Calif. cop involved in incident at Occupy protest gets job back

An Oakland police officer who was fired after he lobbed a tear-gas canister into a group of people has won his job back through arbitration

By Henry Lee
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND — An Oakland police officer who was fired after he lobbed a tear-gas canister into a group of people trying to help an Iraq War veteran who had been struck in the head by a police beanbag has won his job back through arbitration, his attorney said Wednesday.

Officer Robert Roche was fired in September in connection with an Occupy Oakland protest Oct. 25, 2011, in which Scott Olsen was critically injured.

Olsen, 26, was among more than 1,000 demonstrators protesting the police clearing of an Occupy encampment outside City Hall when he was struck by a flexible baton round — commonly known as a beanbag — at 14th Street and Broadway. The officer who fired the beanbag has never been identified.

After Olsen was struck and was lying on the ground bleeding, Roche lobbed a tear-gas canister into a group trying to help him, an incident that was filmed by a TV news crew and others. Images of Olsen falling in the street and being carried away sparked further protests.

Oakland police fired Roche, saying that he had used unreasonable force when there was no immediate threat to officers, and that he had violated the department's policy on use of tear gas.

Roche countered that he and other officers had been ordered by then-Capt. Paul Figueroa to disperse protesters from the intersection. Figueroa is now assistant chief, the department's No. 2 official after Chief Sean Whent.

Arbitrator David Stiteler ordered Roche reinstated with full back pay and benefits. He said the officer's lobbing of the gas canister had been justified because he was following a superior officer's orders.

Roche's attorney, Justin Buffington, said no command officers were disciplined for "what amounted to be an incredible debacle" of a police response to the protest. "There's no doubt in my mind that he was scapegoated in this case," Buffington said of Roche.

In March, the city agreed to pay $4.5 million to Olsen to settle a federal lawsuit he filed over the incident.

Roche has been involved in three fatal shootings in the city. He was cleared of wrongdoing each time and has been a member of the SWAT team and served as a firearms instructor.

Roche will rejoin the force "with all enthusiasm, with all alacrity," Buffington said.

Olsen's attorney Rachel Lederman said she was "just sickened" that "OPD and the city can't even make discipline stick." She called Roche a "three-time killer" whose actions in the Olsen case were "outrageous."

"If this officer can't get fired for what he did, then what's going to happen to an ordinary person on the street who's abused by the police, where there's nobody filming and it's not shown all over the country?" Lederman said.

Copyright 2014 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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