Salem to pay $25,000 settlement in lawsuit over excessive force at 2021 protest

The city of Salem will pay $25,000 in a settlement with a Salem man who alleged in a lawsuit that police shot him with crowd control munitions before tackling and arresting him during a 2021 protest outside Planned Parenthood near the North Lancaster neighborhood.

The city reached the settlement with Clifford P. Eiffler-Rodriguez, 37, on May 25, about three months after he sued the city and three of its police officers in Eugene U.S. District Court.

Eiffler-Rodriguez alleged in his complaint that officers used excessive force when they shot him at close range with pepper balls and 40mm launchers. 

City officials did not acknowledge fault in the settlement, but agreed to provide Eiffler-Rodriguez the payment in exchange for dismissing the lawsuit, according to the settlement agreement.

The agreement also freed the city and officer Judy Dan, who was accused in the complaint of tackling and arresting Eiffler-Rodriguez, of liability for any claim related to the suit.

Dan resigned from the Salem Police Department on May 1, according to records of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the state’s police licensing agency. Salem police spokeswoman Angela Hedrick said on Monday that Dan’s resignation was not related to the protest incident.

“Although there was no specific change in training related to this incident, the Salem Police Department has continued to evolve its training for crowd management over the past few years as a result of changes to legislation,” Hedrick said in an email.

She said that has included House Bill 2928, which regulated police use of chemical incapacitants, rubber or plastic bullets and sound devices. 

Officials with the city did not respond to a request for comment.

Eiffler-Rodriguez told Salem Reporter that it was not the intention of his lawsuit to be compensated, but to hold police accountable. 

“Salem police have had trouble as of late in the ways that they interact with the community and have done so in a lot of prevalent ways,” he said.

The settlement comes about three months after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a protester who police shot with rubber bullets at a 2020 protest. 

A jury in that case had previously found that a Salem police officer used excessive force against the protester while trying to disrupt a downtown demonstration. But the judge found the officer was protected from the lawsuit because the protester suing him didn’t prove that other officers have historically been found liable for the same conduct, a legal principle known as qualified immunity.

Eiffler-Rodriguez said before his case could reach a trial, the city presented him with an offer to settle the case. In federal court, if the suing party doesn’t accept an offer of judgment within 14 days and is awarded less money than the offer they rejected, they must pay for costs incurred after the rejection. 

He said he accepted the settlement due to the risk of possibly having to reimburse the city even if he won his case at trial.

“That’s not justice,” he said. “That’s wild to think that the suit intended to show that this violation of my civil rights is a pattern of this police department and their behavior – now, they just get to sweep it under the rug and the settlement, you know, ends that pursuit.”

Salem police arrested Eiffler-Rodriguez during the protest in August 2021 at Planned Parenthood on Northeast Wolverine Street. The police agency at the time said his arrest followed a confrontation where people protesting against abortion and counterdemonstrators clashed, with both sides using chemical irritants and smoke fireworks. 

The protest included a group called the Church at Planned Parenthood, which at the time was holding regular Tuesday evening services outside the health clinic protesting abortion.

The counter demonstration was planned to “support accessible reproductive health care and counter reactionary extremism,” according to a post Eiffler-Rodriguez shared on Facebook at the time. It came just weeks after a similar protest turned violent in July 2021, with multiple Proud Boys attacking a counterdemonstrator.

Eiffler-Rodriguez said in the lawsuit that the Church at Planned Parenthood’s goals included intimidating citizens from exercising their rights to health care and family planning. Members of the Proud Boys, a nationalist organization that regularly engages in street violence, were among those participating in the protest. 

Police said at the time that the event remained peaceful for around two hours before a verbal dispute between two people broke out around 8:15 p.m and turned violent. 

Salem police officers then arrived in riot gear including helmets and masks, armed with batons and “less than lethal” projectiles, and announced that an unlawful assembly had been declared and told people to leave the area, according to the lawsuit.

Many of the counterprotesters left as police formed a line across Northeast Coral Avenue. Eiffler-Rodriguez said in the complaint that as he walked away from the advancing line of officers, Officer Judy Dan pushed him several times with her baton over a five- to seven-minute period. 

As he walked away from the officers Eiffler-Rodriguez spoke into the megaphone he brought and voiced displeasure with the officers’ actions while remaining on the sidewalk, according to the complaint.

Two other officers then shot him with 40mm rounds and pepper balls at least three times in his chest, once in his thigh and once on his arm. No other protesters were near at the time, the lawsuit said. 

Dan then tackled Eiffler-Rodriguez and arrested him, according to the complaint.

Marion County prosecutors charged him in September 2021 with interfering with a peace officer and harassment, naming Dan as the victim.

Circuit Judge Jodie Bureta dismissed the charges in February 2022, court records showed. Still, Eiffler-Rodriguez said his life changed after his arrest. 

“My name doesn’t necessarily get cleared, it still lives on the internet ,” he said. “Anytime an employer is going to Google me, they’re gonna find that in the news, and they’re gonna find not necessarily any kind of follow-up or any kind of, ‘Hey, this was actually approached a very wrong way and an illegal way, and this person is cleared of their name.’”

Eiffler-Rodriguez’s suit alleged that the officers’ conduct during the protest was based on official city policy or longstanding practice of allowing officers to use crowd control and “less than lethal” weapons against people who passively resist authorities and “pose little or no threat of harm to others.”

He also alleged that the city has failed to train its officers on constitutional standards for using force to control crowds. 

The complaint said the Salem protest came several weeks after the Oregon Legislature passed HB 2928 in July 2021, immediately banning police agencies from using munitions containing “chemical incapacitants” in crowd control situations that wouldn’t be considered a riot, and the munitions weren’t needed to stop “riotous behavior.” 

The pepper balls one officer fired at Eiffler-Rodriguez contained chemical irritants, according to the lawsuit. 

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.