It's been more than a year since Portlanders watched police use physical violence and munitions to stifle racial justice protests across the city, and only one Portland police officer has been criminally charged. As videos of police violence from last year's demonstration continue to circulate online, many activists and police accountability advocates continue to ask: Will more police be held accountable for their actions?
A pair of memos released Friday morning by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt hope to offer an answer. In short: Not yet.
The memos reveal that the district attorney's office has been reviewing 21 incidents of police misconduct from the past year. One of the investigations led to the indictment of Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officer Corey Budworth in June 2021, a decision that prompted officers' mass resignation from PPB's Rapid Response Team, the protest unit which included Budworth. Of the remaining cases, Schmidt's office plans to close 12, either due to lack of response from attorneys and victims, the inability to identify officers in a case, or the lack of criminal evidence prosecutors found in the case.
Eight other cases remain under investigation.
Schmidt explained the purpose of these memos Friday in an accompanying press statement:
"I became aware of several claims of excessive force by law enforcement against civilians during the protests last year. These claims are disturbing and further rupture the trust between our community and the criminal justice system. In several that remained, we found no legal basis to pursue criminal charges under current law. In an effort to bring transparency to these conclusions, our office has produced and made publicly available two explanatory memos detailing the circumstances of these complaints and the legal framework within which our office has the authority to review such cases. I encourage members of the public to review the memos published with this statement."
The memos attempt to explain why prosecutors declined to press charges against Portland police in specific incidents, several of which have led to lawsuits against the city.
One memo addresses the actions of PPB officer Thomas Clark, who forcefully arrested protester medic Tyler Cox in August 2020. In a video that captures the incident, Cox is observed walking away from police after a riot has been declared in downtown Portland. Clark is then seen sprinting towards Cox and forcing him to the ground, before punching Cox in the head three or four times. Cox waved his arms over his head, appearing to knock off Clark's helmet in the process. Clark then arrests Cox. A lawsuit later filed by Cox against the city and PBB claims that Cox suffered a concussion and numerous cuts and bruises from the incident.
At the time, Cox was arrested for assaulting a public safety officer, resisting arrest, interfering with a police officer, and disorderly conduct. Those charges were dropped in November 2020.
In the memo, penned by Deputy District Attorney Nicole Hermann, Hermann explains that, although the video of Cox's arrest was disturbing, the facts of the case convinced prosecutors that Clark's actions did not break the law. The memo determines that Clark's use of force against Cox was "objectively reasonable," based on the circumstances.
State law allows police to use physical force upon another person only when an officer believes it is necessary to make an arrest or it will prevent physical injury. In court, this is measured by whether or not it was "objectively reasonable" for an officer to use force in a certain situation. Hermann argues that it was reasonable for Clark to tackle and punch Cox because Clark was following orders to "arrest people who had refused with police orders to disperse the area." Since Cox appeared to resist arrest by knocking off Clark's helmet, Hermann says Clark's response was justified under state law.
Another memo from Hermann explains why charges won't be filed against PPB Officer Brent Taylor for another August 2020 incident during a North Portland demonstration. According to the memo, Taylor pushed Erica Christiansen after observing her throw a lit cigarette at another PPB officer. This didn't stop Christiansen, who moved toward the officer, only stopping after Taylor fired three munitions at her body.
The memo finds Taylor's use of force to be “reasonable and necessary," based on the assumption that Christiansen would continue advancing on the officers. Christiansen has also filed a lawsuit against the city and PPB for Taylor's response.
"Although Erica Christiansen was injured and is seeking remedy through a civil lawsuit, for the above reasons, criminal charges are not warranted in this incident," Hermann writes.
The memo also dismisses two separate accusations of theft against PPB officers who took items from protesters during demonstrations. In both cases—one involving a guitar, the other a speaker—prosecutors explain that the objects were legally seized by PPB officers. The guitar is characterized as potentially being used as an "unconventional weapon," and the speaker system was allegedly being used to commit a "noise violation."
It's unclear when the eight cases still under investigation will be resolved. According to Schmidt, four of those cases involved accusations against PPB detective Erik Kammerer, known to protesters as “Officer 67" for the number affixed to his helmet. Schmidt has referred those cases to be investigated by state prosecutors with the Oregon Department of Justice. Schmidt's office did not share details on the other four cases, stating that they are "pending further investigation and prosecutorial review."