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Law and Justice

New lawsuits filed against federal law enforcement, city of Portland for actions during 2020 protest

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Jonathan Levinson
/
OPB
About 2,000 showed up to protest in Portland on July 23, 2020. Racial justice protests in the city continued to grow after federal law enforcement officers were deployed in downtown.

Plaintiffs describe being taken in unmarked vans, being deliberately shot at with rubber grenades and being wantonly hit on the head, among other complaints.

Three federal civil rights lawsuits filed in recent days allege a litany of offenses by federal and local law enforcement during 2020 racial justice protests in Portland. The lawsuits describe multiple violations of protesters’ first, fourth, and fifth amendment rights stemming from incidents involving alleged enforced disappearances, retaliation, assault, battery and negligence.

The lawsuits come as the two-year statute of limitations for some civil rights complaints approaches this summer.

Evelyn Bassi alleges federal law enforcement agents abducted her off a downtown street July 15, 2020 as she was leaving a protest at the federal courthouse. The complaint, filed last week, says two armed people in camouflage with police patches on their chest leapt from an unmarked minivan, held Bassi’s arms behind her back, and forced her to sit cross legged on the floor of the van.

“The agents never said who they were. She knew she was not free to leave,” the lawsuit states. “[Bassi] did not know if she was ever going to be seen again by her family and friends. She worried she would never see her son again.”

Bassi is suing the four unknown Department of Homeland Security officers who detained her, their unknown supervisors, as well as regional and national leadership of the Federal Protective Services, Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Marshals Service at the time of the incident.

After driving around for 5 to 10 minutes, the complaint says the van stopped and the officers searched Bassi before ultimately concluding she didn’t fit the description of the person they were looking for.

“You know, bro, we have cameras everywhere,” one of the officers allegedly told Bassi after releasing her.

Bassi said she struggled to eat and sleep after the incident and was ultimately diagnosed and treated for acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“In the month of July 2020, the United States Government engaged in a terror campaign against the people of Portland that resulted in the enforced disappearance of [Bassi],” the complaint says. “This campaign authorized the use of vans in [a] manner that heavily-insinuated kidnapping and enforced disappearances.”

Bassi’s detention, which was recorded by a witness, happened the same night federal law enforcement used an identical tactic to grab Mark Pettibone from a downtown street. Pettibone told OPB at the time that officers didn’t identify themselves, pulled his beanie over his face and drove around before finally unloading him in the parking garage of a building he later learned was the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse.

The incident sparked national outrage and led to numerous inspectors general investigations.

Two of the lawsuits name, among others, Portland Police Bureau Detective Erik Kammerer, infamous among protesters for being among the more violent police officers responding to protests.

In a complaint filed May 23, Meghan Opbroek alleges Portland Police Bureau officers, under Kammerer’s leadership and acting within city policy, fired a rubber ball distraction device at her on June 25, 2020 as she was walking away from police in the direction they had ordered her and other protesters to go.

A rubber ball distraction device is a grenade-like less lethal weapon that can disperse small rubber pellets on detonation.

The grenades, part of a family of less lethal weapons commonly known as “flash bangs,” have caused controversy in the past. A 2015 ProPublica report found the weapons are used by police across the country with minimal oversight and frequently cause severe injuries. In 2017, a Portland police officer threw a rubber ball distraction device at a journalist during a demonstration downtown, prompting an independent investigation. And in 2018, Portland police suspended the use of some flash bang grenades after multiple people were injured when police used them to disperse a crowd of protesters.

The Portland Police Bureau spent $4,370 on stinger ball grenades — the type that disperse small rubber pellets — on June 1, 2020 and video posted online suggests officers used one June 27, causing a pellet to become lodged in a protester’s eye.

Opbroek’s lawsuit contains images of her bleeding leg with what appears to be an open wound and an object lodged under her skin.

The lawsuit claims officers Zachary Domka, Mark Duarte and Brent Taylor violated Opbroek’s fourth amendment rights through their unreasonable use of force which then chilled her political speech, violating her first amendment rights. Kammerer, the lawsuit claims, either engaged in the excessive use of force or allowed it to take place.

“Defendant Kammerer directed, observed, and acted in coordination with Defendants Domka, Taylor, and Duarte firing flash bang grenades and other so-called ‘riot control agents’ at individuals in the crowd,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also names the city of Portland, alleging senior leaders in the police bureau and Mayor Ted Wheeler knew about and approved the crowd control weapons being used and the policies governing their use.

Wheeler’s spokesperson, Cody Bowman, said Wheeler is unable to comment on pending litigation.

Opbroek suffered a concussion, has required ongoing medical treatment and has scars from the incident, the lawsuit says.

Finally, Tyler Vontillius filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland, Kammerer and 10 unnamed officers alleging Kammerer’s June 26, 2020 use of force against him was excessive and part of a pattern and practice of Portland police officers targeting people protesting against the police.

“Kammerer attacked [Vontillius] not because he had probable cause, but because he wanted to make protesters hurt and because he knew he would face no discipline for doing so,” the lawsuit states. “This attack on protesters serves the ultimate policy goal to extrajudicially punish protesters.”

The lawsuit says Vontillius never engaged in active aggression or physical resistance during the June 27, 2020 protest. Screen grabs pulled from a video included in the filing appear to show Kammerer emerge from behind a police line and knock several protesters to the ground, including Vontillius. The lawsuit says he suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result.

“After Defendant Kammerer knocked these protesters to the ground, he walked away from the protest line,” the lawsuit alleges. “He never attempted to arrest anyone, including [Vontillius], or de-escalate. He just chose violence.”

Kammerer, known to protesters as “Officer 67″ because of the number emblazoned on his helmet during the 2020 protests, is also being sued by Elijah Warren for allegedly hitting Warren in the head after he came out of his house to talk to officers about tear gas seeping inside. After a months-long investigation, the Oregon Department of Justice found that there was insufficient evidence to charge Kammerer for his actions in four separate 2020 protest incidents.

In addition to the civil rights violations allegedly perpetrated by the officers, Vontillius also claims the city lacks proper supervisory review of use of force incidents. As a result, the lawsuit says there is no way to effectively correct “patterns of unlawful actions by PPB officers in a timely or effective fashion, and rarely categorizes such unlawful seizures as out of policy even when the force is clearly excessive or when the arrest was without sufficient legal justification.”

To back up this claim, the lawsuit cites examples as far back as 2017 of Portland police officers appearing to coddle far-right, pro-police demonstrators while using aggressive crowd control tactics against counter demonstrators. The complaint also cites the bureau’s 2020 protest after action review and the U.S. Department of Justice’s assessment that the bureau failed to adequately review use of force and enforce the bureau’s existing policies.

Juan Chavez, an attorney at the Oregon Justice Resource Center who is representing both Vontillius and Bassi, said in the Vontillius lawsuit, the city was “deliberately indifferent” to Kammerer’s actions.

“Did they have notice and did they still do the reckless thing?” Chavez asked in an interview with OPB. “What all these facts show is that they did have notice on oh so many fronts for years. And when it all came to the fore with Vontillius, that could have been avoided a long time ago.”

With the two year statute of limitations for some complaints approaching, Chavez said to expect more lawsuits in the near future.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.