The Portland Police Bureau had its share of media attention to deal with yesterday, and when we called the bureau's primary spokesman about a homeless woman who was arrested and charged for spitting in a downtown encounter, Sgt. Pete Simpson could only offer cursory comment.
We wanted to know how he squared spitting on the sidewalk, which is unquestionably a breach of city ordinance, with "offensive littering" the misdemeanor offense for which 25-year-old Alexandra Barrett was arrested last month (along with "interfering with a peace officer," a favored tool of city police, because she also spat after Officer Justin Damerville ordered her not to).
Barrett's conduct, according to Damerville, was plenty ugly during the incident near SW 3rd and Stark. The officer wrote in his September 22 report she cursed him vilely, including the use of a racial slur and middle fingers flying high, because she felt he'd arrested her improperly a couple days earlier. That's legal. But when Barrett spat, Damerville warned her not to. She spat again, and was arrested.
Does this make her guilty of "offensive littering?" Simpson looked over the case and called back earlier today. He says absolutely.
"Officers have a tremendous amount of discretion when dealing with people," Simpson says. "They exercise that discretion far more than they exercise their right of enforcement."
Simpson says Portland cops "aren't the spit patrol by any stretch of the imagination." But he notes: "You have people sitting there and saying, 'You’re going to let some one spit at you and talk to you like that?' The words matter. The words definitely matter."
According to Simpson, the state's offensive littering statute covers bodily fluids (it never specifically mentions them), and so Damerville was within his rights to enforce the law. Jim Hayden, a deputy district attorney, said as much in a conversation yesterday, arguing Damerville had probable cause to make the littering arrest. But prosecutors also found the littering charge specious enough that they reduced it to an ordinance violation when charging Barrett (they've since said they'll drop the whole case).
"Maybe it would do good if it was prosecuted, but we don’t make those decisions," Simpson says. "It’s not a common occurrence, that’s the thing. But what should we do with her? Let her behave however she wants in public? That doesn’t seem like the answer either."