Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Officer George Fort: The career of Portland police officer George Fort illustrates almost every aspect of poor police management.4 He was hired in 1981 in Multnomah County and transferred into the Portland Police Bureau, even though his job application showed a history of the use of excessive force and disrespect for authority in previous law enforcement jobs. The city paid large civil settlements because of his behavior, he had a large number of complaints, other officers believed he had problems with racial minorities, and he earned a reputation among fellow officers as overly aggressive. Still, he remained on the force for years before retiring in 1996.
According to personnel records made part of a civil lawsuit filed against Fort, his application for employment with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Department listed his reason for leaving the U.S. Marshal's Service after five months: "I didn't go along with the marshal's favoritism and the job itself was...Boring!"5 He said he could not remember his immediate supervisor's name. He did acknowledge that in 1971 he was asked to resign from the Bryan (Texas) Police Department, stating, "Police chief considered my use of force in an arrest excessive and asked me to resign; I was later exonerated and found out that I was used as a scapegoat to appease the `Raza Unida' Party's charges against the BPD."6
In 1982, a woman sued Fort for using excessive force after a November 1981 incident in Multnomah County when Fort pulled her vehicle over. She asked not to be put in his squad car in front of her neighbors, and he allegedly twisted her arm behind her back, pushed her to the pavement, shoved her face into the ground, and yanked her to her feet using her handcuffed wrists.7 She was charged with resisting arrest - charges that were later dismissed - and the civil jury found that Fort had falsely arrested the woman.8 She received a $36,892 award from MultnomahCounty. Fort, along with many others, was then transferred to the Portland Police Bureau, without review, after the city annexed a portion of Multnomah County.
Once with the Portland police, Fort was reportedly the subject of twelve citizen complaints, most of them involving allegations of excessive force; the department did not investigate some of the complaints, but three complaints alleging rude behavior were sustained (one of which was filed by fellow officers and paramedics).9 In January 1993, Fort and his trainee stopped Mary Verghies's vehicle and she alleged abusive treatment by the officers in a civil lawsuit.10 According to Verghies's court documents, Fort had attacked detainees in a consistent way since at least 1988, twisting and at times breaking arms, dragging detainees on the ground, or using abusive language in five different incidents.11
Still, the public information officer at the time, C.W. Jensen - who later became the head of the internal affairs unit - noted that Fort had received twenty commendations during his career with the bureau.12 A sergeant who worked with Fort had a different opinion. He stated that, "[H]is [Fort's] own peers have complained about him....about the way he deals with the public."13 The same sergeant stated that another sergeant asked that Fort not be transferred to a traffic unit, because his officers told the sergeant that "there's a real problem with George that way," apparently meaning that he frequently became violent during traffic stops and that "he knows how to work a supervisor....[H]e's extremely con-wise in that nature. He'll agree to anything during counseling session and then go do any...do what he wants."14
Fort was sued repeatedly for alleged abuse.15 The city paid one plaintiff $500,000 in 1998 after Fort allegedly broke her arm in 1989; the civil jury found that he had falsely arrested the woman.16 Fort's behavior should have triggered a command review, and may have in 1990, but there is no record of what happened, if anything. Jensen commented, "We haven't been documenting the reviews as well as we could."17 During the deposition for one of his civil cases, Fort was asked if the police department had ever given him attention, training, or psychological assistance after complaints and he said they had not.18 Fort chose to retire in August 1996.19
Officer Douglas Erickson: On July 19, 1993, two officers shot twenty-seven times at Gerald Frank Gratton as he fled from a bus in North Portland; the bus driver had complained that Gratton and his brother were acting unruly.20 He was struck by the bullets in the back and the arm, and a bullet grazed his head; he survived. Gratton, an African-American, had a gun in his waistband, but did not pull the gun or use it during the incident.
The case demonstrated how difficult it can be to dismiss officers from the police force. Police Chief Charles Moose dismissed one of the officers, Douglas Erickson, who had reportedly fired twenty-three of the shots, after determining that he had broken department rules because Gratton was not endangering anyone when Erickson opened fire. It was reportedly the first time the department had disciplinedany officer for his or her role in a shooting.21 But in May 1995, Erickson was reinstated by an arbitrator, who found that Erickson was justified in using deadly force because the suspect had a gun and was acting in a threatening manner, even though Gratton was shot while running away and never shot the gun that was in his waistband.22 Erickson remains on the force.23 The major Portland daily newspaper wrote in an editorial: "The arbitrator's conclusion that faulty tactical judgment by a police officer does not justify his dismissal on grounds of unjustified use of deadly force demonstrates extraordinary legalistic tunnel vision. The ruling screams for reanalysis of the rules by which police performance is judged in this city."24
A grand jury reviewed the shooting and declined to indict Erickson on any criminal charges. The jurors did take the unusual step of asking the district attorney to write to the police chief, expressing the jurors' concern about Erickson's behavior which, they found, "was not consistent with the high standards we expect the Portland Police Bureau to maintain."25
Erickson had been the subject of citizen complaints before the shooting. On March 4, 1992, he allegedly broke Charles VanMeter's nose and cheekbone after kicking him twice in the face during an arrest. VanMeter filed a complaint with the bureau, and Erickson's commander (who was Charles Moose before he became chief) sustained the excessive force complaint; his finding was overturned by then-Chief Tom Potter.26
Fatal shootings of mentally ill women: In August 1994, two mentally ill women were shot and killed by Portland and suburban police officers in two incidents,because they allegedly posed a threat.27 One wielded a knife and the other pointed a fake handgun. Following the shootings, there was a debate over the absence of nonlethal, intermediate weapons to deal with deranged people. Mental health professionals are used to "talk down" mentally ill people in Portland, but they are not called until the situation stabilizes so they are not put in danger, which means that they can only be used when a crisis has subsided - in both cases in August 1994, officers claimed that there had been no time to call for mental health professional assistance.
Nathan Thomas shooting: On January 16, 1992, Nathan Thomas, age twelve, was taken hostage in his home.28 Officers fired when the intruder threatened to kill Thomas, killing them both. Thomas's parents chose not to sue the city, but instead to use their son's memory to push for police reforms. The City Council hired a consultant, Pierce Brooks, to look independently at the shooting. He recommended the creation of an inspector's office outside the police bureau's internal investigations office to analyze extraordinary incidents such as shootings. No such office was created.
4 Maureen O'Hagan, "Good cops, bad cop," Willamette Week, May 31 - June 6, 1995; civil complaint, Mary Verghies v. George Fort and City of Portland, Civil No. 93-1306-ST, filed October 19, 1993, U.S. District Court, District of Oregon.
10 Civil complaint, Mary Verghies v. George Fort and City of Portland. According to the city's Risk Management office, Verghies lost her civil case against Officer Fort in 1996. Telephone inquiry, April 27, 1998.
13 According to the affidavit of expert witness Donald Van Blaricom, witness for the plaintiff, attached to civil complaint, Mary Verghies v. George Fort and the City of Portland, quoting Sgt. Al Akers of the PPB.
19 According to the Portland Police Bureau's personnel office, Human Rights Watch telephone inquiry, December 8, 1997. According to an IAD representative, because Fort was originally hired by the county, his retirement was probably not affected by his record while on the Portland force, and presumably he enjoyed full benefits and pension. Telephone interview, Capt. Bill Bennington, IAD, January 23, 1998.
23 Telephone inquiry, PPB information office, April 22, 1998. According to Portland's Copwatch, a citizen police accountability advocacy group, Erickson's arbitration cost the police union approximately $100,000.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch