PORTLAND, Ore. — A homeless man with mental health issues sued the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office after jailers used a police dog to attack him when he refused to leave his cell. He was awarded a $251,000 settlement Tuesday.
Christopher Bartlett, through an attorney, sued for cruel and unusual punishment.
Nearly everyone working with inmates in the Columbia County Jail wears body cameras. There is a lot of video involving the use of the police dog on Bartlett.
His lawyer, Jacob Johnstun, says things started going sideways during lunch when Bartlett insulted a female jailer.
“Mr. Bartlett does say a few unkind things. He does,” said Johnstun.
Bartlett is no stranger to the jail and his attorney said jailers know he has mental health issues. Things escalated quickly.
“This officer then calls for backup from outside the jail calling this a security threat. That Mr. Barlett is taking his lunch tray and threatening officers lives. The video just doesn't support that,” said Johnstun.
The video shows a group of deputies gathering outside Bartlett's cell. There's a police dog barking. He's told to put his hands through the opening to be handcuffed and does not. And then the door is unlocked and the police dog attacks.
“They pull open the door and once they do, Mr. Bartlett, you can see in the video he cowers. He's not resisting. He cowers against the wall and all the policies and instructions that we were able to find and our experts were able to point to is that at that point any use of force should have stopped.
"Because Mr. Bartlett was not offering resistance. However they then allow the K-9 to maul him for about 20 seconds,” said Johnstun.
But it’s what happened next that made the lawyer suspicious and angry.
He said no one involved in the use of force wrote a report until the video turned up two months later. They accused Bartlett of being violent and threatening.
“Those reports, they did not match what the video showed, at all,” Johnstun said.
He also found them suspiciously similar.
“I also thought that it was odd that many of the reports had the exact same language, the same typos –so we were fairly confident that there was a high level of coordinated efforts going on to get their story straight,” he said.
A so the lawyer sued, demanding $500,000 for cruel and unusual punishment.
The county settled without admitting wrongdoing. It will pay $251,000 plus attorney’s fees.
The acting sheriff for Columbia County stands behind his jailers and deputies and that use of force with the police dog.
“I believe it was an appropriate use of force and I believe the evidence would support that if we'd gone to trial,” said Steve Salle.
He also insists there was no attempt at a cover up, and that the entire incident had nothing to do with offending a female jailer. Although he agrees the video is a problem.
“The optics of the video could lead the jury to believe we did something wrong, when we didn't,” Salle said.
Salle said he did not believe Bartlett was cowering.
In the aftermath of publicity surrounding the video, the District Attorney looked at the case and found no criminal wrongdoing.
None of the deputies or jailers connected to the incident faced any discipline.
Columbia County did not have a use of force policy that included using K-9 dogs to get inmates out of their cells. It does now and using a K-9 is allowed if the sheriff or jail commander think it is necessary.