The U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report in December contending that the Cleveland Police Department routinely violated citizens’ civil rights. The Cleveland Plain Dealer says taxpayers already had been paying a heavy price: more than $8.2 million to resolve lawsuits that accused officers of brutality, misconduct or making wrongful arrests. In the last decade, the city settled or was ordered to pay judgments in 60 cases to people from all walks of life. Amounts paid range from $1,125 to a man who claimed he was roughed up by off-duty officers at a nightclub when he tried to return a lost wallet to the $3 million paid to the families of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell after they were killed in a hail of 137 bullets after a cross-town police chase that made national headlines.
In a number of cases, the people who alleged brutality were the ones who called police for help in the first place. Mayor Frank Jackson says the settlements don’t prove any pattern of police conduct. They don’t even mean officers were at fault for wrongdoing, officials have said. Viewed as a whole, the details show that high-level city officials were, or should have been, on notice about allegations that officers too often used excessive force, escalated confrontations and needlessly disrespected citizens they were hired to serve. Lawsuits are like the canary in the coal mine, said Candace McCoy, who specializes in police policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “They tell you what’s wrong if you pay attention over time,” she said. “I think Cleveland may not have been paying attention.”