St. Johns woman tells jury that police acted like 'Nazis'
by Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian
Thursday March 19, 2009, 9:51 AM
Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian
Freedom Child, 57, outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland where she is suing two police officers for violating her civil rights.
Week after week, Freedom Child tried to relay her complaints about two Portland police officers to the city. She told her story in three-minute increments over 12 City Council meetings, addressing Mayor Vera Katz, then Tom Potter in the brief time allowed for public comments.
So this week, when Child took the witness stand and spent more than an hour recounting what she says happened to her Aug. 6, 2003, to an attentive federal jury -- many jotting notes -- she said she felt a "kind of relief inside me."
Child, 57, a gray-haired woman wearing wire-rimmed reading glasses, swiveled in her chair to talk directly to jurors. She explained why she was suing the officers: "They have never been held accountable in any way."
Child's testimony came during a three-day trial in which she accused two Portland officers of violating her civil rights.
She testified that they acted like "Nazis" who frightened her by rolling up to her at night in an unmarked, dark brown car, asked questions without identifying themselves and then "violently ripped" her out of her house by her hair to take her to jail. She was charged with riding a bike at night without lights and interfering with an officer. She was found guilty of the bike offense but acquitted of interfering in state court.
The city disputed her account. Deputy City Attorney James Rice characterized Child as someone who refused to take responsibility for her bike light violation, was out to sue the police from the get-go and was an unreliable witness because she was hysterical at the scene. "They seized her because she ran; that's their job," Rice said of the officers.
The eight jurors began deliberating late Wednesday afternoon and will continue this morning.
Child's lawyer, Steven Sherlag, said the encounter could have been resolved had Officers Jason Harris and Jeffrey Dorn simply reassured Child with an "It's OK, ma'am. We're the police," and cited her for the bike violation. But he added, "They were not acting like police at all."
Sherlag pointed out inaccuracies and omissions in the officers' police reports. Neither wrote that they were riding in an unmarked car, and each said they put the "overhead" emergency lights on to stop Child. There were no overhead lights on the unmarked car. Child, her roommate and two neighbors also testified they never saw any flashing lights. Dorn testified that he tugged Child's hair to take her into custody but didn't include that in his report.
"It really is a simple case, or it should have been. It became complicated when they treated Ms. Child like a criminal when they had no evidence," Sherlag said. "We all make mistakes, but we fix them and undo those harms. Instead, they've done everything they can to cover it up."
During the trial, Child said she had lights on her bike but forgot to turn them on. After volunteering at the Community Cycling Center, she rode the bus home most of the way, getting off with her bike three blocks from her St. Johns house. Child said she couldn't tell who was in the dark car that rolled up to her about 9:30 p.m. By then, she was walking on the sidewalk with her bike. "The man at the wheel looks at me and says 'Hey, where you going?' " Child testified. "It was freaky, kind of creepy. I thought there's a man following me. I just kept walking."
She said she ignored the driver and kept walking. The driver asked, "Do you live here?" She said when she was at her front yard, she turned and said, "Yeah I live here. Who are you and what do you want?" She said they shined a light on her and her house. When she saw the car doors open, she ran to her front door.
Both officers testified they were concerned about car prowlers in the area. Although they acknowledged they did not identify themselves as police at first, Harris said he quickly did after she asked who they were. The officers were in uniform.
They said Child told them she didn't like the police and ran to her porch. Harris testified that he yelled at Child to stop, that she was under arrest. He said he ran after her and grabbed one of her arms. Dorn said he tried grabbing Child's other arm as she clung to the doorjamb but then did a "very quick tug" on her hair to overcome her resistance without harming her. In his police report, Dorn checked a box indicating that Child did not resist arrest.
Neighbor Audrey Christina said she heard a "scream of terror," and called9-1-1, saying a woman was in trouble. A dispatcher told her, "It's being taken care of."
While cuffed in the back of the unmarked car, Child testified that one of the officers ridiculed her name. On the way to jail, she said she complained about the vulgar music blaring from the police radio. The officers said that didn't occur.
Sherlag argued that officers should have cited and released Child because they had "reasonably established" her identity by her valid driver's license. Harris, though, said it's his policy to book suspects who don't have photos in the police database in order to get their mug shots and fingerprints taken.
Harris and Dorn both testified they never received any suggestions from supervisors on how they might have handled the encounter differently. The two officers said they would approach the situation the same today as they did five years ago.