ACLU of Oregon lawsuits seek $250,000 for alleged police battery during protest arrests

Dozens of protesters and police officers clashed in downtown Portland during #NotMyPresidentsDay protests Monday morning. (KATU photo by Tristan Fortsch on 2-20-2017)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (ACLU) is filing six lawsuits against the city of Portland, accusing the Portland Police Bureau of violence during arrests at protests.

The suits, filed on behalf of six people, seek a combined $250,000 in damages for accusations of battery.

The arrests took place at a protest at Portland City Hall in October 2016, a youth-led election protest in November 2016, the “Not My President’s Day” protest in February 2017, and at the Patriot Prayer counter protest in June 2017.

Below is a list of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits:

  • Kelly Simon is suing the city for battery, up to $10,000 in damages, and attorney fees.
    Simon says she was wearing a blue ACLU vest, attending the June 4, 2017 protest at Terry Shrunk Plaza as a legal observer. She says she followed officer's orders to vacate the park. Simon says she was moving to exit the park when she says officers used pepper spray and impact munitions. She was struck, which caused significant bruising.
  • Patricia Barger is suing the city for battery, damages of up to $10,000, and attorney fees.
    On October, 12, 2016, Barger says she was caught up in the protests while heading to catch the MAX train. The trains were not running. Barger says she stayed and watched, when she says she was suddenly struck twice by an officer's baton, causing bruising.
  • Kat Stevens is suing the city for battery, up to $10,000 in damages, and attorney fees.
    Stevens claims that officers "intentionally used excessive force" in her arrest during a November 21, 2016 student-led march from Northeast Portland to City Hall. She claims officers held her down, pushed her face and head into the pavement, twisted her neck, causing severe pain. She says she suffered bruising and internal bleeding.
  • Tristan Romine-Mann is suing the city for battery, damages of up to $10,000, and attorney fees.
    Romine-Mann was arrested on February 20, 2017. He says officers knocked him to the ground, and then when he was already restrained, an officers sprayed his face with pepper spray.
  • Peggy Zebroski is suing the city for battery, $200,000 in damages, and costs.
    Officers arrested Zebroski and charged her with Disorderly Conduct in the Second Degree on February 20, 2017. Zebroski says she was in the street with others and passively resisted the bicycle officers' attempts to move them to the sidewalks. When scores of riot officers arrived, Zebroski says she moved to the sidewalk. When police pushed her 75-year-old friend to the ground, she says she ran to help. Then, she says police grabbed and yanked her to the ground. Her face was bloody and her nose was reportedly broken.
  • Charles Stubbs is suing the city for battery, up to $10,000 in damages and attorney fees.
    Stubbs says he was forcefully knocked to the ground without warning, causing injury at a protest February 20, 2017.

"The ACLU will not settle a case for money alone," ACLU Portland lawyer Matt Dos Santos said in a press conference. "We want policy changes and that’s why we bring these cases."

The ACLU says they would like to see PPB end its use of crowd control weapons, such as chemical spray, rubber bullets and flash bangs, at protests.

The lawsuits were filed in Multnomah Circuit Court, not federal court. The ACLU says they are pursuing battery-assault charges on officers, instead of filing constitutional lawsuits in federal court, which can take years to resolve and typically yield little policy change. The ACLU believes the county cases will begin in a year.

Last November, the ACLU filed another protest-related suit against the city for "kettling" dozens of protesters on June 4.

The mayor's office said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

PPB directed KATU to state law regarding dispersal of unlawful assemblies and riots.

"When any five or more persons, whether armed or not, are unlawfully or riotously assembled in any county, city, town or village, the sheriff of the county and the deputies of the sheriff, the mayor of the city, town or village, or chief executive officer or officers thereof, and the justice of the peace of the district where the assemblage takes place, or such of them as can forthwith be collected, shall go among the persons assembled, or as near to them as they can with safety, and command them in the name of the State of Oregon to disperse," Oregon state law reads. "If, so commanded, they do not immediately disperse, the officer must arrest them or cause them to be arrested; and they may be punished according to law."

The agency also referred KATU to its crowd management policies.

Under Policy 4, "while the First Amendment provides broad protections for the expression of speech, it does not provide protection for criminal acts including, but not limited to, riot, disorder, interference with traffic upon the public streets, or other immediate threats to public safety, peace or order."

In a February 21, 2017 interview, PPB Sgt. Pete Simpson told KATU, "protesting is supported, encourage, and defended by law enforcement. We defend the Constitution. Blocking traffic is not a constitutionally protected activity."

The ACLU of Oregon’s Legal Director Mat dos Santos issued the following press release at a conference Thursday:

“Today, with the help of a ferocious team of lawyers at Tonkon Torp, we have filed six lawsuits in Multnomah County Circuit Court to hold the Portland Police Bureau accountable for their violent response to protest. The lawsuits include six plaintiffs who were brutalized by police at protests between October 2016 and June 2017. Our clients were assaulted or battered at a protest at Portland City Hall in October 2016, at a youth-led protest following the election in November 2016, at the Not My Presidents Day protest in February 2017, and at a counter protest to the June 2017 Patriot Prayer alt-right gathering.

Freedom of expression and the right to dissent are the foundation of our democracy. A government is rightly judged by how it handles freedom of speech and expression, even more so when demonstrations are critical of them.

But in Portland, we have seen many examples where the police response is used to threaten or intimidate people, and ultimately, deter them from gathering in solidarity and voicing their collective grievances. We believe this behavior has had a chilling effect on free speech and assembly in our city and in our state.

Portland, once known for its quirky doughnuts and bookstores, last year made headlines for its violent police response to protests in our city. By filing these lawsuits, we want to send a clear message: Portland Police must end its disproportionate response to protests, commit to using safe and effective tactics of de-escalation, and respect the basic human rights of all people.

Like many Oregonians, we are concerned with the Portland Police Bureau’s rampant and indiscriminate use of excessive force at protests and of crowd control weapons like flash-bang grenades, chemical agents, and rubber bullets coated in chemical irritants. Officers are “at war” with the community, instead of keeping them safe and upholding their First Amendment rights. As you will see in the videos we will show shortly, downtown Portland frequently looked like a warzone whenever people gathered to express their dissent.

As I have said before, to our knowledge, no other police force in America uses crowd control weapons at protests with the regularity of the Portland Police Bureau. And I will also say again, unpermitted protests do not justify the use of force against the public.

The presence of heavily armed officers in riot gear to “control” unarmed peaceful protesters clad in jeans and tennis shoes is disproportionate on its face. Worse, it is prone to dangerously escalate situations. Changing officers’ uniforms and weapons can lead to a corresponding change in an officer’s attitude toward the public.

Despite the power imbalance, people have fought back by filming police. The resulting videos have changed the way the public understands police brutality. By filming officers in public doing their jobs, we can all let law enforcement that the eyes of the public are on them.

Last year, we filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the protesters, media, legal observers, and bystanders who were detained in the street for over an hour by police using a tactic called kettling. The kettle class-action and today’s lawsuits, taken together, reveal what anyone who has attended a protest or who watches the local news knows, the Portland Police have a pattern and practice of disproportionate and dangerous responses to protest.

Portlanders are highly engaged in civic life and regularly take to the streets to express themselves. Today, we demand better from our City and our police. It’s time that our response to First Amendment activity reflects our shared values of fairness, justice, and equality.”

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