Portland Police and the City of Portland are facing two excessive-force lawsuits filed in just nine days—one seeking $3 million in damages alone.
On February 26, an amended excessive force suit seeking $3 million in damages was filed by lawyers for Pastor Mary Overstreet-Smith—great-grandmother and legal guardian of Sir Millage, the severely autistic 15-year-old boy Tasered repeatedly and struck at least seven times with a baton near Union Station last December. Officers had allegedly mistaken his disability for refusal to yield to their commands ["Vigil Ups the Ante," News, Jan 25].
The lawsuit alleges excessive force by Portland Police Officers Andy Griggs, Michael Chapman, Todd Tackett, and David Michaelson—citing emergency room records suggesting Millage was shocked by Tasers "at least 13 times."
The suit also alleges that the City of Portland's failure to train its officers in recognizing autism contributed to the encounter—Millage's background was even on file with the police bureau and updated by his great-grandmother just six months prior to the incident.
"I think Frankenstein could have been reinvigorated by being Tasered that often," says Ernest Warren Jr., the attorney acting for Overstreet-Smith. "This is about excessive force, and failure to recognize a clearly autistic person."
Overstreet-Smith has declined to comment personally.
Another excessive force suit, seeking undisclosed damages, was filed on Wednesday, March 7, by Tom Steenson—the same civil rights attorney suing over the death-in-custody last September of James Philip Chasse Jr.—on behalf of the family of Raymond Gwerder. Gwerder was shot in the back and killed by a police sniper while he was on the phone with a trained hostage negotiator in November 2005.
The suit names police sniper Leo Besner, alleging he "acted with a conscious disregard for Gwerder's right to life."
"In addition, or in the alternative," the suit continues, "Besner's conduct was wanton, reckless, and in disregard of Gwerder's well-established constitutional rights."
The suit also blames the City of Portland for not having recognized and intervened earlier in what it alleges is "Besner's history of using extreme, excessive, unnecessary, and, at times, deadly, physical force against innocent citizens." Alleged examples of Besner's past—as listed in the suit—include: Tasering a man who was "attempting to restrain a woman who had been threatening people with a knife" in 2002; pepper spraying an anti-war protestor standing on a sidewalk with a sign in March 2003; and slamming a 15-year-old into a wall in April 2003 who, prior to that, had been "standing on the sidewalk, reading a newspaper."
Steenson declined further comment, saying the Gwerder family would like to keep the suit private. It is against police bureau and city policy to comment publicly on ongoing lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Copwatch activist Dan Handelman, who has been tracking city settlements for anti-cop lawsuits over the past 15 years, says the city pays out an average of $350,000 per year in such suits.
"But these numbers are above the line and do not include the millions of dollars the city pays to defend these claims," he says—referring to expensive attorney fees. "Also, there seem to have been more 'big-ticket' lawsuits since 2000."
The city's "big-ticket" settlements include $845,000 paid in a class action lawsuit in December 2004 for officers using excessive force during downtown anti-Bush/Iraq War protests in 2002 and 2003, and $600,000 paid in June 2005 to the family of Damon Lowery, who died in custody in 1999.
"It's depressing," Handelman says. "Despite all the systems and safeguards that have supposedly been put in place, we still have not solved the problem with the police bureau."