Salem woman suffered permanent eye damage after getting shot by Salem police with rubber bullet, lawsuit claims

A Salem woman shot by rubber bullets in the face and chest by Salem police during a May 31 protest that left her with permanent vision loss is seeking to change Salem Police Department policies, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Monday.

The complaint, filed on behalf of Elea McCrae, said that Salem police intentionally targeted Black and brown peaceful demonstrators during racial justice protests that occurred in Salem in late May and early June. McCrae, who is Black, contends in the lawsuit that she was deprived of her constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

For nine days, City Manager Steve Powers declared an emergency and enforced a curfew in response to demonstrations springing up across the country against police violence. The lawsuit argues Powers was unjustified in declaring an emergency.

“Defendants created a policy of declaring an emergency when there was no rioting, looting, or destruction of private or public property to justify the suppression of free speech and assembly,” the suit claims.

Additionally, the lawsuit targets tactics used by police during the demonstrations in Salem, including corralling demonstrators without giving them a way to leave, the use of deadly force against peaceful protesters and officers not providing warnings before using tear gas.

Powers, the city of Salem, Mayor Chuck Bennett, Police Chief Jerry Moore and nearly two dozen Salem police officers are named in the complaint.

City attorney Dan Atchison said the city won’t comment on the pending litigation, but is “investigating the matter and conducting a review of the allegations.”

McCrae, a West Salem High School graduate and student athlete at Mt. Hood Community College, attended the May 31 protest with her sister and friend, marching with demonstrators to the Center Street Bridge and back to the Oregon State Capitol around 9 p.m., according to the lawsuit.

The night prior, Powers enacted a citywide curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Police also used tear gas for the first time in their history on May 30.

After laying down for a moment of silence, protesters started marching down Northeast Center Street. The lawsuit said people unrelated to the peaceful march came in from side streets and started throwing objects into the crowd.

Salem police, the SWAT Team and a militarized vehicle blocked protesters at Liberty Street. According to an internal review released by Moore in July, police thought the crowd would try to block the bridge a second time and formed a line to stop them.

The lawsuit describes how protesters were trapped with nowhere to retreat.

“Center Street between Northeast High Street and Northeast Liberty Street is a single block with the Salem Center Mall on both sides of the street. There is no way out of this urban canyon. Marchers in front were prevented from retreating due to the crowd behind them,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit said the crowd linked arms and knelt in the street. At 10:03 p.m. Salem police used tear gas on the crowd after the police review said people were throwing objects at them.

“Then, the use tear gas, smoke bombs, pepper grenades, flash grenades, rubber bullets, foam-tipped munitions and batons are deployed when the demonstrators cannot leave. These tactics make it more difficult for law-abiding protesters to comply with police officers’ dispersal orders,” the lawsuit states.

When McCrae got up to leave, the lawsuit said she was shot twice. One bullet hit her chest and the other hit her eye. After being shot in the eye, McCrae bent over in pain and passed out, the lawsuit states.

“She took a few steps, her vision was gone, her ears were ringing. Now blinded in one eye and unable to see out of her other eye due to SPD’s use of tear gas on the peaceful march, Elea McCrae stumbled, fell, and passed out,” the complaint reads.

When she came to, McCrae was taken to the emergency room for her eye where she needed surgery to repair the damage after suffering permanent vision loss, the complaint said.

It said she’s suffered severe emotional distress as a result of being intentionally targeted.

Fourteen people who were arrested and charged with crimes related to the protests eventually had their charges dropped. Several of those charged told Salem Reporter they weren’t engaging in illegal conduct and were trying to leave downtown when they were arrested.

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Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.