A photojournalist who was arrested by Sausalito police officers last year while filming at a City-sanctioned homeless encampment is suing the City, police department, police chief and four officers for alleged civil rights violations.
The lawsuit, which asks for $21 million in compensatory and punitive damages, was filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California last week on behalf of Black journalist Jeremy Portje by Charles A. Bonner, a prominent civil rights attorney, and Charles Dresow, who served as Portje’s criminal attorney after his arrest.
The complaint asserts that, on Nov. 30, Sausalito police officers conspired against, physically assaulted and injured Portje as he filmed a police action at the encampment for a documentary about homelessness in Marin County. Portje was then arrested and detained without proper legal justification, according to the lawsuit.
“The police had zero probable cause to arrest Jeremy,” Bonner said in an interview.
Other claims arise from the police obstructing Portje’s work as a journalist and seizing and searching his equipment, in violation of state, federal and constitutional laws protecting journalists and their unpublished materials.
In addition to the monetary award, the lawsuit seeks to bar Sausalito from violating the rights of journalists and illegally seizing or searching their property in the future. The lawsuit also requests that the City be required to implement, with court oversight, appropriate training and policies to ensure these protections.
While two different stories have emerged about events leading up to the arrest, Portje has always believed the video he was shooting during the confrontation with officers would vindicate him. The police returned Portje’s camera on Jan. 20 and it appears to back up the lawsuit’s allegations. However, the police maintain Portje instigated a confrontation with Sgt. Thomas Georges and injured him.
In a police affidavit—a sworn declaration of facts—that was used to obtain a search warrant for Portje’s equipment in December, Georges alleged Portje circled around him, bumped into his back twice with a camera and shined a bright light into his face. Georges continued to retreat from Portje and was eventually backed up against a fence. Portje then intentionally struck Georges in the face with the camera, which caused a laceration, bleeding, bruising and swelling above the officer’s left eye, the affidavit claims. Medical attention was required.
Georges and Portje proceeded to struggle for control of the camera, according to the affidavit. Officer Sean Smagalski then assisted Georges and was able to take the camera from Portjes. Georges “took control of Portje’s head, hair and upper torso,” and Portje dropped to his knees. Portje resisted as Georges and Smagalski tried to handcuff him. Officer Nick White performed crowd control.
“Minimal force was used against Portje as he was not punched, kicked or taken to the ground during this incident by officers,” the affidavit says.
Most of the facts presented in the lawsuit diverge from those presented in the officers’ affidavit. According to the lawsuit, Georges, White and Smagalski conspired to incite Portje to commit a crime. The incident began when the three police officers huddled together behind a car in the parking lot next to the homeless encampment and looked at Portje, who was standing in front of a fence on the narrow roadway next to the parking area. The officers abruptly split up and moved in separate directions.
Georges approached Portje, stood in front of the journalist’s camera and pushed his back against the lens. Portje stepped away. The officer followed, pushed his back against the camera again, then moved to the side and leaned his body against Portje.
“Why are you doing this?” Portje asked. In response, Georges lunged at Portje, grabbed the tripod and hit himself in the face with the camera, causing a laceration. Georges began throwing punches at Portje and grabbed his dreadlocks.
Another officer told Portje to let go of his camera, as the officer had a hold of it. Georges moved behind Portje and pinned Portje’s arms behind his back while shouting, “stop resisting.” Portje said he wasn’t resisting, but Georges used “upward pressure on the shoulder lock, tearing into his [Portje’s] rotator cuff.” Portje dropped to his knees and was firmly subdued, with an officer continuing to apply pressure to Portje’s shoulder.
Officers handcuffed Portje and placed him in a police car. Responding to Portje’s concerns about his equipment, an officer said he could retrieve it later. Portje was transported to the Sausalito police station, where Chief Rohrbacher guarded him and assisted Georges with the arrest paperwork. By doing so, Rohrbacher “perpetuated and joined the conspiracy” started by the three officers, according to the lawsuit.
Portje was taken to the hospital for shoulder pain. Later that evening, he was booked into Marin County jail and held on $15,000 bail. When Portje was released the following morning, he learned the police had seized and kept his camera, memory storage disks and iPhone.
Four weeks later, after a significant amount of press coverage of Portje’s arrest, Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli announced her office would not be filing charges against Portje. Prosecutors determined, after reviewing video footage from bystanders and the officers’ body cameras, that the prosecutorial burden was not met, Frugoli said in a Dec. 28 statement.
Frugoli did not indicate what prosecutors saw on the videos. The police never made a statement about the body camera footage, and Rohrbacher refused to release the videos to the public.
While Portje’s camera was not entirely steady during the incident, watching the video frame by frame does show Portje backing away from Georges, and it captures Georges swinging his fists at the journalist.
Based on his experiences with the Sausalito police, Portje said he wants the City to establish a police oversight and review board. He serves as vice chair of Novato’s Police Advisory & Review Board, which reviews citizen complaints against police officers. Sausalito had a similar board previously, but it is now defunct.
Portje is still processing the series of events that began on Nov. 30. As a result, he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the ordeal has had a substantial impact on his family, too.
“I have increased anxiety and loss of sleep,” Portje said in an interview. “I’ve received death threats, and I don’t like to leave the house because there’s a feeling of not being safe. It has brought my family closer, but we’re all individually going through stuff.”
Rohrbacher did not respond to questions from the Pacific Sun. Sausalito Mayor Janelle Kellman said, in an email, that the City has not yet received the lawsuit.
“We are aware that Jeremy Portje held a press conference during which disturbing allegations were made against the Sausalito Police Department,” Kellman said. “There has been a review of credible evidence in this matter, and we have found no information to support any indication that this incident was about race, as alleged.”
Bonner is just as certain that race was a factor in the altercation and arrest.
The complaint mentions that, during a political discussion between Smagalski and Portje on the day of the altercation, the journalist angered the officer by asking whether he “was a member of the white supremacist organization, the “Oathkeepers.” Smagalski, Georges and White then conspired to provoke “Portje to commit a crime in order to rough him up and arrest him.”
Bonner wants Georges, Smagalski and White criminally prosecuted for their actions.
“These officers absolutely committed crimes,” Bonner said in an interview. “They committed assault and battery and false imprisonment. They intended to commit crimes against Jeremy, and they did. I will be presenting it to the district attorney of Marin County, the attorney general of California and also to Merrick Garland, the attorney general of the United States of America.”