Oregon reporter hit with tear gas canister while documenting protests; city settles lawsuit

May 31, 2020

Henry Houston, a reporter for the Eugene Weekly, an alternative paper in Eugene, Oregon, was targeted with a tear gas canister fired from a Eugene police vehicle on the night of May 31, 2020, according to Houston and a video taken by Adam Duvernay of The Register Guard, a local newspaper.

Houston told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was monitoring a group of Black Lives Matter protesters who were demonstrating that evening beyond a 9 p.m. curfew. The citywide curfew exempted credentialed journalists, according to the The Register Guard.

In the video recorded by Duvernay and uploaded to YouTube, police can be heard warning protesters to go home because of the curfew, which was ordered by the Eugene city manager. The police announcement warns that those who don’t obey are subject to “arrest, chemical munitions, or impact munitions.”

At one point, the video shows protesters running away from an armored police vehicle as it enters a parking lot. One round of what appears to be tear gas is fired in their direction.

While the protesters continue running, Houston stands in the lot recording video of the police vehicle, known as a BearCat, when another canister is fired. In an email to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Houston said that the canister hit him in his chest.

“Eugene police officer from the turret position of the BearCat threw a tear gas canister toward me, which struck my chest, and sparked on the ground,” he wrote.

In the video Houston can then be seen holding up his press badge in the direction of the BearCat's light. He says he also shouted to police that he was media, before police fired several pepper balls at him.

On July 2, 2020, in conjunction with the Civil Liberties Defense Center, Houston filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Federal District Court in Eugene. The Eugene-based center provides legal and educational resources on civil rights issues, and in its lawsuit against Eugene Police officers and the City of Eugene the center charged that a series of city and police actions were unconstitutional.

According to the CLDC’s press release, police allegedly used “indiscriminate, brutal, and excessive force against local protesters, journalists, and even people sitting on their own porches, firing impact (rubber bullet/”foam”) and chemical (tear gas and pepper gas) munitions from the turrets of militarized vehicles (called BearCats) and implementing unconstitutional curfews.”

The lawsuit, per the press release, also alleged that “unidentified police officers in an armored vehicle shot Mr. Houston with impact and chemical munitions, despite him clearly and repeatedly identifying himself as media.”

The case was settled without a trial on Oct. 21, 2020, according to a report from The Associated Press. The AP story said Houston received $45,000 in the settlement and planned to use it to pay medical bills and make a donation to a local mental health program.

In an emailed statement to the Tracker, Houston said he had sought a settlement with the city “with the hopes that I could force some policy changes without forcing both of us to high costs of a trial.” He said he had made several requests, including asking the city for greater transparency when declaring curfews, changing policies with police-journalist interactions and stopping the use of BearCats during protests. In his email, Houston said the city did not respond to those requests “and instead went with only cash. I took it because although it's not concrete change, it could influence change just as a speeding ticket could change driver behavior.”

In an October email to Eugene Weekly, Laura Hammond, the city’s community relations director wrote, “We are pleased to have quickly reached a mutually agreeable resolution to this matter,” the email said.

The Eugene Police Department’s public information officer referred Tracker requests for comment on the suit and the settlement to the city’s attorney, Benjamin Miller. In a call with the Tracker, Miller said he cannot speak on behalf of the police department.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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