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Wrongful Death Suit Highlights 'Pattern' of Oregon Police Shooting Mentally Ill Homeless People

by Mark Wilson

 “Officer Samson Ajir violated police directives, and common sense, by engaging in a dangerous foot chase upon entry upon a scene where Mr. Johnson was in a mental health crisis. Officer Ajir needlessly shot Mr. Johnson three times,” according to a federal wrongful death suit Johnson’s mother filed against the City of Portland, Oregon. “Had Defendants not violated Mr. Johnson’s rights, he would be alive today.”

Terrell Johnson, 24, was a homeless man who had been suffering from a mental health crisis in 2017, the complaint alleges. He sought assistance but received none.

On May 10, 2017, police dispatchers alerted Portland Police Bureau (“PPB”) officers that Johnson had threatened riders on a MAX train platform. Officer Ajir responded to the call.

Johnson ran and Ajir gave chase, planning ‘‘to outrun Mr. Johnson to ‘tire him out,’” in violation of PPB Directive 630.15, the department’s foot chase policy.

Under that policy, officers are required to alert dispatch that a chase has ensued and state the person’s direction, description and whether he is armed. Foot chases of armed suspects are generally prohibited except in “extreme circumstances,” which were not present in the Johnson case. The policy requires officers to maintain a safe distance and avoid overtaking a fleeing suspect until they have sufficient backup to make an arrest.

“Defendant Ajir disregarded or inappropriately minimized each and every one of these directives, and chased after Mr. Johnson,” the complaint alleges. “Critically, Defendant Ajir did not radio” dispatch, “use cover or back up, maintain a safe distance, and attempted to overtake Mr. Johnson.”

Ajir was just a few feet behind Johnson as he jumped over the MAX train tracks and onto the center median, the complaint alleges. Johnson had either turned around or stopped running.

“Defendant Ajir drew his handgun and began to step backwards,” according to the suit. “Defendant Ajir tripped on a concrete curb,” firing “his pistol four times, striking Mr. Johnson three times.” The fatal shot struck Johnson in the back. Another entered his right buttock.

“Johnson fell to the ground at almost the exact moment as Defendant Ajir,” the complaint alleges. “In his grand jury testimony, Defendant Ajir stated that Mr. Johnson had waived a knife over his fallen body, but video evidence clearly refutes this.”

PPB Sergeant Derrick Foxworth testified before the grand jury that Ajir’s use of force was “in policy.” The grand jury ultimately cleared Ajir of any criminal wrongdoing. Training and commander review documents also found Ajir’s use of force justified. “These PPB commanders and trainers ignored the clear violations of PPB directives — particular in regards to foot pursuits of potentially armed suspects — in making these findings,” according to the complaint. Ajir was not disciplined and was later promoted to Sergeant.

“Defendant City of Portland has a history of failing to train and discipline officers who shoot and kill people,” the complaint alleges. “In 2012, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) published a letter concluding that the City of Portland Police ‘too frequently’ used a higher level of force than necessary on individuals suffering from actual or perceived mental illness.”

Notably, the DOJ “found that PPB engaged in a pattern and practice of unconstitutional excessive force against community members and identified deficiencies in the City’s use of force policies, practices, training, and officer accountability,” according to the complaint. “The United States sued the City of Portland, which resulted in a settlement agreement whose Court oversight continues to this day. Since entering into this settlement, thirteen people undergoing a mental health crisis have been killed by Portland Police officers.”

The suit also alleges that “PPB engages in a pattern and practice of over-policing houseless people.” By way of example, when Johnson was killed in 2017, “52% of arrests made in Portland were of people experiencing homelessness, despite representing approximately 3% of Portland’s population,” the complaint alleges. “Eighty-six percent (86%) of these arrests were for non-violent crimes.”

The City of Portland recently hired the California-based Office of Independent Review Group ("OIRG") to evaluate Portland police shootings. OIRG’s lead consultant Michael Gennaco announced the group’s findings during a February 9, 2019 public meeting at Portland City Hall.

Gennaco cited the Johnson shooting to highlight the Portland Police Review Board’s failure to hold officers accountable for violating policies that lead to shootings. OIRG found that Ajir’s decision to chase Johnson, get too close to him, and failure to communicate with dispatch and responding officers should have led to a finding that he violated the PPB foot-chase policy.

On May 10, 2019, attorneys Juan C. Chavez and Alex Meggritt of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, filed a wrongful death suit in federal court on behalf of Johnson’s mother, Alicia Johnson. The suit alleges that the City of Portland, Ajir, and five John Doe defendants violated Terrell Johnson’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force and Alicia Johnson’s constitutional right to familial association.

“Defendant City of Portland has demonstrated that they exercise a pattern and practice of failing to train officers to follow police directives and to not use excessive force in detaining persons undergoing recognizable mental health crises and persons experiencing homelessness, and maintain a pattern and a practice of failing to properly investigate, monitor, and discipline officers for these violations,” the complaint alleges. Plaintiff also asserts battery and wrongful death state tort claims. Plaintiff seeks economic and non-economic damages in an amount to be determined at trial and an award of attorney’s fees.

Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve declined to comment on the pending lawsuit that tracks the OIRG findings. We will report on any significant developments in the case. See: Johnson v. City of Portland, USDC No. __ (D. Or. 2019).

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