Columbus police misconduct costs rising, many cases still pending

The City doesn't account for settlements in its police budget, even though they've totaled $2 million in the last year and have averaged $934,000 each year since 2015.
Two Columbus police officers hold canisters with chemical agents during protests downtown on May 28, 2020.
Two Columbus police officers hold canisters with chemical agents during protests downtown on May 28, 2020. Marisa Twigg

On October 29, 2015, Columbus Division of Police Officers Matthew Baase and John Narewski climbed into the back seat of a car parked legally on private property and shot Deaunte Lamar Bell one time in the head and five times in the back.

Bell’s mother, Dytania Hudson, said, “They left my son on the street for 42 minutes with no medical attention.” The 25-year-old father of three died from his wounds.

In May 2016, a Franklin County grand jury did not return criminal indictments for Baase and Narewski. Both Hudson and the executor of Bell’s estate filed Federal civil lawsuits against both of the officers and the City of Columbus in October 2017.

Over three years later, those lawsuits are still pending, along with over 40 other cases filed by victims and families claiming restitution for harm caused by the actions of Columbus police officers.
There are also nine cases pending from division employees claiming discrimination.

The city doesn’t list these potential expenses in its annual police budget, even though the settlements have averaged $934,000 per year over the last five years and totaled $2 million in the last twelve months.

That doesn’t include the $10 million settlement signed by the city that will be paid out to the Estate of Andre Hill sometime during 2021. In an email to Matter News, Department of Public Safety Spokesperson Glenn McEntyre reported that, “The [Andre Hill] settlement will come from the Police budget. There are no plans for a reduction in force...No areas in the budget have yet been identified to offset the settlement cost.”

>> View the Columbus Division of Police's active litigation cases.

Where does the city get the money to pay these settlements?

The city has similar options to any household trying to budget a large expense. The city could do any of the following to pay for these settlements:

  • Budget for it: The police budget has a standing $100,000 each year for all claims. Even when the Donna Dalton settlement of $1 million was known, The Division of Police did not increase the next year’s budget prior to its approval by City Council.

  • Increase income: This usually means a tax increase and the city hasn’t yet asked for a vote for more money to pay for police brutality.

  • Reduce other expenses: The Hill settlement will be paid from the Division of Police budget, but the agreement doesn’t state that.

  • Pay it out of savings: This seems to be the city's usual approach using a line item called Citywide Accounts in the Finance Budget, which functions as a short term savings account for the city.

  • Borrow the money to pay for it: Some cities float “Police Brutality Bonds” but because Columbus pools all its operating debt, you would never know if you were financing this activity by buying a municipal bond.

  • Defer payment: The city is already doing this by stretching out the lawsuits for years. They initially wrote the Hill settlement to release half the payment in 2022 and then changed it to all be released in 2021.

  • Insure it: There are insurance contracts available for a city’s liability due to police brutality, but Columbus has not purchased one.

The city budget is a complicated process and these expenses are highly unpredictable in their amount and timing. City Council approves each payment as settlements are reached.

These settlements result from families of victims, victims, and employees seeking monetary payment for medical bills, lost earning potential, pain and suffering and punitive damages. But most never receive any compensation.

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Criminal charges against officers are rare, leaving civil lawsuits as the only path to justice available for some victims

Police across the country have killed an average of 1,000 people per year since 2015. Exactly 27 people have been killed since then by 52 Columbus Division of Police officers using deadly force in a wide variety of circumstances, including apprehending criminal suspects, responding to mental health crises, serving warrants, sting operations, traffic stops, soliciting prostitution, and general patrol duties.

All except one of the 27 victims died of gunshot wounds. Three identified as female. Four were youth. Eight were white. Several were suffering with mental health crises, including some with suicidal ideations. Thirteen were suspects in violent crimes.

Andrew Mitchell, the former officer who shot and killed Donna Dalton in August, 2018, and Adam Coy, the former officer who shot and killed Andre Hill in December, 2020, are the only two currently facing criminal charges. Information about what officers who are responsible for more recent shootings will face has yet to be released.

A group of local activists organized by the Downtownerz of Columbus is asking the Department of Justice to reinvestigate all Columbus police killings since 1998. The activist group has found troubling trends at CPD, including the rate at which people are dying, police justifying the killing with a crime being committed, and lack of immediate access to witnesses.

A spokesperson for the group, James Oliver, said, “We want the DOJ specifically to investigate and ensure these cases were and are investigated properly.

<< View the Columbus Division of Police's closed litigation cases.

Civil court process still difficult to navigate, families say

Few officers face criminal prosecution because police are subject to different criteria in the courts based on their department’s use of force policies, so many families turn to the civil court process to get justice for their loved ones. The criminal courts would prosecute the officers for a crime, where the civil courts would hold the city or the officers financially responsible. Some families told Matter that it’s not easy to navigate that process, either.

“To stand on what you believe or to be honest and wanna fight for justice is extremely difficult...You have to be knowledgeable or nothing will get done,” Hudson said.

Even if they have the knowledge and the stamina, it can be hard to find an attorney to take the case. Karla Carey, Board Member of the Ohio Families Unite Against Police Brutality, said she often helps families look for attorneys.

“For those families it is extremely frustrating because [the attorney] sees a clip of what transpired without having the whole story,” Carey said. She believes it is hardest to find an attorney when “it appeared that there was some criminal activity.”

She continued, “When there is a weapon involved, it seems like [the case] goes out the window.”

Hudson recalled that initial reports of her son's killing emphasized that he was not allowed to carry a gun because of his previous felony plea. The police reports omitted the fact that the only gun found at the crime scene where he died had four sets of fingerprints, none of them his.

Qualified immunity protects many officers in these cases, so the city is usually the only party required to pay any settlements ordered. The city attorney also defends the officers named in the lawsuits, meaning these officers are not burdened with the cost of legal counsel. In the Andre Hill settlement, Adam Coy, former Police Chief Thomas Quinlan, and 14 other officers are named as parties protected from any further claims relating to this incident.

In a rare decision, the qualified immunity protection of the officers who killed Henry Green in June, 2016, was thrown out on appeal. This decision allows a case brought by his mother, Adrienne Hood, to proceed against Officers Zachary Rosen and Jason Bare in addition to the city.

Six civil cases have been filed against the city and officers in the last five years. The families of Green, Tyre King (killed September 2016) and Jaron Thomas (killed January 2017) are still waiting for decisions in their cases. The family of Kareem Ali Nadir Jones — who was killed in July 2017 and the first body-camera recorded police-killing in Columbus — received no compensation.

Two cases that have settled are Andre Hill’s estate for $10 million and the estate of Donna Dalton, killed in August 2018, for $1,025,000. Those two cases are the only cases where the officers are currently facing criminal charges.

Families of more recent victims of police shootings might be considering their options at this time, and Carey has worked with several of these families.

From the city’s perspective, unless it is a clear case where criminal charges can be brought immediately, past cases show that the city can expect a civil case to take several years before they need to budget for the settlement.

About 30% of closed cases result in cash payments to those harmed

About 40 of the open cases against the city are for incidents where people were harmed in ways other than having their lives ended by police actions. One of the cases is a class action brought by victims of police brutality during last summer’s protests.

Over 100 cases have been closed in the last five years. A little more than a quarter of them resulted in a cash payment to the claimant.

Of the cases that have been paid out, the largest settlement of $780,000 went to the mother of a four-year-old girl who was shot in the leg by a Columbus police officer who said he was defending himself against an attack by the family’s dog.

The second highest payment of $450,000 went to Stephanie Clifford — who many know as Stormy Daniels — as compensation for a false arrest.

Other settlements ranged from $3,500 to $237,000, including many medical bill reimbursements

Columbus Division of Police employees also sue their employer — The City

In the last five years, 11 CPD officers have sued their employer, the City of Columbus, for discrimination or wrongful termination. Some claims are being heard at the Ohio Civil Rights Commissions and others are in federal court.

Two have been settled. Sarah Wheeler received $300,000 for claims related to discrimination based on sex as a recruit. Karl Shaw received $475,000 for claims related to racist threats from other officers.

The other nine also include claims of racist and sexist behavior as well as discrimination in hiring and advancement.

As for Hudson, she knows the lawsuit won’t bring back her son, but hopes other families never have to experience what she is going through.

“The lawsuit is for my grandchildren. He had three sons and they were robbed,” she said.

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