Last Thursday, local lawyer Alan Graf announced a civil suit against police chief Mark Kroeker, Mayor Vera Katz, and the City of Portland. Backed by the National Lawyers Guild, Graf is representing five people injured by pepper spray, tear gas, or rubber bullets. Among his plaintiffs is a family whose young children were pepper-sprayed by officers; the family was near a set of barricades, holding back demonstrators from a Senator Gordon Smith fundraiser. Another lawsuit is also being considered by cyclists from last month's Critical Mass ride. At that event, police officers arrested 10 people, pepper-sprayed individuals, and tasered one rider.
"The police have done pretty well the last couple years, post-May Day," said Graf, referring to a relative two-year calm between police and demonstrators. More than two years ago, a violent scuffle broke out near Pioneer Square during a labor union rally. That same year, there were several heavy-handed confrontations at Critical Masses. Most of the friction subsided after former City Commissioner Charlie Hales brokered new policies and lines of communications between police and Critical Mass riders.
"But then Bush rolls into town, and suddenly they're back with the riot gear and tear gas," Graf said in a recent interview. The lawsuit demands monetary damages (which will be donated to public causes), the barring of violent methods for crowd control, and the installation of a new citizen review board to monitor police actions.
"The board now in place is a failure and allows police to act with impunity, knowing there are no repercussions," Graf said. Critics have characterized Portland's Independent Police Review (IPR)--composed of nine volunteer citizens and seven "professional staff"--as ineffectual propaganda. The board was instated last July, after public pressure forced Mayor Katz to overhaul the current oversight committee. But, although groups like the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and Copwatch recommended guidelines for a new citizen review board, most of these suggestions were ignored. (Incidentally, two members of the board were pepper-sprayed at the Bush protest.)
So far, the police have remained unapologetic about their actions at the recent demonstrations. Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said officers only used pepper spray to disperse the crowd and defend themselves. "But I haven't seen the reports yet," he said, referring to the mandatory statement officers who use a form of non-lethal force must file. "Our perspective is that officers weren't the aggressors in either situation."
Legal experts point out that lawsuits of this nature most often avoid lengthy litigation and settle out of court. A Washington pacifist shot in the eye during the 1999 WTO demonstrations in Seattle recently settled her suit against the Seattle Police Department for $105,000. According to several witnesses, the woman was shot by a police officer who knelt in a marksman position and aimed at her face.
In recent years, similar settlements from police departments in other cities have included agreements for policy reform. Philadelphia--accused of hosting a brutal, racist police force for decades--recently reached a legal settlement over misconduct cases that includes the creation of a police corruption task force.
And a few months ago, Cincinnati reached a police brutality settlement after an officer attempting to arrest a black man shot him when he fled. The shooting sparked four days of riots there last summer. The Cincinnati settlement also included new terms and policies for the independent oversight of police.
Graf is sanguinely confident about the lawsuit. "The police have handed us something on a silver platter," he said. He intends to use "pattern and practice" to prove that Portland police were using inappropriate force. Graf will use testimony of Critical Mass cyclists who were pepper-sprayed to show a pattern in police policy. Without evidence of a pattern, he said, the case wouldn't be as strong. "But they did it again! They shot themselves in the foot," he said.