(UPDATED: 7:39 p.m. PT) — During an arrest on Aug. 5, a Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office deputy placed his knee on the neck of a then 12-year-old African American child, making it difficult for him to breathe, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Clackamas County Circuit Court.
Attorneys for Ka’Mar Benbo said deputies were responding to a call about teenage girls who were involved in a fight. As Benbo was leaving the Clackamas Town Center mall with friends, he was grabbed and taken to the ground by several deputies.
Later Thursday, Sheriff Craig Roberts put out a statement noting the incident was investigated by the sheriff’s office last year and didn’t find any evidence that a deputy placed a knee on Benbo’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.”
Deputies were responding to a call from mall security about a fight involving a large group of juveniles who were physically assaulting and following a female juvenile, Roberts stated. When deputies arrived on the scene, Roberts said, all but one male juvenile complied, presumably Benbo.
“He pulled away from deputies,” Roberts said. “They briefly placed him on the grass and then in handcuffs. He was questioned and released to his guardian.”
The next day, Benbo’s guardian made a compliant, which Roberts said set off the internal investigation.
Attorneys for Benbo said one witness reported seeing a deputy arrive on the scene, exiting his vehicle and slapping what appeared to be a baton into his hand as he approached.
“One officer elbowed [Benbo] in the face, officers force [Benbo] face-first to the ground, and several officers held [Benbo] with one officer putting his knee on [Benbo’s] neck using his weight to pin the child to the ground,” the lawsuit states. “The pressure made it difficult for Ka’Mar to breathe.”
Benbo and others at the scene repeatedly told deputies he was 12 years old, the lawsuit states.
While it happened months ago, the incident mirrors that of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was killed by police last month after an officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as he shouted: “I can’t breathe.” The incident has set off nationwide protests, including in Portland, over police violence and systemic racism.
The civil lawsuit charges the officers with battery and asks for $300,000. It names Deputy Tyler Simpkins, Deputy Rob Watts, Deputy Thomas Broomfield, Deputy Clint Pierce and Deputy Angela Church as defendants in the case.
“What the world is seeing now, is what African-Americans have always known,” Benbo’s attorney Jason Kafoury wrote in an email. “It didn’t start with a knee to the neck of George Floyd. The police here were aggressive and abusive to a 12-year-old child; that’s why if there is ever to be police reform, the time is now.”
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote said his office is reviewing the incident.
“We didn’t know about this until we saw it this morning,” Foote said. “We’re looking into it.”
In September 2019, Roberts wrote to Benbo’s guardian the results of the internal investigation, which found no wrongdoing on the part of deputies.
“We formally interviewed employees, witnesses, reviewed reports, reviewed databases, reviewed video and other relevant information,” Robert wrote in the letter. “Based on the available evidence and totality of circumstances, the investigation has determined potential violations have received a disposition of ‘Exonerated.’”
Roberts added: “‘Exonerated’ means the member’s conduct was lawful and proper.”
In his statement, Roberts said his office also participated in a listening session that arose out of the incident on Oct. 8 coordinated by Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Happy Valley).
Roberts didn’t run for re-election and is set to step down at the end of the year.
This article was updated after it was published with a statement from the Clackamas County Sheriff.