Thursday, August 09, 2001

City to pay $700,000 settlement


Payoff tops other cases of excessive force by cop

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The City of Cincinnati will pay the family of an Alzheimer's patient $700,000 in the largest out-of-court settlement involving excessive force by Cincinnati police, sources close to the case confirmed Wednesday.

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Convenience store camera records removal of Robert L. Wittenberg.
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        Mary and Robert Wittenberg sought $2.5 million in damages from the city.

        The settlement is more than three times the city's payoff in the 1997 shooting death by police of escaped mental patient Lorenzo Collins.

        Until now, the $200,000 settlement in the Collins case was the highest amount the city paid to resolve a lawsuit alleging excessive force by police, according to an Enquirer analysis of city and court records.

Wittenberg
Wittenberg
Hill
Hill
        The city does not regularly track settlements in lawsuits involving police misconduct, although Cincinnati has been sued at least 125 times alleging civil rights abuses by police since 1990.

        Local, state and federal courts have seen an increase in such filings this year in the wake of the riots that followed the death of Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old African-American who was shot while fleeing Cincinnati police April 7.

        A recent undercurrent of distrust toward police played a significant role in the city's decision to settle with the Wittenbergs, said Michael Harmon, the city's chief counsel.

        “We settled because of the unfavorable climate of opinion and the rush to judgment in the media,” he said.

        “The people you talk to on the street had jumped to conclusions ... We thought we could get hit in the millions if we lost this case.”

        The city also was in an awkward position because city leaders were fighting to fire the officer involved at the same time its attorneys were trying to defend him in the Wittenbergs' lawsuit. City lawyers were unsure how those mixed signals would affect a jury, Mr. Harmon said.

        The Wittenbergs, of Silverton, sued the city and Officer Robert Hill in 1999, alleging the officer used excessive force. They said Officer Hill slammed Mr. Wittenberg to the floor after the 68-year-old entered a convenience store with a drill and paint brush and began muttering that someone needed help. The Nov. 14 incident was captured on the store's security camera.

        Mr. Wittenberg suffered fractured ribs, a punctured lung, a lacerated liver and other injuries as a result of the takedown, said the family's attorney, Donald C. Moore Jr.

        City lawyers disputed that Officer Hill caused the injuries, which were discovered the following day. Mr. Wittenberg is now in a Loveland nursing home, where he is expected to spend the rest of his life.

        “Regardless of the amount of money, from the Wittenbergs' standpoint, the money doesn't equate to the injury,” Mr. Moore said.

        “Mrs. Wittenberg would much rather have her husband in the state he was in before the incident than any amount of money.”

        Mr. Moore and Mr. Harmon declined to speak publicly about the amount of the settlement, saying that they agreed the figure would remain confidential until it is approved by a probate judge. A judge must sign off on the amount because Mrs. Wittenberg is the legal guardian for her husband.

        Officer Hill was fired last summer after a police internal investigation determined he used excessive force, but he is now back on the job and bound for a promotion to sergeant by March.

        An independent arbitrator reversed the city's decision to fire Officer Hill, saying a dispatcher exaggerated Mr. Wittenberg's actions — describing it as a weapons case in which people were being threatened — and was partly to blame for the officer's reaction.

        The city challenged the arbitrator's decision in court, but lost the case in June.

        Officer Hill finished 15th on the police division's recent exam for sergeants. Eighteen to 20 officers are expected to be promoted.

       



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