Portland jail inmates sue over protest tear gas exposure

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PORTLAND, OR – SEPTEMBER 5: Portland police officers walk through smoke while dispersing a protest against racial injustice and police brutality early in the morning on September 5, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Friday night marked the 99th night of protests in Portland following the death of George Floyd in police custody. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Several people who were in a Portland jail during summer protests against police brutality have filed a civil rights lawsuit over tear gas seeping into jail cells.

Theresa Davis, Rashawd Duhart and Robin Lundy filed the class-action suit Monday in federal court on behalf of dozens of inmates exposed to the gas during the mass racial justice protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The suit says Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies ignored their “cries for help,” stopped responding to emergency calls and “left the women and men trapped in their cells to suffer,” The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

It says Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese and deputies failed to protect the inmates, delayed medical care for people exposed and were negligent in not taking adequate precautions to safeguard the inmates.

Portland police or federal officers repeatedly fired tear gas during months of demonstrations downtown sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck despite his pleas that he couldn’t breathe.

The exposure began on May 29 when about 250 people were housed in the Justice Center and a protest devolved into a riot declaration by police, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Tear gas and smoke seeped into jail cells that night, causing inmates to cough and gag, the suit says.

About 12:30 a.m. on July 21, women in one jail dorm were jolted awake by tear gas, with some of them screaming and pounding on cell doors for help, according to the suit. At 1:17 a.m., a sergeant radioed a lieutenant, who authorized him to open the small food ports for ventilation, the suit says.

Lundy, one of the plaintiffs, described the conditions as “total chaos and confusion.”

Chris Liedle, a spokesman from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, told the newspaper in July that adults in custody and staff started experiencing a “decrease in air quality” because of smoke from fires set by demonstrators outside the Justice Center and “later some effects from tear gas deployed by federal officers.”

As a result, the sheriff’s office decided on July 21 to close air dampers each night to reduce the impact of the poor air quality, he said. He added that air dampers had been closed when necessary before then.

The Associated Press has emailed the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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