Two years ago, a Latina teenager was standing with a friend at a downtown bus stop when a Tri-Met officer approached and asked for her ID. The officer's intention was to check whether the girl had been excluded from the downtown area under the city's notorious and constitutionally shaky "exclusion zones." She was returning home from school.
According to court records, the police thought the girl was acting suspiciously. She was reading a newspaper at the time, but the report claims the officer believed she was trying to hide her face.
While the Tri-Met officer was running an ID check, three more Portland police officers approached the girl. At that point, they claim she reached into a friend's pocket. In reaction, one of the officers slammed her into the wall and then to the pavement, where they restrained her.
Eventually, the cops discovered the girl was simply reaching into her friend's pocket to pull out a bottle of soda. But even after discovering the girl had a clean record, one of the officers decided to issue the girl a 90-day exclusion from the Old Town area. Under city rules, an officer can kick any person out of the downtown area at the mere suspicion of wrongdoing; absolute proof is not needed.
On Wednesday, city council approved a $140,000 payout to the teenager for the violation to her constitutional rights. That settlement joined two other payouts stemming from police misconduct that our city council also quietly approved on Wednesday.
Fewer details were available regarding the second payout of nearly $40,000. Earlier in the week, Copwatch had sent out an email alert about the payouts, but knew little else about the incidents. Police and city officials largely stonewalled the Mercury's research. One officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained the payment arose after a police chase in North Portland went awry and the suspect's car slammed into a Tri-Met train. The payment was part of a settlement meant to deter a lawsuit, but the officer was unable to provide any more details.
A subsequent call to the police spokesperson, Sgt. Brian Schmautz, yielded no additional information. He told the Mercury that he only deals with current issues and had no immediate information about the incident, which occurred in September 2004.
Also last Wednesday, city council unanimously approved an additional $125,000 payment to Robert Wagner, the attorney who represented the city for the lawsuit brought by Kendra James' family. The family had sued the city and officer Scott McCollister after James was fatally shot by the officer. Claiming a conflict of interest that would keep the city attorney from fairly representing the case, the city was forced to bring in outside counsel. The additional payment on Wednesday to Wagner brings the grand total of legal fees in the James' case to $325,000. (A month ago, a jury found that McCollister had no financial liability in the shooting.)
At a time when the city's budget is crunched and services are being cut, such payments should be upsetting to both the public and police bureau, which is suffering from cutbacks and understaffing. What is particularly disturbing is that a handful of "repeat offender" police officers are responsible for a large chunk of complaints. For example, in the Tri-Met incident involving the Latina teen, one of the three officers was Leo Besner, who was also the subject of complaints after anti-war demonstrators were pepper-sprayed and beaten three years ago.
Earlier this year, the city settled a lawsuit from 12 of those demonstrators, paying out $300,000. In addition, the lawsuit cost the city another $525,000 in attorney fees.