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Saturday, May 25, 2024 | Back issues
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War Veteran Says Cops Injured His Brain

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Oakland police shot an Iraq war veteran in the head with a bean bag round during Occupy Oakland protests last year, inflicting permanent brain injuries and nearly killing him, the man claims in a federal civil rights complaint.

Scott Olsen served two tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq. He sued the city and its police force, claiming the Oct. 25, 2011 attack violated the police department's "own prohibition against using bean bag rounds for crowd control purposes; [and] OPD's prohibition against firing a bean bag round at a person's head in any circumstances."

Olsen says he became "disillusioned with the United States' military operation there." After his discharge in 2009 he became involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War, which has advocated for withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East since 2004.

Olsen says he "was standing still and quiet with another veteran between protesters and a line of law enforcement officers as a statement of support for the Occupy movement, including its opposition to U.S. military involvement in Iraq. A line of law enforcement officers was about 20 feet away from Mr. Olsen. Without warning, one of the officer fired a high-velocity round made of metal pellets (a 'bean bag' round) at Mr. Olsen, hitting him in the head. The impact fractured Mr. Olsen's skull and caused severe hemorrhaging of his brain. As a result of his injuries, Mr. Olsen lost his ability to speak and perform basic mental and physical functions. Although he has recovered much of his speech and functions through intensive therapy, he still frequently has difficulty speaking, concentrating, and remembering things."

Olsen attended the march in his military uniform, which he hoped would counter criticism that the movement was un-American.

Neither Olsen nor his friend, also a veteran, "did anything that was or could have been interpreted as illegal, dangerous or threatening. They simply stood there still and quiet between the other protesters and the police officers," the complaint states.

"Bean bag rounds are fired at high velocity and cause severe pain and bruising when they strike soft tissue. They are designed and intended to be fired directly at and strike persons unlike, for example, a tear gas canister which is designed and intended to be fired near but not directly at individuals. Because of the damage and injury that bean bag rounds cause, the Oakland Police Department policy prohibits their use for crowd control purposes, and prohibits firing them at the neck or head of an individual," Olsen says in his complaint.

But one officer, whom Olsen says the city of Oakland has refused to name, did just that.

"Without warning, an Oakland police officer (Doe 1) located about 20 feet away from Scott Olsen and armed with a high-powered rifle loaded with a bean bag round, aimed his weapon at Scott Olsen and fired. The bean bag round struck Mr. Olsen in the head, fracturing his skull in several places and causing trauma and hemorrhaging to his brain. Mr. Olsen immediately fell to the street. Either the fall or the initial impact of the bean bag round fractured both a vertebra in Mr. Olsen's neck and his facial orbital bone," the complaint states.

Olsen claims that officers kept Occupy protesters from helping him after his skull was broken.


"Immediately after Mr. Olsen fell injured to the street, a group of protesters ran over to see how badly he was hurt and to help him. Upon seeing this, Oakland Police officer Robert Roche raised his rifle and fired a tear gas grenade into the group of people who had rushed over to aid Mr. Olsen. One or more OPD officers also fired munitions such as rubber bullets at protesters who attempted to aid Mr. Olsen. The firing of tear gas and projectiles at protesters attempting to check on and assist Mr. Olsen was apparently intended to prevent protesters from assisting Mr. Olsen. No law enforcement officer or other agent of the city of Oakland gave medical or other assistance to Mr. Olsen after he was critically injured by the shot to his head," Olsen says in his complaint. Roche is named as a defendant.

Protesters managed to get Olsen to the hospital, which admitted him in critical condition with skull, neck and facial fractures and cerebral hemorrhaging. Olsen says doctors removed part of his skull to relieve pressure on his brain and keep him alive. When he regained consciousness, he could not speak or perform basic functions.

Olsen claims the Oakland PD's misdeeds did not end with his shooting. He says officers failed to report his shooting to superiors, did not document the use of force against him, did not inventory the weapon used in his shooting, and failed to preserve evidence concerning the incident - but allowed officers "who were potential witnesses and/or subjects of investigation" to communicate freely with each other about the shooting.

According to Olsen, the officers' use of force against him is not unusual for the Oakland Police Department, nor is its lack of action in its aftermath.

"The use of force against Mr. Olsen and defendants' inadequate response to it are also consistent with and part of a pattern and practice by the Oakland Police Department of failing to adequately train officers in crowd control procedures; failing to adequately train OPD officers regarding appropriate use of weapons and munitions during protests; failing to adequately train OPD officers and to enforce OPD's crowd control policy; failure to properly document use of force, including maintaining inventories and logs of weapons and munitions used; failure to adequately supervise OPD officers to ensure compliance with OPD policies on crowd control and use of force and with OPD, state and constitutional standards governing the use of force; and failing to collect and preserve evidence related to use of force," Olsen says in his complaint.

Olsen said he lost his job after he was shot, as he is unable to work full time because of his brain injuries.

Shortly after police shot Olsen, five Occupy protesters teamed up with the ACLU in a federal lawsuit to stop police brutality at the Oakland demonstrations. All plaintiffs claimed they'd been shot or hit by "less-lethal" munitions fired by OPD officers.

A settlement conference is set for Dec. 19 in that case.

Since the shooting, Oakland city leaders commissioned a study of the police department's use of force during the Occupy protests. The consultant, The Frazier Group, concluded that OPD officers "had been inadequately trained; that the OPD operations against the Occupy protesters had been poorly planned; and indicated that OPD officers had used excessive and possibly criminal force against Mr. Olsen on Oct. 25, 2011, in violation of OPD crowd control policies and procedures," according to Olsen's complaint.

An independent monitor for the police department, appointed by the Federal Court, endorsed the report in October. A week later, Oakland Police chief Howard Jordan announced that he planned to fire two officers, demote a third and suspend 15 others for their use of force during the Occupy protests.

But Olsen says that no officers have been disciplined for shooting him in the head.

He seeks exemplary damages for excessive use of force, failure to train, failure to supervise, ratification of excessive force, failure to provide medical treatment, battery, negligence, emotional distress and constitutional violations.

He is represented by Mark Martel, of Palo Alto.

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