Lawsuit filed on behalf of protesters with disabilities
A sweeping new lawsuit filed against federal and local government and law enforcement agencies alleges police violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in their policing of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland this year.
The legal complaint, filed Sunday evening, Nov. 1, in District Court, names the Portland Police Bureau and its chief, Chuck Lovell, the city of Portland and Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County, Sheriff Mike Reese, Department of Homeland Security head Chad Wolfe, as well as Donald Washington, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, and another 100 unnamed officers, agents and government agencies.
The lawsuit claims police and their governing agencies have discriminated against protesters with disabilities by failing to communicate in ways accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and police agencies have failed to allow adequate time for dispersal. The complaint aims to "stop local, state and federal law enforcement from assaulting, brutalizing and failing to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities during assemblies and protests."
The civil rights complaint filed by Disability Rights Oregon also names four individual plaintiffs: Philip Wolfe, Melissa Lewis, Katalina Durden and Juniper Simonis. According to attorneys for the plaintiffs, protesters with disabilities are more heavily impacted by the repeated use of munitions and crowd control tactics like pepper spray, pepper balls, flash grenades and physical force from officers who've also pushed and used batons on those demonstrating in Portland since late May.
Videos from independent journalists have depicted officers shoving people who don't move fast enough during dispersal orders.
Plaintiffs say police fail to issue warnings that are accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing before using munitions and crowd control tactics. The complaint also zeroes in on police tactics like bull-rushing crowds, using strobe lights that can trigger epileptic seizures and indiscriminately using tear gas that can cause "lasting damage" to people with breathing issues or lung conditions.
"The burden of these tactics has fallen disproportionately on protesters and others with disabilities, who receive little or no notice or opportunity to comply before law enforcement uses overwhelming force. In fact, protesters are often brutalized even as they attempt to comply with police instructions while informing officers of their disabilities," the lawsuit states.
In particular, Philip Wolfe, who is deaf, was subjected to flash bang grenades by Portland Police on May 31 without any prior warning that was accessible to Wolfe. Flash bang grenades can have unique impacts to those who are deaf, causing additional hearing damage.
During a separate demonstration on June 19, Wolfe was hit in the back with a flashbang grenade shot by Portland Police officers, according to attorneys, when officers shouted commands at a crowed that Wolfe could not hear or understand.
The complaint claims local and federal police have targeted protesters with disabilities in retaliation for attending the demonstrations that have called for major police reform.
"They have told people with disabilities that they should not attend protests at all," the complaint alleges.
"Taking part in public demonstrations reflects a cherished American value. No one should be prevented from participating just because they have a disability," said Brendan Hamme, senior staff attorney with Disability Rights Legal Center. "People with disabilities should have equal access to the world and be able to participate fully in society like everyone else."
Portland Police received training on accommodations
This isn't the first time Wolfe has found himself pitted against the city's police bureau in court. In 2012, after reporting a domestic violence situation that police responded to without an interpreter, he was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the bureau over its failure to provide interpreters or other accommodations during calls for service. Following the lawsuit, Wolfe helped train the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, to no avail.
Attorneys in the latest lawsuit say the city of Portland has yet to implement standards for more effective communication two years after drafting them.
Portland Police Bureau could not comment on the pending litigation. Department of Homeland Security officials said in previous months that they generally do not comment for news stories.
"As a person with a disability, I rely on my service animal to navigate the world, including participating in protests, and I have a right to that accommodation. When law enforcement denies my right to protest, they silence my voice. No one should be silenced because they have a disability," said Juniper Simonis, one of the plaintiffs in the suit who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and uses a service dog. "It's important to me to stand shoulder to shoulder with my community in public demonstrations for Black lives and against police violence. Mass movements for social justice are indispensable in the fight for equality."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.