Portland police ‘sleeper hold’ kills man in 1985

Incident bears similarity to the events surrounding Eric Garner's death

Mary and James Harvey, the parents of Lloyd "Tony" Stevenson appear at their son's funeral. (The Oregonian)
Mary and James Harvey, the parents of Lloyd "Tony" Stevenson appear at their son's funeral. (The Oregonian)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN 6 with files from the Oregonian) — When a Portland Police Bureau officer’s “sleeper hold” caused the death of an African American man in 1985, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer.

As first reported by The Oregonian, the incident nearly 30 years ago bears similarity to a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict New York Police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the “choke hold” death of Eric Garner, which has caused protests to erupt across the nation, including in Portland.

Garner’s now infamous last words recorded on a bystander’s cellphone — and an anthem taken up by protesters — were “I can’t breathe.”

The Oregon Historical Society documents the death of Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson, killed April 20 in front of a Northeast Portland convenience store.

The off-duty security guard had worked to calm a crowd during a scuffle between the store’s owner and a suspected theif, was tackled to the ground by three officers, one of whom applied a “sleeper hold,” ultimately choking him to death.

Portland police officer Bert Combs demonstrates the placement of the "sleeper hold" used to subdue Stevenson. (The Oregonian)
Portland police officer Bert Combs demonstrates the placement of the “sleeper hold” used to subdue Stevenson. (The Oregonian)

Then-Police Chief Penny Harrington temporarily banned the use of the carotid artery hold.

In response, two of the officers involved printed t-shirts with “Don’t choke ’em. Smoke ’em” and were fired after selling the shirts the day of Stevenson’s funeral.

Ultimately, the officers won a wrongful termination suit against the city. The officer who used the “sleeper hold” was never disciplined.

Multiple aspects of the case caused Portlanders to protest in 1985, the Oregonian reports. 

Although an inquest into the event found the officer’s move to choke Stevenson, combined with their decision not to apply CPR, qualified the death as a homicide, those findings could not be used in a criminal or civil court.

Later, Stevenson’s family was awarded $600,000 by the city out of court in the wrongful death suit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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