Janelle Bynum: 'I was disgusted then, and I remain disgusted'
State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, said she is disturbed by the lack of concern coming out of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office following the filing of a lawsuit on behalf of Ka'Mar Benbo.
The lawsuit filed last week alleges Benbo — a Black 12-year-old resident of Southeast Portland — was treated brutally and had his neck kneeled on by a sheriff's deputy while being detained during a call about teenage girls fighting at the Clackamas Town Center mall on Aug. 5, 2019. According to the lawsuit, Benbo was at the mall with a female friend when deputies responded. As he exited, Benbo was grabbed, thrown to the ground and pinned down by the neck. The allegations and lawsuit were first reported by The Oregonian.
Shortly following the incident, Rep. Bynum and Kim Ybarra, an attorney and policy adviser for the sheriff's office, co-hosted a conversation on Oct. 8 between local mothers and representatives of the sheriff's office, including Chief Deputy Jenna Morrison. The purpose, Bynum said, was to create an inroad to the sheriff's office and advocate for change within the department.
"What I was trying to do was help the office see that the optics were really bad," Bynum told Pamplin Media Group. "I was very concerned that he (Sheriff Craig Roberts) didn't get it."
Bynum said she was further distressed by Robert's response when she personally inquired about the situation. According to Bynum, Roberts told her that deputies had just returned from new "tactical training."
"So your guys tested out some new moves on a 12-year-old kid?" Bynum asked. "I was disgusted then, and I remain disgusted."
Bynum said it was clear from her conversation with Roberts that he did not share her outrage over how Benbo was treated. She has remained in limited contact with the family for fear of triggering negative memories.
"My goal was to advocate for changes within the sheriff's office, and if she (Benbo's mother, Jarena McDavid) chose to sue, I didn't want to adversely affect anything she sought remedied," Bynum said.
According to Bynum, she tried to explain to Roberts that children can't be expected to process adult situations in the same way, nor should a 12-year-old be treated the same as an adult suspect.
In a statement Roberts issued Thursday, June 18, he gave his office's account of the events that took place around Benbo's detainment and said deputies were cleared following an internal investigation.
"(The) Performance Standards Unit did not find that any deputy placed a knee on the juvenile's neck. We do not train deputies to restrict a person's airway or impede their ability to breathe," Roberts said. "It was determined the involved deputies followed training and policy."
Jason Kafoury, one of Benbo's attorneys, said that he disagrees with the sheriff's office's entire account.
Roberts did not run for reelection and his term is set to expire at the end of this year.
"For them to put out a statement as to what happened without releasing any of their documents at the time is ridiculous," Kafoury said. "For them to deny there was a knee on the neck that photo shows they really have no appreciation for how out of line the officers were with a 12-year-old."
Bynum said that for the sheriff's office to not take these allegations seriously in light of worldwide protests over police violence sparked by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — two Black Americans who died at the hands of police in recent weeks — is a signal that the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office needs a culture shift. She's also suggesting that agencies like the sheriff's office need to begin creating touch points within their Black communities in order to build connections that have long been disregarded.
"I suggested they do safety clinics with teens where they teach them how to change a tire or anything to grow the relationship," she said. "They were not doing anything and remain to this day committed to doing nothing. That's what I've been trying to get at: a culture shift about not treating your citizens and your children as if they're enemies of the state."
Bynum along with her fellow People-of-Color Caucus within the Oregon Legislature are proposing major law enforcement reform measures this week ahead of a special legislative session that begins this Wednesday, June 24. Bynum said she and her colleagues are ready to get to work changing how law enforcement interacts with their communities and holding bad behavior accountable.
"You recognize the importance of these moments in time, and you don't want to squander them," she said.
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