have seen a guy that had a gun on him in a fight with another guy, and it looked like something bad was about to happen," he said. 

Homeless advocacy groups like Street Roots, Sisters of the Road, and the Oregon Law Center have worked with PPI to provide trainings on homelessness and civil rights since last year. But with news of this latest altercation only emerging 18 months after the fact, there's frustration it has not been part of the ongoing public conversation about oversight for PPI officers.

"This happened at about the time we were asking for public oversight," says Patrick Nolen, community organizer for Sisters of the Road. "It is really sad to me that for whatever reason we were not made aware of this."

"This is a high-stakes, hot-button issue with lots of dollars involved," says Street Roots Director Israel Bayer. "I'm not sure anyone at city hall has ever taken our concerns around this issue seriously. It's been one soft conversation after another. The city has been given the keys and the car on this issue, there's just no driver."

Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office, which oversees the city's contract with PPI to patrol Waterfront Park, told the Mercury this Tuesday, December 2, that it had not heard anything about the incident until contacted by this newspaper on Monday night. A parks spokesperson was inquiring with the bureau's security manager as we went to press.

PPI boss John Hren declined comment by press time. Megan Doern, spokesperson for the Portland Business Alliance—which serves as the middle-man for the contract between the city and PPI to patrol Portland's parks—noted that Officer Cash "was assaulted by this man," she wrote to the Mercury. "And the defendant [Johnson] initiated a second attack when the officer defended himself. The case has gone to trial where the court will determine whether or not the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the assault." Doern says they also followed procedures "and report[ed] this incident" to the police.

Check blogtown.portlandmercury.com for an update once the verdict is in.