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Regional Interests

Portland city officials approve sexual harassment settlement against former police officer

The election of Commissioner Dan Ryan means changes over a number of city agencies.
The election of Commissioner Dan Ryan means changes over a number of city agencies.

For the second time in seven years, the city of Portland will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars resulting from a lawsuit brought against former Portland police officer Robert Bruders.

A former PPB employee, identified in the lawsuit by her initials P.L., alleges Bruders created a hostile work environment and sexually harassed her. She also alleges police bureau managers failed to take any action after numerous complaints and attempts to flag Bruders’ sometimes violent behavior.

P.L. sued the city of Portland for violations of constitutional rights, sexual harassment, sex discrimination, retaliation for opposing sexual harassment and discrimination, negligent supervision and negligent retention.

On Wednesday, Portland City Council unanimously approved a $250,000 settlement with P.L., a sum significantly larger than most employment cases according to P.L.’s lawyer. The settlement means Bruders will be partially responsible for a total of almost $800,000 being paid out to his victims.

The first time the city paid out a settlement related to Bruders, it was because he helped severely beat Jason Cox, a man who was detained on suspicion of drunk driving. In 2014, a jury awarded Cox $526,000 in lost earnings, medical expenses and pain and suffering – Portland’s largest ever police brutality award. Bruders resigned from the bureau in 2016 and was promptly rehired to do background investigations on police officer applicants.

It was in that role that he allegedly created a hostile work environment and sexually harassed P.L., leading to this second lawsuit. P.L. alleges the city did nothing in response to multiple complaints accusing Bruders of looking down her shirt and complementing her blouse, sending her unsolicited text messages despite her never having given out her phone number, following P.L. into the office kitchen and copy room where she was alone and he would stare and making lewd gestures toward her while saying, “you just say the word, and it’s on.”

“Bruders punches a guy seven times in the face and a Multnomah County jury gave the (full amount of damages sought) to us because of how excessive the force was. That should have been it. He should have been fired immediately,” said Jason Kafoury, P.L.’s attorney. “Instead, they gave him back desk duty and he went on to sexually harass multiple female employees.”

Records indicate P.L filed a formal complaint in January 2018 over Bruders’ inappropriate text messages, comments on her appearance, and comments she alleged he made of a sexual nature.

The internal affairs investigation was reviewed by Personnel Division Lt. Greg Pashley, who said some of Bruders’ actions didn’t violate PPB policy, or that P.L.’s claims lacked merit.

“The investigation clearly shows that Mr. Bruders sent two text messages to [P.L.] and although unnecessary, the messages were not in violation of any bureau policy,” Pashley wrote in his findings, which went on to find that there was insufficient evidence that Bruders made comments “of an implied sexual nature.”

Pashley did find that Bruders’ comments about P.L.’s appearance violated bureau policy. The PPB memo said any discipline is confidential per state law, but the lawsuit filed by P.L. indicates there were no consequences, and that Bruders continued to intimidate and harass her.

The lawsuit says that, given Bruders’ violent history, the city should have known he posed a threat to his coworkers.

“The city’s management and their advisors failed to protect public safety and the city’s work environment by failing to prevent or remedy Bruders’ conduct of intimidation, hostility and harassment,” the complaint reads.

At one point, after P.L. complained to Rebecca McKechnie in the bureau’s human resources department, the lawsuit says McKechnie agreed with her and said, “I know how you feel, I feel uncomfortable too.”

McKechnie and PPB took no action but reportedly offered to make P.L. a safety plan.

“The investigation, in this case, was a joke,” Kafoury said. “They were not trying to find the truth. They were trying to protect Bruders ... . This case blew me away for the city’s complete incompetence at managing the police department.”

Not only did bureau management fail to discipline Bruders, but the lawsuit also alleges he and management retaliated against P.L. for her complaints. She alleges she received a smaller merit raise than her colleagues, was reprimanded over the timeliness of her work despite previously ignored requests for more explicit timeliness expectations, and she said Pashley was disproportionately punitive in response to a minor inter-office dispute between her and a colleague.

“It just reinforced the feeling that I am being unfairly scrutinized since I made the original complaint,” she wrote in the lawsuit filing.

A police bureau memo from March 2020 shows an internal affairs investigation found insufficient evidence that Bruders had intimidated or retaliated against P.L.

“Often, when investigating negative interpersonal interactions, we see considerable differences between the versions of events given by the complainant and that given by the officers or other witnesses involved,” the findings memo reads. “People’s memories of events are normally influenced by their frame of mind at the time of the event, and it is entirely possible to have two completely different sides to the story, even though both parties fully believe they are giving accurate accounts of what happened.”

P.L.’s 2018 and 2020 complaints are part of a bigger trend at the Portland Police Bureau, where the number of complaints filed by PPB officers and employees against their coworkers has been increasing in recent years. Drifting between the mid-20s and mid-50s between 2010 and 2017, the number of internal complaints filed per year has risen notably, topping out at 77 in 2018, 69 in 2019 and 66 in 2020, according to Independent Police Review annual reports.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting