Going After Its Own

The University of Oregon is suing one of its former police officers for allegedly arresting a Hispanic man without a reason and lying about it.

April 28, 2021
 
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A university police officer stops a Hispanic man without reason. The man calmly brings his bicycle to a halt, but that doesn’t stop the officer from drawing his gun and telling backup to “go lethal.” The man is tackled and arrested with his hands in the air. The officer lies about the incident on his police reports.

That’s the version of events that the University of Oregon has presented in a federal lawsuit against its former police K-9 handler, Troy Phillips. University officers are frequently accused of stopping people without reason and falsifying reports, but rarely do universities admit to the misconduct, never mind sue members of their own staff.

The suit concerns Phillips's treatment of Eliborio Rodrigues Jr. on Oct. 27, 2018, in Eugene, Ore. Rodrigues was riding his bike in the designated bike lane. Phillips turned his car around in pursuit, despite not having any reason to suspect criminal activity, the university alleges in the complaint. After Phillips engaged his overhead lights and sirens, Rodrigues came to a stop within 15 seconds.

As Rodrigues was standing calmly, Phillips drew and pointed his handgun, demanding to know why he hadn’t stopped sooner. Rodrigues motioned to a small speaker in his hand and said he couldn’t hear over the music. He had a knife holstered in his waistband, and Phillips repeatedly demanded that he get on the ground. Rodrigues held both his hands in the air and explained that he didn’t want to sit on the wet ground, asking to speak with a supervisor.

Phillips told Rodrigues that he would be tased if he did not comply and told a second officer to “go lethal,” the university alleges.

“In response, Rodrigues pleaded: ‘No. Please sir. You see my hands. Get your sergeant.’ He did not raise his voice, move his hands from the air, or move away from Defendant,” the university wrote in the complaint. As the sounds of sirens became audible, Phillips tackled Rodrigues to the ground.

Philips reviewed the recordings of the event four times in preparing his incident reports, but he falsified statements, saying that Rodrigues was swerving on his bicycle before the arrest and was reaching for his knife during the encounter, the university alleges. Phillips didn’t disclose the existence of a recording of the event in his reports and excluded key details.

When called to testify at Rodrigues’s trial, Phillips repeated his false claims under oath, the university said. He did not respond to a prosecuting attorney, who asked if there was a recording of the arrest. Rodrigues was acquitted. Phillips was fired in November 2019 because of the stated misconduct.

Rodrigues notified the university of an intent to sue in 2019, but he was killed in an unrelated incident with Eugene police before he could do so. In that incident, he was stopped for walking in the road, a violation of city code.

The university paid Rodrigues’s estate $115,000 in return for a commitment not to pursue legal action. The parties agreed that $100,000 of that payment would be assigned directly to Phillips to pay. The university, as the assignee of the estate, is now trying to get that $100,000 from Phillips.

“The university holds all its police officers to the highest standards, and such intentional misconduct violates UOPD’s policies and the law, and is universally condemned by American law enforcement agencies,” the university said in a statement. “We stand firmly behind the UOPD and its officers who adhere to the university’s professional standards but will not support or use public funds to indemnify and defend a person for such misconduct.”

Daniel Thenell, Phillips's lawyer, said the facts as laid out by the university in the complaint are grossly inaccurate. "Officer Phillips reacted to the situation with Mr. Rodrigues as he was trained to do so," he said via email.

Thenell also said there is an active grievance against the university regarding Phillips's termination.

"We believe the university is doing this to put pressure on Mr. Phillips to drop his grievance," he said via email.

News of the suit was first reported by The Oregonian. The university alleges unlawful seizure, malicious prosecution and fabrication of evidence.

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