The family of an unarmed man shot and killed by Portland Police with an AR-15 in 2022 has issued an intent to sue the city of Portland. If the city settles, it will mark the fourth city payout connected to a fatal police shooting since 2020, with two other lawsuits stemming from two separate 2021 shooting deaths pending in court.
Immanueal Clark-Johnson, who was Black, was killed after police mistook his vehicle for one involved in an attempted robbery, before they received a description of the suspects, who were white. Clark-Johnson was fired on with an AR-15 as he ran from police.
The Oregon Justice Resource Center announced the potential litigation Monday afternoon, October 9. In a tort claim notice to the city, attorneys for Clark-Johnson’s family said they will “pursue all legal claims” unless the city settles with the family out of court.
“This is not the first time a Portland Police officer has shot and killed an innocent person with a high-velocity rifle,” the litigation notice states. “This pattern has persisted because of the City’s deliberate indifference to holding officers accountable for breaking police directives, trainings, and otherwise reasonable behavior.”
The tort claim notice notes high-velocity rifles "tear apart internal tissues and give fleeting opportunity to save the victim."
Just before midnight on November 18, 2022, police received a report of a vehicle thought to be involved in an armed robbery at the Super Deluxe burger drive-thru on SE Powell, but didn’t have a physical description of the suspects. Clark-Johnson’s vehicle was mistakenly identified as the suspect vehicle, and followed by a police helicopter and patrol vehicle into the Reedwood Friends Church parking lot on SE Steele in Southeast Portland in the early morning hours of November 19.
Clark-Johnson was reportedly unaware he was being followed by police before he pulled into the parking lot.
When Portland Police Officer Christopher Sathoff and four other officers approached the car, Clark-Johnson and one other passenger fled on foot.
“Officer Sathoff claims he saw Mr. Clark-Johnson reach into his pocket, which Officer Sathoff believed could contain a weapon. Officer Sathoff never saw a weapon or any other object in Mr. Clark-Johnson’s pocket,” a summary of the incident in the tort claim notice states. “Officer Sathoff later testified to a Grand Jury that he feared Mr. Clark-Johnson would retrieve a gun from his pocket, run behind other vehicles in the parking lot, turn back toward officers, and shoot at officers.”
A memo from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office about its investigation into the incident notes the vehicle Clark-Johnson was driving had been reported stolen and Clark-Johnson had warrants for his arrest, which could have explained why he fled when approached by police.
Last month, a grand jury declined to charge Officer Sathoff with criminal wrongdoing, returning what's called a "not true bill." That means the facts and evidence aren't enough for the D.A. to prosecute.
Oregon laws for police officers and deputies state an officer “may use deadly physical force upon another person only when it is objectively reasonable, under the totality of circumstances known to the peace officer, to believe that the person poses an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury.”
The law also requires an officer to consider alternatives to lethal force, like verbal de-escalation, or “a lesser degree of force” if reasonable and feasible.
Though a grand jury found the incident didn’t warrant criminal charges for Officer Sathoff, attorneys representing Clark-Johnson’s family urged the city to reach a settlement with the family, alleging several missteps by police. “Mr. Clark-Johnson posed no threat to police, yet lost his life at 30 because of Officer Sathoff’s unfounded assumptions about Mr. Clark-Johnson’s guilt and dangerousness.”
Juan Chavez is an attorney with OJRC representing the family. In the letter to the city, Chavez said the Portland Police Bureau's actions on the night of Clark-Johnson's death are part of a pattern of the bureau “shooting and killing people without accountability.”
He said the grand jury’s decision to decline charges doesn’t impact the ability to file a civil lawsuit, noting two different legal standards are at play.
Chavez told the Mercury he doesn't fault the grand jury for its decision, noting he doesn't believe the officer acted criminally, but whether the officer followed best practices and could have prevented Clark-Johnson's death is a different matter.
“There wasn't a true bill, and all that speaks to is a jury did not find there was probable cause to charge this officer with a criminal act of murder," Chavez said. "That’s not what a civil suit would allege. It’s a different question than whether or not this officer acted reasonably.”
The tort claim notice urges the city to settle with the family, rather than proceed with a jury trial.
The threat of a lawsuit comes as Portland gears up to overhaul its current police oversight system with a new, citizen-based board that will be tasked with investigating complaints and uses of deadly force, rather than the current system which keeps those investigations within law enforcement agencies. The new system won’t impact criminal investigations by the District Attorney’s Office, but will prevent police from serving on the board that reviews incidents like use of force.
Chavez said the new system would benefit families like Clark-Johnson's, who often face irreparable loss while the officers involved face no legal or disciplinary consequences. It's an outcome he likens to "salt in the wound."
But if the Police Accountability Board starts doling out discipline to law enforcement over deadly shootings or other conduct that's determined to have been preventable, it could influence police behavior and use of force tactics.
“Nothing about the wrongful death lawsuits could possibly fill the hole in these families’ hearts,” Chavez said, noting a new mechanism for reviewing deadly uses of force "could help prevent other families from going through what [Clark-Johnson's family] had to go through.”