By Henry K. Lee 3/21/14
Oakland agreed to pay an Iraq War veteran $4.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit he filed after a city police officer shot him in the head with a beanbag during an Occupy protest, nearly killing him and leaving him with permanent brain damage, attorneys said Friday.
Scott Olsen, 26, was among more than 1,000 demonstrators protesting the police clearing of an Occupy Oakland encampment outside City Hall when he was struck by the beanbag on Oct. 25, 2011. Widely viewed images of him falling in the street and being carried away while bloodied ignited outrage and sparked further protests.
The payout is the latest in a series of settlements by the city involving mass protests. It comes as Oakland police continue to grapple with how to balance the free-speech rights of activists with a desire to maintain order amid large, often unruly crowds.
At a news conference Friday not far from where he was injured at 14th Street and Broadway, Olsen said he never expected to return from service as a Marine in the Middle East, only to be injured by police in downtown Oakland.
“I guess I thought that I wasn’t in Iraq anymore, you know, I’d be more or less safe,” Olsen said. “I wasn’t going to get shot. I wasn’t going to be attacked. Oakland police proved me wrong in that, and it makes me feel less safe in general, especially around people who are supposed to be protecting you.”
Olsen said he is still being treated for his head injury. “I didn’t win part of my brain back that’s dead,” he said. “It’s hard. It was a hard recovery process.”
‘A tragic injury’
One of Olsen’s attorneys, Jim Chanin, said the incident was sad not only for his client but for Oakland, “which has been hit with yet another unnecessary lawsuit with a very large settlement that could have been used for the public good while Scott went on with his life, without his injury.”
City Attorney Barbara Parker said Oakland will pay Olsen $1.4 million and the city’s insurance carrier will pay the balance.
“Mr. Olsen suffered a tragic injury that will affect him for the rest of his life,” Parker said. “This settlement will save the city the far greater costs of a trial and potentially much higher judgment. This is a fair settlement given the facts of the case and the significant injuries Mr. Olsen sustained.”
Olsen was hospitalized after he was struck by a flexible baton round – commonly known as a beanbag. The city described the object as a “cloth-enclosed, lead-filled round fired from a shotgun.”
According to Olsen’s suit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the impact “fractured Mr. Olsen’s skull and caused severe hemorrhaging of his brain.”
The lawsuit did not identify the officer who fired the beanbag, and the city has not identified the officer. But the suit said that after Olsen was struck and was lying on the ground, Oakland police Officer Robert Roche lobbed a tear-gas canister into a group trying to help Olsen, an incident that was captured by a TV news camera.
Oakland police moved to fire Roche after the incident. Roche, a decorated Marine Corps veteran who has been involved in three fatal shootings in the city, is fighting his termination, sources said.
Roche didn’t know that Olsen was on the ground when he lobbed the tear-gas canister at the group around him, Roche’s attorney, Justin Buffington, said Friday.
Officer seen as scapegoat
Buffington said Roche was being made a scapegoat after the city suffered “international embarrassment.” Buffington said his client was “the soap the OPD commanders used to wash themselves clean of their mistakes.”
Olsen avoided criticizing Roche directly Friday, saying, “People have different backgrounds, and we share in common that we’re veterans, but there are a lot of other factors at play. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I’m sure we all do things that we regret.”
Rachel Lederman, Olsen’s other attorney, said police had been “incapable” of abiding by city crowd-control policies that prohibit deploying weapons such as beanbags into crowds and mandate that officers give protesters a chance to disperse before mass arrests.
The fact that police did not try to aid Olsen after he fell has also been criticized. In a report on the events, Thomas Frazier, who was then a city-commissioned consultant, wrote that he found it “unsettling and not believable” that no officer saw Olsen falling down or lying in the street.
Quan cites improvements
In a statement Friday, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said the department had reformed its crowd-control policies in response to Frazier’s report.
“We regret that Mr. Olsen suffered these injuries and hardships,” Quan said, “and I want Oakland to know that because of that evening’s events we took determined, constructive steps to change our policing procedures.”
Olsen joined the Marines in 2006, served two tours in Iraq and was discharged in 2010, according to Iraq Veterans Against the War, of which he was a member. He was a systems administrator at a San Francisco software firm when he was injured.
Olsen’s payout follows several other settlements of lawsuits alleging that police officers used unreasonable force during Oakland protests, with many of the incidents caught on video. In one case, the city paid Army veteran Kayvan Sabeghi $645,000 to settle a suit alleging he was clubbed by police during an Occupy protest on Nov. 2, 2011.
The city agreed to pay $1.17 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a dozen protesters who say they were victims of excessive force on the same day Olsen was shot. A separate $1 million payout went to 150 people who accused police of mishandling their arrests during a 2009 protest in Oakland over the BART police shooting of Oscar Grant.