A Portland cop who chased down and beat a protest medic, in one of the most harrowing incidents of police violence from the city’s Black Lives Matter protests last year, will not face criminal charges. The decision — announced in a news dump last Friday, prior to the three-day Labor Day weekend — has sparked outrage. Portland is a city where police brutality is rarely punished, even after months of demonstrations demanding accountability and the election of a district attorney who campaigned as a criminal-justice reformer. “In the wake of these momentous protests, to see that officer misconduct is still allowable, still justifiable? It’s outrageous to us,” says Zakir Khan, a prominent local civil rights advocate. “And it’s also exhausting to us, because there’s so much of this fight left to fight.”
The incident in question took place after 11 p.m. on August 31st, 2020. Police-accountability protesters had gathered in the street outside the condo of police commissioner Ted Wheeler, who is also the mayor, to voice discontent with Wheeler’s oversight of the notoriously brutal Portland Police Bureau. A few agitators provoked officers by hurling objects and by lighting fires in the street. The police responded by declaring the scene a riot.
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Tyler Cox — an ICU nurse at Oregon Health and Science University — was in attendance as a protest medic. Such individuals volunteer to treat injured demonstrators, for example washing out the eyes of people exposed to tear gas. Protest medics reside in a legal gray area; while not active protest participants, they’re not granted protection from police reprisal like journalists or legal observers. Cox was dressed in black, with red duct-tape crosses to identify him as a medic. For protection, he wore a bike helmet.
As captured on a viral video filmed by a local journalist, Officer Thomas Clark charged ahead of fellow police who were moving their line forward in unison to clear the street. In that moment, the crowd members were complying with demands to leave the scene. But Clark sought to arrest protesters for having earlier disobeyed orders to disperse, according to the police bureau.
A police officer runs ahead of his line, tackles a protester, and starts punching them on the ground pic.twitter.com/gpwmMjwuWC
— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) September 1, 2020
In the video, Clark sprints to overtake straggling demonstrators. He seems at first to target an individual with a skateboard, but suddenly cuts right, choosing Cox instead, seemingly at random. Without warning, Clark grabs the nurse by his shoulder, spins him around and slams him onto the curb. In the chaotic moments that follow, the officer’s riot helmet gets knocked to the ground. The officer responds by pummeling Cox’s head repeatedly with his fist while pinning the nurse to the ground, like something out of a cage match. (Clark is trained in mixed martial arts, as he testified in 2015.)
Cox, the nurse, was arrested, brought to his employer’s emergency room for medical evaluation, and then jailed for 11 hours. Cox was initially charged with felony assault on an officer, and three misdemeanors: resisting arrest, interfering with a peace officer, and disorderly conduct. All charges were dropped by that November.
In July of this year, Cox sued the city in federal court, alleging Clark had violated his constitutional rights and describing himself as “the victim of an egregious abuse of power.” As claimed in that lawsuit, the violent encounter left Cox with “serious, permanent and disabling injuries” including “a traumatic brain injury and post-concussive syndrome”; other harms included a bruised scalp, a sprained left elbow as well as shoulder, neck, and back trauma.
The Portland Police Bureau has been under Department of Justice supervision for years for a pattern of excessive force. The bureau recorded more than 6,000 uses of force during the BLM protests of 2020, and in May, DOJ rebuked the bureau for its “abnormally high” reliance on violence, as well as for resorting to force without offering individual warnings or attempts at de-escalation. DOJ lawyers insisted that both “PPB policy and the Constitution require adequate justification and feasible warnings for each use of force.”
Advocates seeking criminal accountability for PPB abuses had pinned their hopes on new District Attorney Mike Schmidt, who won office promising sweeping criminal justice reform, vowing he would “always stand up for victims.” But in this case, the DA’s office sided firmly with Officer Clark, and his claim that he — not Cox — was the assault victim in this case.
The DA’s office justified its decision in a four-page memo written by a deputy DA. The document concedes that the video of Clark hitting Cox is “disturbing” and had “understandably” sparked public debate over the bureau’s use of force. Nevertheless, it concludes that Clark’s use of force against Cox “was justified and his actions cannot be charged as a crime.”
The memo begins with a narrow reading of Oregon statute, which grants officers discretion to use force, both in making arrests and in their own defense. The memo emphasizes that use-of-force decisions are subjective, made by officers in the heat of the moment, and that the officer’s state of mind is key. “The question at issue in this case,” the memo states, is “whether Officer Clark’s belief that Mr. Cox posed a threat was objectively reasonable.”
As the memo continues, its analysis becomes starkly one-sided, backing the officer’s account of events in ways that are difficult to square with video of the encounter. “Mr. Cox asserts that Officer Clark picked him up and body slammed him intentionally onto the curb,” it reads. Despite the video appearing to match that description, the memo insists: “The video does not support this assertion.” The memo adds: “There is no evidence to suggest Officer Clark acted intentionally to harm Mr. Cox, or that Mr. Cox was intentionally thrown down onto a curb.” It concludes that the “use of force on Mr. Cox was reasonable to stop Mr. Cox and take him into custody.”
Khan, the civil rights advocate, calls the DA memo deficient for failing to consider Clark’s throwing of Cox against the curb as a potentially deadly use of force, the use of which is highly constrained by state law. “That deadly force analysis is nowhere in that memo,” he says.
Cox, in his federal lawsuit against the city, describes the terrifying moments on the ground as officer Clark pinned him to the pavement: “At this moment, Mr. Cox believed he was going to die,” the suit contends, explaining in turn how Clark’s riot helmet became dislodged. “Plaintiff extended both of his arms, with his palms out, to protect his head from this vicious attack. In doing so, he brushed Defendant Clark’s face shield, which caused the officer’s helmet to come off as it was not strapped to his chin.”
The DA memo, by contrast, characterizes Cox — whom the video shows curled up in a ball — as a combatant: “On the ground, Mr. Cox continued to resist Officer Clark,” it reads. “Mr. Cox kneed Officer Clark, and pushed his hands up into Officer Clark’s face. This action knocked Officer Clark’s helmet off of his head.” The DA memo concludes that it was “objectively reasonable” for officer Clark to then believe that he was on the receiving end of an assault by Cox, and to respond with repeated blows to Cox’s head. The memo appears to praise the officer for his restraint. “Once Mr. Cox stopped resisting,” it reads, “officer Clark stopped hitting him.” (The Portland Police Bureau did not make Clark available for an interview, but said the incident could be subject to an internal police investigation.)
DA Schmidt took office in August 2020, after campaigning on a platform of “major” criminal justice reform. But the DA’s appetite for confronting the entrenched power of the Portland Police Bureau has been limited. This phenomenon is hardly unique to Portland. Nationally, the momentum behind thoroughgoing police reform, which seemed unstoppable in the initial weeks after George Floyd’s murder, has fizzled. This includes Minneapolis where promises to “dismantle” the police department devolved into modest funding cuts.
In Portland, despite more than 100 formal citizen complaints about protest policing from 2020, Schmitdt’s office has brought charges against just a single active PPB officer, Corey Budworth, who was charged with fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in June for striking a sitting protester on the back of the head with his baton.
Juan Chavez is a civil rights litigator who represents the alleged victim in that case, and sees Officer Clark’s actions as equally outrageous. “For this officer to tackle this person to the ground, bang them against the sidewalk, punch them repeatedly — it’s ghoulish,“ he says. “For the life of me, I can’t see why our case was presented to a grand jury, but the Cox case wasn’t.”
Politics may play a role, critics contend. The indictment of Budworth sparked a furious reaction by police: The entire Rapid Response Team on which Budworth served resigned from their assignments on that squad (but not from the police bureau itself) effectively shutting down Portland’s riot squad.
The decision not to indict Clark was one of a dozen similar decisions not to charge alleged police misconduct announced by the DA’s office on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. The other no-charge decisions were explained in a single, far less detailed memo. Schmidt did not respond to an interview request. But in an interview with local public radio he said that “the law is on a police officer’s side. In doing their job, they can use force.”
Cox’s attorney, Joe Pucci, blasted the DA’s office in an interview with Rolling Stone, claiming it “chose to bend over backwards to avoid charging this obviously criminal conduct.” He calls the decision “extremely disappointing” but “not at all surprising” because the “district attorney’s office is an institution that has a muscle memory of defending police violence, and having a progressive elected DA for one year is not enough to change that muscle memory.”
Khan says the decision not to charge officer Clark “speaks to a lack of equal justice and equal protection under the law.” Khan remains in disbelief that after 6,000 uses of force by PPB against demonstrators denouncing police violence, only one officer is facing criminal consequences. “The system,” he says, “has largely defended itself.”
Even worse, Chavez says, the DA’s decision to “give a pass” to Clark’s beating of Cox will likely embolden future violence by Portland cops. “They’ll go back, look at this footage and say, ‘Yep, That’s OK.’ And they’ll train to that standard,” Chavez warns. “This is a green light.”
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