The Civil Liberties Defense Center filed an amended federal lawsuit on Feb. 22 with names of police officers involved during the May 31, 2020, George Floyd protests. The five plaintiffs and the CLDC initially filed a federal lawsuit in July 2020 that alleges Eugene police officers violated their First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights. The city has settled two lawsuits related to policing from May 31.
The filing, made after a months-long legal discovery process, reveals that one of the Eugene police officers involved with the May 31 evening alleged police brutality has been a defendant in other police misconduct cases and lawsuits.
“One thing that repeatedly leapt off the page of the civil discovery documents was a name that we have all seen far too many times in association with police brutality against protestors — Sgt. William Solesbee,” Lauren Regan, director and attorney with CLDC, said in a statement.
According to the amended filing, during the protests Solesbee fired projectiles at and into homes without legal justification, causing significant damage to residential properties and their residents. The filing says Solesbee and other officers allegedly shot chemical and impact munitions at both Campbell Club and the Lorax, two student cooperatives near the University of Oregon’s campus.
According to the filing, at 11:20 pm when two of the plaintiffs were at the Campbell Club, several officers arrived and started shooting chemical and impact munitions. A friend of one of the plaintiffs ran toward the porch of the cooperative as officers shot the person in the back. Another plaintiff opened the door to let the person inside the house. Solesbee then allegedly fired a 40 mm foam round, which struck the top of the hinge of the door, cracking the wood door frame.
This isn’t Solesbee’s first time named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit.
CLDC said he was found guilty of using excessive force and violating the rights of protester Josh Schlossberg, an environmentalist who in 2009 was outside of Umpqua Bank handing out flyers about the impacts of the bank’s investments on local forests. According to that case’s court documents, Solesbee wrenched Schlossberg’s arms behind his back and threw him to the ground and then forcefully placed his knee on his neck. Solesbee then seized and searched Schlossberg’s cameras without a court warrant.
CLDC said Solesbee has been a defendant in at least four other police misconduct lawsuits and had injured a pesticide protester, Ian van Ornum, at Kesey Square in 2009.
A Eugene Weekly cover story from April 23, 2009, reported on van Ornum’s trial. Solesbee recalled yelling at the protester to stop resisting, so “I grabbed a hold of his hair, forced him down with all my body weight,” he said. After giving a warning, another police officer then fired his Taser at van Ornum. Solesbee said van Ornum was screaming while being shocked.
Van Ornum said, “I’d never felt any pain that even compared to it in any way. The heart was beating to the point I thought it was either going to explode or stop beating entirely.”
Solesbee said during testimony that the crowd became agitated after the police officers grabbed van Ornum. A jury still found van Ornum guilty of misdemeanor criminal mischief but that was later overturned by the Oregon Court of Appeals.
CLDC said after each of these abuses, they had demanded the city either fire or remove Solesbee from the streets. “It’s difficult to take City Manager [Sarah] Medary’s and Chief [Chris] Skinner’s public pledges of police ‘reform’ seriously when this is the guy they put on point for community protests and for training future generations of law enforcement,” CLDC senior staff attorney Marianne Dugan said in a statement.
The May 31 Eugene Black Lives Matter-related protests have been discussed at recent Civilian Review Board meetings. According to those meetings, Solesbee was the only officer to shoot the 40 mm rounds at people and property, according to the CLDC. The Eugene police auditor described the rounds as shotgun shells with a thin piece of plastic at the top, the nonprofit added.
The police auditor found Solesbee’s actions to violate policy, and Skinner said that the city had inadequately trained him, calling the events “an organizational failure,” according to CLDC’s press release.
The amended federal filing demands that plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages against Solesbee to punish him and deter others from similar conduct.
Two federal lawsuits against the city of Eugene alleging police brutality from the May 31 protests have been settled. On Jan. 13, Kelsie Leith-Bowden and the city agreed on a $61,000.01 settlement. On Oct. 21, EW staff writer Henry Houston agreed on a $45,000 settlement.