Tales of the Tape

Protesters use videocameras to track overly aggressive cops.

Last Thursday afternoon, Alan Graf provided a video screening of sorts for a handful of reporters. The Portland lawyer/activist didn't offer popcorn, but he did serve up a helping of vivid images of questionable police conduct during an anti-war march on the afternoon of March 25.

The first and most disturbing clip (above) shows police pepper-spraying people who are protesting legally, and seemingly peacefully, on the sidewalk at Southwest 2nd Avenue and Washington Street. A young, red-headed woman crouches with her arms around a signpost, looking terrified. Two policemen, Sgt. Mark Kruger and Officer Joe Hanousek, point their spray cans at her from several different angles. The woman, shrieking while turning away, gets hit with a point-blank pepper blast.

STOP, OR WE'LL SHOOT! On Tuesday, March 25, a cam-toting activist captured Portland Police Officer Joe Hanousek and Sgt. Mark Kruger dousing a woman with pepper spray.

In the next selection, officers subdue a stocky young man near the corner of Southwest Main Street and Broadway. As the protester lies face down in the street, an officer uses his left knee to kneel directly on the man's head, visibly shifting his full weight onto it.

A third tape was shot from behind a young man standing on the sidewalk, holding a protest sign and not breaking any laws. An officer demands his name. When the man refuses, two cops jerk him into the street, throw him to the ground and arrest him.

The images serve a couple of purposes. Most immediately, they lend credence to Graf's view that police are suddenly taking a much harder line against protesters, following the March 20 clash on the Steel Bridge in which a splinter group of masked protesters charged police lines (see "All Bets Are Off," WW, March 26, 2003).

But the videotape could also have much larger implications if, as expected, it winds up as evidence in a lawsuit.

Graf says video cameras are a powerful tool to document actions which might otherwise be disputed. In fact, similar footage is the cornerstone of a pending civil lawsuit he and other lawyers filed against the City of Portland relating to an Aug. 22, 2002, protest.

"I don't know if we would have even filed [the lawsuit] without the videos," says Graf. "Video makes a huge difference in cop cases--it could make or break it."

The August demonstration was in response to a visit by President George W. Bush at a fundraiser for Republican Sen. Gordon Smith at the downtown Hilton.

Lawyer Aaron Varhola painstakingly analyzed hours of footage to pinpoint several specific events that he and Graf say prove their case.

The first involves an individual officer, Sgt. Larry Baird. At about 3:30 pm, before any order has been given to disperse the crowd, he is caught on tape pepper-spraying protesters who seem to be demonstrating peacefully on Southwest Taylor Street between 5th and 6th avenues.

A second incident takes place about an hour later when, to allow guests to enter the Hilton, police order the crowd to move back--an order few hear. A police video captures Lt. Martin Rowley ordering officers to disperse the crowd using a tactic of "spray and push, spray and push."

This order represents a break from the bureau's previous policy on pepper spray, which cops call "less-lethal force." The follow-up report for May Day 2000, one of the more violent clashes between police and protesters, stated that "less-lethal force is not used to disperse crowds."

In a third incident captured on video, a unit headed by Sgt. Todd Wyatt corners a knot of marchers near Southwest 2nd Avenue and Alder Street, spraying them, including a 10-month-old child, for no apparent reason.

Protesters filed numerous complaints, but the bureau concluded that no discipline was called for. "We review our tapes, the media's tapes, and any videotape that is sent to us," declares spokesman Sgt. Brain Schmautz. "At this point we have no information that any officers acted inappropriately in any way at the Bush protests."

Regardless, the videos clearly swayed Mayor Vera Katz. She watched hours of footage, as she often does following protests, and afterward ordered Kroeker to implement a beefed-up sound system at such protests and to organize so that peaceful crowds aren't dispersed in mid-rally.

Because of the pending lawsuit, which is currently in the discovery stage, Katz declined to comment directly about the effect of the Aug. 22 videotape. But she did say she considers videotape "a learning tool."

Of course, such tapes can work both ways.

Television cameras caught the March 20 Steel Bridge clash, in which the police appeared to be the victims of aggression. David Lesh, a former city attorney who represented the Police Bureau, says the event could influence the Bush protest lawsuit by affecting the jury pool's view of protesters. Lesh, now a consultant to police agencies, says, "Any argument that protesters are peaceful and law-abiding, as a whole, was thrown out."

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