|Marva Davis speaks to protestors earlier this year at the Justice Centre Downtown|
This week, attorneys representing the family of the late Aaron Campbell filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland and four officers involved in his shooting death in January. The family is seeking compensation for "unreasonable force" violations under the Fourth Amendment and wrongful death under state law.
The lawsuit names officers Ronald Frashour, who fired the fatal shot into Campbell's back, and Ryan Lewton, who fired six beanbag rounds into Campbell's back. The lawsuit also names the two supervising sergeants on the scene, Liani Reyna and John Birkinbine.
One prominent Portland civil rights attorney told The Skanner News that the lawsuit will face several difficult hurdles to win.
On the day Campbell was killed, he had been distraught over the death that morning of his brother. Police were called to conduct a welfare check after family members were concerned that Campbell was suicidal. After police established a perimeter around Campbell's apartment, he voluntarily exited the apartment unarmed, walking backwards with his hands on his head, per instructions given to him by a negotiator on scene.
Police say he was not complying fully with their demands, which were being yelled at him from multiple officers, at which time Lewton fired six beanbags into Campbell's back and a dog was released. Campbell ran away from the officers, and Frashour then fired the fatal shot from his AR-15 assault rifle. Paramedics were not allowed to approach Campbell for nearly 30 minutes after he had been shot.
The lawsuit states that the officers did not have sufficient cause or justification to use the force they did, and the suit claims that the supervisors on scene should have activated the Special Emergency Reaction Team or the Hostage Negotiation Team. Punitive damages are being sought from each individual officer.
Both Marva Davis, Campbell's mother, and Tom Steenson, the family attorney, declined to comment. Steenson did say it would be up to the jury to decide the monetary award.
Civil rights attorney Michelle Burrows says the lawyers for the Campbell family face numerous challenges in a case that involves police misconduct.
Burrows says that most people look up to police officers as protectors of society and want to believe that issues of excessive force are simply relegated to a few bad apples.
"People don't want to believe cops can kill someone on purpose," she said. "But unlike anything else in the law, this is where cops can get away with murder."
Because police shootings are investigated by other police, Burrows says there is a tendency to give the officer the benefit of the doubt.
"Cops stick together," she said.
So when attorneys bring complex civil rights cases like Campbell's to trial, they must often complete their own independent investigations, interviews, and recreations of events. Like personal injury lawyers, civil rights lawyers most often don't get paid unless the case wins or settles – creating hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment of time and other resources.
Burrows, along with attorney Gerry Spence, handled the case of Fouad Kaady, a 27-year-old who was shot to death by Sandy Police Officer William Bergin and Clackamas County Deputy David Willard in 2005. Although both officers were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, Clackamas County settled the case for $2 million in March. Compared to what she invested in the case, Burrows says she barely broke even.
"Two million wasn't enough for that case," she said.
But the urge to settle is often overwhelming for both lawyers and family members. A trial means uncertainty, more expense and more stress on a grieving family. After nearly five years of motions and appeals, settlements are often the only way to reach a good conclusion.
In addition, the government will almost always file a motion for summary judgment that the police acted justifiably. It triggers an automatic appeal and can extend the case for years.
But unlike a criminal case, where police investigate police, a prosecutor, who usually works with the police, brings his case to a secret grand jury hearing – civil suits are "wide open." But they're also "wicked things" that are very complicated, requiring plaintiffs to be tactically "on top" of everything, according to Burrows.
Steenson told The Skanner News he didn't expect the case to go to trial for at least a year.