The first federal lawsuit filed against the city of Portland for its officers' actions against demonstrators during the city's racial justice protests of 2020 has come to a close.
On Monday, lawyers representing five demonstrators and the advocacy group Don't Shoot Portland reached a $250,001 settlement with the city over a June 2020 lawsuit, which accused Portland police for the "indiscriminate use" of tear gas and impact munitions against nonviolent protesters.
The settlement's payout will divided equally among the five plaintiffs—Nicholas Roberts, Misha Belden, Lester Wresckie, Thomas Dreier, and Alexandra Johnson—with the remaining $1 going towards Don't Shoot Portland. The settlement also includes changes to Portland Police Bureau (PPB) protocol.
Per the court filing detailing the agreement, the city has agreed to stop using "Rubber Ball Distraction Devices"—munitions commonly referred to as "flash-bang grenades"—against protesters in the 14 months following the agreement. What's more, the city has agreed to "engage in a process to decommission" the bureau's inventory of these specific munitions entirely in that time period.
“This is a win for organizers and antifascist activists everywhere,” said Teressa Raiford, director of Don’t Shoot Portland in a Tuesday press release. “Our freedom of expression is the foundation of how we make social change possible."
The agreement also requires officers to follow city policies and state laws that limit the use of tear gas and other munitions when working at demonstrations in the next 14 months. (Officers will presumably be expected to continue following the law after this time period.) District Judge Marco Hernandez will be responsible for overseeing the non-monetary terms of the settlement agreement.
Portland police have a long history of using flash-bang grenades to quash demonstrations—often resulting in litigation. PPB temporarily suspended the use of these grenades in 2018, after an officer lodged a flash-bang grenade in a protester's skull. After suing for his injuries, that protester was granted a $125,000 settlement from the city. A lawsuit filed by another person hit by a flash-bang at the same 2018 protest was settled with $50,000 from city coffers.
The grenades were back in rotation by the start of the 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Injures sustained by these munitions are the subject of several other lawsuits against the city still tied up in the courts.
The lawsuit succeeded at limiting officers' use of force prior to its Monday conclusion. Shortly after the litigation was filed in early June 2020, plaintiffs were granted a temporary restraining order, which barred officers with the PPB from using tear gas and “less-lethal” weapons (like rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades) against protesters except in limited circumstances. In December 2020, however, Judge Hernandez determined that the city had violated that restraining order.
To move forward, the city agreed to a number of sanctions, including a training for PPB’s Rapid Response Team (RRT), removal of RRT officer Brent Taylor from crowd control events pending an internal investigation, and a training for all PPB officers on crowd control by the end of 2021.
This agreement was slightly skewed when, in June 2021, all officers assigned to the RRT voluntarily stepped down from their position in protest after RRT member Corey Budworth was slapped with criminal charges for hitting a woman with a baton during a 2020 demonstration. And, while the results of an internal investigation into Taylor's conduct remain concealed, Taylor remains employed by PPB.
Attorneys for Don't Shoot Portland and other plaintiffs originally hoped to file the lawsuit as a class action. Judge Hernandez declined that request this summer.
Attorney Ashlee Albies, who represented the plaintiffs, noted the prior success of the lawsuit through restraining orders in a Tuesday press release. The work to hold the city accountable for its actions in 2020 isn't over, she added.
"We’ve succeeded in getting an injunction to force PPB to follow the law, and to dismantle their flash bang arsenal," said Albies. "We will be vigilantly watching PPB over the next 14 months.”