Ex-Marine Scott Olsen made it through two tours of duty in Iraq relatively unscathed, but he barely survived an encounter with the Oakland police during a peaceful protest rally by the Occupy movement in October 2011.
An officer fired a beanbag filled with lead shot at a group of people outside city hall and hit Olsen in the head, shattering his skull and causing permanent brain damage. Video of the incident went viral. He sued and the negotiators agreed to pay him $4.5 million. The deal still needs approval of the city council.
The Occupy movement had been organizing events across the country throughout the year and Oakland was a hotbed of activity. Occupy Oakland set up an elaborate encampment in a park in front of City Hall on October 10, with around 147 tents, a kitchen, restrooms and child care.
Two weeks later, the city ordered that the site be cleared and police moved in. Most of the tents and personal possessions were removed within five hours on the morning of October 25. But Occupy members and supporters drifted back in that afternoon and voted to reassemble the camp.
Around 1,000 people were gathered at City Hall that night and 26-year-old Olsen, who had become disillusioned with the war, was positioned in uniform with another former soldier, between protesters and a line of police.
Although Oakland police regulations discourage use of bean-bag guns for crowd control and forbid shooting people in the head with them, an officer fired from 20 feet away and hit Olsen. People rushed to his aid, prompting another officer to fire a tear-gas grenade at them. No officers came to Olsen's assistance.
He was taken to a hospital in critical condition and treated for skull, neck and facial fractures. Part of his skull was removed to help relieve pressure from cerebral hemorrhage. Olsen lost the ability to speak, which he has somewhat recovered, and still suffers from memory problems.
Olsen filed a lawsuit that claimed a series of misdeeds by the department after the assault. He said the shooting was not initially reported to the department. Evidence was not preserved, officers freely discussed the matter between themselves and no documentation was gathered on the incident, although it became a galvanizing force behind subsequent Occupy protests stretching into 2012.
An independent investigation (pdf) agreed that the Oakland PD's handling of the incident was somewhat lacking. Likening the evening to an airplane crash caused by “a series of cascading events,” the report concluded that the police were badly trained, poorly led and followed outdated policies and tactics doomed to failure. They screwed up the crowd control, used the wrong kind of weaponry and lacked a plan.
“We should note that the review team has serious concerns regarding the quality and breadth of the OPD criminal investigation involving this situation,” it said.
A review of the review (pdf) by an independent monitor appointed by a federal judge to oversee Oakland's nationally infamous police department said the officers' behavior on October 25 was consistent with all the terrible things the department had done for years.
The city has been operating under a Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA) and federal oversight since settling the Rough Riders civil suit in 2003, which required the police department to institute 51 reforms.
The Rough Riders were a rogue group of officers who exposed widespread deficiencies in the agency and attracted national attention by planting evidence, using excessive force and falsifying police reports. The department continues to be the focus of repeated investigations and the subject of lawsuits claiming police abuse.
The Olsen settlement is by far the largest in a series of settlements as a result of Occupy-related lawsuits. To date, the city has agreed to pay $6.3 million. The next largest settlement was $645,000 for Kayvan Sabeghi, who was beaten by officers with batons at a protest a week after the Olsen assault. Sabeghi suffered a ruptured spleen.