It was a rare victory for African American males in Multnomah County: a jury Sept. 28 awarded three men a $175,000 verdict amid charges that Portland Police officers had beaten, humiliated and wrongfully arrested them.
Attacked by the police at in a downtown parking garage in the early morning hours after St. Patrick's Day, Harold Hammick, Ri'Chard Booth and Alex Clay's father-son legal team of Greg and Jason Kafoury convinced the jury that police were lying about the events, and that they had intimidated several potential witnesses into leaving the scene during the violent confrontation.
Two witnesses, however, did not leave – White college students in a nearby car, who concealed their presence so they could watch the incident.
The Kafourys spoke with The Skanner News about the successful outcome of the case – which may still be appealed by the City of Portland – and offered helpful advice to others who may find themselves confronted by law enforcement.
The Skanner News: At The Skanner we hear many similar stories from people who feel that they've been wrongfully arrested or even intimidated and arrested and let go. But it's not that common for anyone to win a verdict. What made this case different than many others?
Greg Kafoury: Two things. These three Black men were harassed in a nearly empty parking garage at 2:45 in the morning. They were rousted, guns pointed at them handcuffed, one of them was struck in the groin twice, they were humiliated and ignored – roughed up basically. And then finally let go without so much as an explanation.
What made the case different is that we had two white college kids who were 50 feet away in a parked car who saw what was going on, and they kind of concealed themselves and watched surreptitiously what was going on, police didn't see them until the incident was almost over.
So the police thought there weren't any witnesses. When people would come by, and when they three guys pleaded with them, please stay, we're terrified, we need witnesses, we don't know what's going to happen if no one's here to watch, begged people to stay and the police ordered people to leave and people left, they turned on their heels and left.
So the fact that when it was all said and done we had two witnesses made this into a case. In addition, one of our clients was able to get a security tape from a pizza place several blocks away that showed he had been far away from the scene when the officers said he was menacing and threatening and trying to pick fights with people. And that further undermined the officer's story.
The third thing that happened was the police made up a story that one of the guys had been waving a gun down on the street; they got another officer to write a report saying he'd seen this guy down on the street waving a gun around. We had that officer draw a diagram of where he was and where the person he said he saw was and he said he could read the person's lips saying the words "gat" and "my piece." We took pictures of our client at the distance the officer said he was, and you could barely tell a dog from a cat at that distance, so the jury properly concluded that it was a fabricated story.
S How many cases like this do you get a year?
Jason Kafoury: How many do you get calls about and how many you take are two different questions.
GK: We probably get one call a week from someone saying they were falsely arrested. Probably two thirds of those are from people in stores
JK: Accused of shoplifting.
G They call me when they didn't do anything and there's no evidence that they did. They're detained, humiliated and sometimes roughed-up. We do a lot of those cases. We do -- probably a majority of those cases that are done in Oregon are filed in this office. Police cases? Jeez I don't know, we might file one or two a year.
JK: How many to you get coming through the door?
GK: Well people who call us and tell us what happened to them? I'm sure we get 20 a year, maybe more.
S: What are you looking for when you decide who you can represent?
GK: It is enormously helpful if the person who is being harassed doesn't have a criminal record. It is almost essential that there be independent witnesses.
JK: He-said-she-said cases against the cops are very hard to win.
GK: People want to believe the police so they start out at a tremendous advantage. If the police are out bullying people and then lying and filing false reports to cover it up, that's a very scary notion. If that's the way the world is, then we live in a very scary world. People don't want to come to that conclusion -- juries don't want to.
And in the African American community, the fact that that happens is as common as breathing in and breathing out. But when you get the mom on the jury who went to Oregon State and was in a sorority and lives in the Southwest Hills, you want to tell her your story, you're starting out way behind the curve.
S: And when you say independent witnesses, define that – does that mean somebody that you're not related to, or someone that you don't know, or?
GK: It sure helps. The ideal independent witness is what he had here; a young White college couple from the suburbs who have excellent academic records
JK: And don't have any bone in the fight.
GK: It's not their fight. If someone is African American and there are witnesses are African American and they're friends of theirs, everything that draws them closer …
JK: The least biased is best.
GK: Not the least biased, but with the least reason to be on the side of the person who's got a complaint with the cops. So the more independent the better.
S: Let's just change the focus a little bit. Say someone is looking at a police officer in a situation similar to many that we get calls about at The Skanner, like one I heard about a few weeks ago, a police officer allegedly stops two young African American men walking down the street, demands that they drop on the ground, doesn't explain anything, pulls out a gun. Then, the officers got a call, jumped back in their cruiser and sped away, leaving the young men face down on the ground. What should someone do in that situation?
GK: If you're one of the guys on the ground? Do as you're told. Keep your mouth shut. Make a note of the officer's badge number. Then call a lawyer when it's done, and if there's any witnesses to be had, get them while you can.
And if you witness something like that that looks unjust, don't let anybody chase you off. Now, this can be risky; often the police will react very harshly to people who want to stand around and watch, because they view it as a challenge to their authority, and there's a lot of very strong authoritarian personalities in any police department.
So you want to keep a safe distance so they can't suggest that you're interfering. If you're close and they tell you to step back and you don't, they'll arrest you. Or worse. So you want to retreat to a safe distance where no one can accuse you of intervening, and you want to keep your mouth shut – but watch what happens. Stay and bear witness, and stick around when it's over to make sure that the person you're sure was mistreated has your information.