The family of Terrell Johnson, a 24-year old Black man shot and killed by a Portland police officer four years ago, agreed to a settlement in court in May. In 2019, his mother, Alicia Johnson, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.
The lawsuit alleged that had the police officer followed department policy on how to conduct a foot chase, Johnson would still be alive. The policy involves notifying dispatchers once a chase has begun, giving them the direction in which the suspect is running, a description, and whether the individual is armed. Foot chases of armed suspects are usually prohibited except in extreme circumstances, which did not apply to this situation.
At $600,000, this represents the eighth-largest such settlement in city history. The City Council is expected to approve the settlement this summer.
A Mental Health Crisis
Johnson’s story echoes that of so many other young, Black victims of police. On May 10, 2017, Portland Police Officer Samson Ajir shot and killed Johnson at a southeast Portland MAX light rail station as Johnson was experiencing a mental health crisis.
A bystander called police from the train station after Johnson allegedly chased a teenager off the platform, acted erratically, and threatened passersby. According to the teenager, Johnson was carrying a knife. Johnson ran off down the train tracks once the police arrived on the scene, and Ajir took off in pursuit.
As Ajir approached, Johnson took out a box cutter and slashed at him. Ajir began walking backward while unholstering his gun. Ajir hit the curb as he moved backward and lost his balance. As he fell, Ajir fired one shot at Johnson. Johnson continued moving toward Ajir, who shot him three times while on the ground. Three bullets hit Johnson, including two in the back. He collapsed atop the box cutter knife. No other officer was present when the shooting occurred. Johnson was the third person shot by police that year.
In June 2017, a Multnomah County grand jury found Ajir’s shooting of Johnson justified.
A Pattern of Excessive Force
Back in 2012, the Justice Department and the city of Portland agreed to reforms to the Portland Police Bureau’s (PPB) policies, practices, training, and supervision. The Justice Department found the police had engaged in an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force when responding to people with mental illness.
The Justice Department found that PPB used excessive force while interacting with mentally ill individuals in that encounters “too frequently” ended up using a higher level of force than necessary. It also found officers used tasers, formally known as electronic control weapons, under circumstances in which this use of force was not justified or deployed them more times than needed on a person. Officers were found to have used more force than necessary for lower-level offenses.
The attorneys for Johnson’s family argued that, since then, the use of force against the mentally ill has not decreased.
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