Thursday, May 22, 2003

City settles 16 police suits for $4.5 million

By Gregory Korte and Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The city of Cincinnati will pay $4.5 million to 16 plaintiffs in the largest legal settlement in the city's history.

The global settlement of lawsuits against the Cincinnati Police Department resolves cases alleging civil rights violations ranging from unlawful searches to wrongful deaths.

[IMAGE] Don Hardin, counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, and City Solicitor Rita McNeil listen to compliments from the City Council on the settlement.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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The most well-known among them is the 2001 wrongful death case of Timothy D. Thomas, whose death by an officer's bullet in Over-the-Rhine sparked the city's worst rioting in three decades.

City Council voted 5-2 Wednesday to approve the settlement, which came up for a roll-call vote with no advance warning. U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott could approve the settlements as soon as today.

"This has been an anvil around the neck of the city," Mayor Charlie Luken said. "Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly. It's a fact."

Luken implored the council to approve the deal immediately, before any of the plaintiffs could back out. "Do it for the plaintiffs. Do it for the officers. But mostly, I would ask you to do it for the city."

The agreement settles individual claims remaining against the city from the class-action lawsuit on racial profiling. That lawsuit, Bomani Tyehimba v. City of Cincinnati, later became the legal basis for the police reform settlement known as the Collaborative Agreement.

The City of Cincinnati settled 16 federal lawsuits alleging wrongful death, excessive force and other civil rights violations by police. Among them:

Elsie Carpenter v. City of Cincinnati: Carpenter is the mother of Michael Carpenter, who was shot and killed by police March 19, 1999. Carpenter was driving a car with expired plates in Northside when police began to chase him. Carpenter pulled over on a narrow side street, but did not get out of his car. Officer Brent McCurley, standing behind the car, shot nine times, saying he feared for his life when the car began to back up.

Bomani Tyehimba v. City of Cincinnati: Tyehimba, a Pleasant Ridge businessman, filed suit against the city April 30, 1999, claiming police illegally ordered him out of his car at gunpoint. His was the first and most prominent racial profiling lawsuit against the city, and became the vehicle for the out-of-court settlement that became the Collaborative Agreement.

Vincent Clark et. al. v. City of Cincinnati: Clark, a former professional football player, and a passenger, Terry Horton, were leaving a downtown nightclub Feb. 23, 2001 when police pulled them over in a case of mistaken identity. The two men say one of the officers pointed a shotgun at Clark's face and illegally searched the car. Police said they were acting on information from a bail bondsman that a wanted fugitive was seen at the nightclub driving a green GMC Yukon. Clark called it a classic case of racial profiling.

Angela Leisure v. City of Cincinnati: Leisure is the mother of Timothy D. Thomas, the 19-year-old whose April 7, 2001 shooting in Over-the-Rhine prompted four days of rioting. Police began chasing Thomas on foot after an officer recognized him as being wanted on 14 misdemeanor warrants. Officer Stephen Roach caught up with him in a dark alley and fired once. The officer later gave conflicting stories about whether the gun "just went off" or he feared Thomas had a weapon.

Other plaintiffs who settled their claims were: Lisa Youngblood-Smith, John E. Harris, Stephanie and Paul Keith, Enrico Martin, Roderick Glenn, Arnold White, Tony Stillwell, Sheila Barnes, Antonio Johnson, Matthew Shaw, Mark A. Ward and Charles A. Wiley.

For the plaintiffs, the settlement guarantees they will receive at least some compensation without enduring years of trials and appeals.

"The fact is, my son is never coming back," said Angela Leisure, the mother of Thomas. "But my son isn't the only son in Cincinnati."

The city was spared the prospect of 16 trials, each of which could have cost millions of dollars in legal fees and possible damages. The settlement includes the case of Michael Carpenter, shot to death by police in a 1999 traffic stop, but not Roger Owensby Jr., who died in the back of a police cruiser in Roselawn in 2000.

The cost of fighting - and losing - those cases could have surpassed $10 million, city officials said.

And the 35 officers involved in the cases - many of whom were named as private defendants and could have faced personal liability - also can get on with their careers. Neither the city nor the officers admitted any wrongdoing.

"I hope the media doesn't point to this as a sign of weakness by police," said Don Hardin, a lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police. "We did this because it was in the best interests of the city."

The city also avoided public - and potentially embarrassing - court battles that would have focused on police misconduct, racism and other politically sensitive issues. City officials worried that even if they won at trial, the damage to the city's image would be incalculable.

Elsie Carpenter, the mother of Michael Carpenter, said she hopes the settlement makes Cincinnati a safer and more tolerant community. "We pray this will never happen to another family in this city," she said. "It has really taken a toll on our lives."

The $4.5 million would go to a settlement fund to be divided up by the plaintiffs. The exact amount that each defendant will receive will be confidential.

How much will go for fees and expenses of the plaintiff's lawyers - Kenneth L. Lawson, Scott Greenwood and Alphonse Gerhardstein - is also secret.

City Manager Valerie Lemmie conceded that the city has only $1.2 million left in the account used to pay court judgments. Finding the remaining $3.3 million will be a struggle with the city's tight budgets, but Lemmie promised to make cuts to city services as painless as possible.

The global settlement is almost twice as much as the $2.36 million the city has paid to settle lawsuits against police over the last 12 years.

Previously, the largest single settlement in an excessive force lawsuit against Cincinnati police was $700,000 to Robert Wittenberg, a 64-year-old Alzheimer's patient injured in a body-slam arrest at a Madisonville convenience store.

Councilmen Chris Monzel and Pat DeWine voted against the agreement.

Plaintiff Bomani Tyehimba said he's satisfied that justice has been served - both through the settlement and the police reforms in the Collaborative Agreement.

Tyehimba's name became forever connected to the issue of police misconduct since 1999. That's when the Pleasant Ridge businessman said he was handcuffed, roughed up and held at gunpoint during a routine traffic stop.

He said he hopes the settlement is a lesson to his 11-year-old son, who had asked his father why he didn't fight back when police handcuffed him.

"I did this mainly for my son, to show him that when a wrong happens, there are right ways to deal with it," he said.

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