Vietnamese youth thrown against car; police say incident may have been provoked
Portland police face questions from civil rights activists over whether an officer used excessive force against a handcuffed Vietnamese teenager after an incident that occurred early New Year's Day on Interstate 84.
The incident was captured on video by a freelancer working for KATU (2).
In the video, Portland police officer Todd Davis appears to slam 15-year-old Rum Lam into the side of a parked patrol car. Lam says he did nothing to provoke Davis.
'They just grabbed me hard and walked to the other side of the cop car and just pop,' Lam told KATU. 'My chest hit the car, and my head hit the car.'
Davis was among numerous officers who responded in the convoluted incident, which ultimately involved several cars, unlicensed drivers and a minor accident between a Portland police car and two of the vehicles. Officers said they also found an open alcohol container in one of the cars.
Portland police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said two of the three vehicles were stolen and that all of the drivers and passengers in the three cars were Vietnamese juveniles, none of whom was arrested. Instead, they were released to their parents and referred to the county's Juvenile Justice Department.
Lam, however, was cited for driving without a license, driving uninsured and having an open alcohol container in his car. Although Lam was not injured, a local civil rights activist said the video is alarming.
'I think it's excessive use of force,' Martin Gonzalez, head of the Latino Network, said after being shown the video by KATU. 'What I saw was an attempt to try to teach him a lesson, get him in line. To me, that's not the message we need to be sending out to young people, particularly youth of color, who already have a tremendous distrust of police.'
Schmautz said Lam may have done something that is not visible on the tape to cause Davis to slam him against the vehicle. The lower half of Lam's body can't be seen on the video, which is grainy and poorly lit.
'You can only see him from the waist up. You don't know whether he was spitting or kicking or something else,' said Schmautz, who was shown the video by a KATU reporter.
Schmautz said the bureau is not investigating the incident, but it will do so if a complaint is filed by Lam. No complaint had been filed by Monday noon.
Schmautz said no one from the bureau has talked to Davis about the incident yet because he hurt his knee during a burglary arrest the next day and is taking pain medication at home.
Portland police policy says an officer is authorized to use physical force when it is reasonably necessary to accomplish an official purpose, such as taking someone into custody.
A wild chase begins
The incident began around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday when Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy Todd Lautenbach spotted a stolen Honda headed toward Portland on I-84. At the time, the car was near Troutdale and traveling west. Unknown to Lautenbach, the car was the lead vehicle in a three-car caravan.
Lautenbach called for assistance to help stop the stolen car. Another sheriff's deputy responded by laying a 'spike strip' on the freeway ahead of the vehicle. At the same time, Portland police officer David Staab joined the pursuit behind Lautenbach.
The first car ran over the strip, which punctured its tires. One of the deputies pulled the strip off the freeway, allowing the pursuing officers to pass. Unknown to the officers, the second and third cars were still following close behind
As the car with the blown tires slowed and began to pull over, Lautenbach and Staab also reduced speed and changed lanes. Staab's car accidentally hit the second car in the caravan, sending it into the third car in the group. All of the cars then pulled over just short of a mile west of Southeast 181st Avenue.
Officers from several law enforcement agencies then converged on the scene.
So did the KATU freelancer, who began videotaping the aftermath. The video captured Davis and an unidentified officer walking a handcuffed Lam away from the camera. As the three pass a parked police car, Davis appears to lurch to the right and slam the teenager into the car.
Minority leaders concerned
Gonzalez said Portlanders need to take the incident seriously.
'If we allow this kind of thing to happen when the camera's rolling, what happens when the camera's not there and we're not seeing it? Is our level of sensitivity each time going to be more gradually accepting of those things?' Gonzalez said.
He compared the incident to the initial arrest in March 2001 of Mexican immigrant Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot, who two days later was shot by police at a Sellwood psychiatric hospital. When he was first arrested, witnesses on a TriMet bus and at a Plaid Pantry store reported seeing several officers knee and kick Mejia on the ground after he was handcuffed.
In the Jan. 1 case, Thach Nguyen, president of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Northeast Portland, also decried the officer's actions. He said he's heard similar stories about police abuses from friends and people he works with who are minorities.
Nguyen said the relationship between Asian youths and police already is strained because in their native countries, it is often the police who are criminals. Advocates have tried to work to strengthen relationships, but there is still a great deal of mistrust, he said.
Nguyen said police deepen that mistrust when they assume that a carload of Asian youths driving certain Hondas or other popular cars are Asian gang members.
'We're not denying that some youth are gang members, but not all are,' he said.