Janelle Bynum: 'We can do better' on police accountability
Oregon Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, in response to the recent settlement of a lawsuit claiming that a Clackamas County sheriff's deputy knelt on a 12-year-old boy's neck, highlighted the importance of holding community leaders including law enforcement accountable for modeling behavior that instills trust in our youth.
Clackamas County on Dec. 13 paid $45,000 to settle the suit claiming that Ka'Mar Benbo, who is Black, sustained multiple physical injuries and trauma-related ailments directly resulting from the August 2019 incident.
"While I'm grateful that a settlement was reached in the Ka'Mar Benbo case, I know that our community needs to continue to pursue the conversation on how we treat children when they come into contact with authorities," said Bynum, who championed a series of statewide police accountability bills in 2021 and co-hosted a community conversation shortly after the 2019 incident between local mothers and representatives of the sheriff's office.
"As their parents and trusted community members, we must model behavior that encourages children to develop a healthy respect for authority," she added. "This respect is what keeps us all safe. This scenario, unfortunately, fails that standard, and the settlement acknowledges that we can do better."
Filed in June 2020, the lawsuit alleged Benbo was at the Clackamas Town Center mall with other children when deputies arrived in response to a call about a fight among teenagers in the area. The suit claimed that Benbo was elbowed and forced to the ground by multiple deputies before one pinned him down by the neck, making it difficult for him to breathe.
The suit further claimed that Benbo's face and upper body were injured after the arrest, and he experienced lasting stress-related conditions and racial trauma that impacted his health as well as his trust in law enforcement.
Benbo's mother, Jarena McDavid, did not immediately respond to Pamplin Media Group's request for comment on the settlement. First reported by The Oregonian, in December she told the newspaper that she believes the arrest was a result of racial profiling.
"Most certainly, he was racially profiled," McDavid told The Oregonian. "He was the only Black male with young girls 12 and 13. He had a hoodie on."
Following the settlement in December, Sheriff Angela Brandenburg released a written statement maintaining that the officers' actions were in alignment with official CCSO use of force policies and that "no deputy placed a knee on Ka'Mar Benbo's neck."
"While I accept this agreement is in the best interest of all parties, my office stands by the actions of the deputies who followed training and policy," Brandenburg said. "We do not train deputies to restrict a person's airway or impede their ability to breathe. I will continue to ensure that my deputies are properly trained and that all uses of force are reviewed to ensure they are within policy."
Bynum said that despite CCSO officials' reasoning, she doesn't accept that the level of force used by deputies was necessary.
"Despite the varied explanations and supposed legality of the actions, I refuse to accept that it was necessary to brutalize this baby in the name of the law," Bynum said. "Our children are not disposable, nor are they punching bags for grown adults."
In response to Pamplin Media Group's request for comment about Bynum's statements, a CCSO spokesperson referred back to the official statement made by Brandenburg, as well as earlier comments from former Sheriff Craig Roberts regarding the office's account of the arrest.
Roberts in June 2020 provided 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."
Clackamas County Commissioner Sonya Fischer said following the settlement that improving police accountability is a necessary step in strengthening trust between the public and law enforcement, adding that she hopes the settlement can be "a step forward in Ka'Mar's journey recovering from trauma."
"In order for all our community members — Black, Brown or White — to trust law enforcement to keep us safe, there must be accountability and a commitment to doing better," Fischer said in a written statement sent to Pamplin Media Group. "The county is a necessary part of that work, and I'll continue to be committed to improve public safety by investing in training for law enforcement, and requiring true, meaningful accountability. This must be a top priority of our community leaders."
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