Independent journalist Justin Yau contributed reporting to this story.
When 17-year-old Violet was arrested on August 31 during a protest outside a Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office building on E Burnside, she recalls being frisked by a male Portland police officer after being taken inside the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) East Precinct. While this is standard procedure during an arrest, it still made Violet uncomfortable.
“When I asked for a female officer to search me, the male officer put his hand on the crease of my inner thigh and squeezed, then looked in my eyes and told me ‘No,’ as there was a female officer right in front of me,” Violet told the Mercury Friday. “So they could’ve gotten a female officer to search me but they chose not to.”
According to Violet—who asked the Mercury only print her first name to protect her privacy—several male Portland police officers also made comments to her about how she looked older than her age.
“As a sexual assault survivor, it brought up a lot of past triggering feelings and I almost had a panic attack,” Violet said. “It was terrifying.”
Portland’s Independent Police Review Director Ross Caldwell said they have opened an investigation into Violet’s allegations, but did not say whether they have received any other complaints from protesters of sexual harassment by members of the PPB.
“We have opened an investigation into [Violet’s] concerns and will be reaching out to her for additional information,” Caldwell said in an email.
Violet was arrested again at a protest the following day and said that she was not read her Miranda rights either time.
PPB spokesperson Melissa Newhard would not comment on the case, noting that because Violet is a juvenile, the matter is classified as sensitive.
PPB officers have previously shown indifference to providing female arrestees with female officers to perform frisks. In the early hours of August 9, reporter Shauna Sowersby captured a video of Portland police officers frisking a woman who was arrested during a protest outside the Portland Police Association union headquarters in North Portland.
“Do you have a female officer present while you’re patting her down?” Sowebersy asks the officer on camera.
“Nope,” one responds. Another Portland police officer then says “How do you know that I don’t identify as female?” His question draws immediate laughter from nearby police.
Violet is also not the first person alleged of being groped by law enforcement officers while being arrested at a Portland protest.
Jennifer Kristiansen, a 37-year-old Beaverton lawyer, told the Oregonian that she was standing with the Wall of Moms protest group in the early hours of July 21 when federal officers released tear gas upon hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland. Kristiansen said federal officers separated her from her group, and one officer turned her around, pushed her against the wall of the courthouse, and touched both her breast and bottom.
Like Violet, Kristiansen said she was not read her Miranda rights after this assault, and never got to call an attorney. On July 15, two other protesters said that they were not read their Miranda rights, nor told what they were being charged with after being forced into an unmarked van and arrested by federal police.
After being released, Violet attended another protest the evening of August 31—this one outside Mayor Ted Wheeler’s apartment building in Northwest Portland.
At about 1:15 am September 1, law enforcement officers appeared in a riot van and began running after a small group of protesters still gathered in the area, and arrested Violet again. Shortly after, a woman who identified herself as Violet’s aunt approached the crowd of officers with her hands in the air. The woman said she had just come downtown to pick Violet up.
“Release my niece. She’s 17. She was assaulted by a police officer—a Portland police officer,” the woman said.
As she was being arrested tonight, her aunt (who had driven downtown to pick her up) arrived and pleaded with officers to release her:
“Release my niece. Release my niece. She’s 17. She was assaulted by a police officer — a Portland police officer. I am a Portlander.” pic.twitter.com/Ox0ZOqOTaN
— Cata Gaitán (@catalinagaitan_) September 1, 2020
For several minutes, she pleaded with officers to see her niece, eventually dropping to her knees on the street. “Give her back. She was assaulted by a fucking police officer—sexually assaulted two nights ago. Don’t make her go through this again."
Officers did not respond as she placed her forehead on the street, pleading. When officers did address her, they questioned why she was letting her niece attend protests. After about 10 minutes, a command was given and officers hopped onto the runner boards of the riot van. As the vehicle drove away, the woman rose from her knees and chased after it, shouting “please don’t hurt my baby!” in its wake.
The aunt dropped to her knees on the street and continued pleading with officers:
“Give her back. She was assaulted by a fucking police officer — sexually assaulted two night ago. Don’t make her go through this again.” pic.twitter.com/3LhQtwofLy
— Cata Gaitán (@catalinagaitan_) September 1, 2020
After her arrest that night, Violet said Portland police put her in a holding cell for 40 minutes while she waited for her aunt to pick her up. The cell, which had a toilet, was covered in feces and used toilet paper.
“There was shit all over—literally crap everywhere,” Violet told the Mercury. “If they’re treating somebody who’s privileged like this, imagine how they’re treating people who aren’t privileged. The maltreatment in this system goes way deeper than people who are not minorities can see.”
Violet said that while her experience with PPB disturbed her, it hasn’t deterred her from continuing to protest against racism and police brutality. Instead, it confirmed her original reasons for protesting in the first place.
“Before this, I was protesting because of the same reasons—that people aren’t being treated equally and the police are treating everyone with abuse," she said. "So I’ll continue protesting. Definitely.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Violet says she was inappropriately frisked inside the PPB East Precinct, rather than outside at the protest.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that police did not respond to Violet's aunt when she pled with officers to let Violet go. However, officers did eventually talk to the aunt. We've corrected the story to reflect this.