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Keys to Appropriate Resolution of Police Misconduct Cases Public Management 2012

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By Alphonse Gerhardstein and
Da v i d K r i n g s , I CMA- CM

UNCOMFORTABLY TRUE

POLICE
M ISCONDUCT
CASES
Keys to appropriate
methods of
resolution

10

P U B LIC MANAG E M E NT | AP R I L 20 12

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“You can’t fight
city hall.” We all
know that saying
is totally wrong.
People fight city hall every day, often
with civil rights lawsuits. These cases
can drain energy and resources as well
as depress employee morale. They also
can make leaders overly cautious, especially if the local government manager or
police chief knows a mistake was made
by a public servant.
The plaintiff and local government
lawyers usually are on automatic pilot,
requiring the local government to fight
for 18 months or more before anyone
looks up to see what the plaintiff really
wants and what action could be taken to
solve the problem. By then, the fees of
the plaintiff’s attorney are so high that a
settlement seems barred by that alone.
No one can argue that these cases can
last way too long.
There is a better way. As a civil
rights attorney and a village administrator, respectively, we followed an
alternative course in two cases in the
community where we were employed.
This article reviews the cases and
suggests how the model we used can be
replicated in other communities.
This model is not appropriate for
frivolous cases where the police acted
correctly. Those charges need a vigorous defense. This article focuses on

Takeaways
› A sincere effort by a local government manager to make amends for
a public safety situation that went
horribly wrong can lead to a far better
emotional and financial outcome for
all parties involved.

› The openness of a local official to
account for such a public situation can
reduce bias and build more trust.
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cases where something really did go
wrong, and it proposes a way to bring
those disputes to a swift and honorable conclusion, using a minimum of
government resources.

Case 1: Drug Dealing Response
Causes Harrowing Experience
for Family
The village of Lockland, Ohio, is a
community of 3,700 lower-income and
middle-income residents located in the
center of a metropolitan area. Residents
enjoy a small-town atmosphere and
peaceful lifestyle. When drug dealers set
up operations in town, that all changed.
The mayor, council, and residents
demanded action. The recently appointed police chief conferred with members of the regional drug task force and
independently came up with a plan of
action. Here’s the story of how a SWAT
raid nabbed the wrong people.
Members of the Williams family
were sitting quietly in their car waiting
for the minister to open their church,
Victory Gospel Temple, in Lockland. It
was December 4 and time to decorate for
Christmas. A white van screeched to a
stop in front of the Williams’s car. Men
with automatic weapons and ski masks
jumped from the van, screaming that
Donna Williams, her young daughters,
and her nephews should get out of their
car and lie prone on the cold sidewalk.
Donna and the children were terrified
and thought they were being robbed.
Eventually the family was permitted—
still at gunpoint—to sit on a ledge. After
20 minutes, they were released. They
were in disbelief when the men identified themselves as police officers. During
the ordeal, all of the family members had
expected to be shot.
The police officers on duty that
day were functioning as members of
the regional drug task force and were
following instructions to “detain any
person standing on or near” the corner
of Locust and Maple. The instructions

and the way they were implemented
blatantly violated the Fourth Amendment. The family sued.
Several months later, the AfricanAmerican Williams family sat with
their lawyer on one side of a federal
courtroom and the Caucasian task force
officers, police chiefs, municipal administrators, and defense lawyers assembled
on the other side. The U.S. magistrate
explained the purpose of mediation.
Each side would be permitted to state
its position while everyone was in one
room, and then the groups would be
separated for the actual negotiations.
As village administrator at the
time of the mediation, I spoke first. I
stood, turned, and faced the Williams
family. I explained that I could see my
daughters in the faces of the Williams
children. I told them that if my daughters had been held at gunpoint by
strangers wearing ski masks, I would
be outraged and angry at anyone associated with those actions.
I also told them that I was extremely
sorry the Williams family had this
terrible experience in my village. I did
not want any residents subjected to this
treatment in the future. I hoped the
Williams’s would accept my apology.
Donna Williams wept as I spoke.
The case settled quickly with agreement on compensation for the family
and agreement on a training program to
be instituted for the task force to prevent
any further violations of the law. For the
family members and their legal counsel,
the apology was critical to the resolution. It was clear that the village was not
going to let it happen again.

Case 2: Harmless Grandma
Wrongfully Arrested
Jennifer Starks is an elderly grandmother. In May 2009, Starks was called to
help her daughter who was being forced
to leave the apartment she shared with
a friend. It was late at night. The young
grandkids needed to get to bed. Starks

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arrived to pick up her grandchildren
about the same time the police responded to complaints.
Without investigation, the officers
physically arrested Starks. She spent her
first night ever in jail. The charges were
promptly dismissed by the prosecutor.
Starks threatened to sue. She said she
wanted fair compensation, training for
the officers, and a meeting with them.
As Lockland administrator, I agreed.
The case was settled before filing,
and the agreement included training for
the officers and a personal meeting that
included Starks, the police officers, and
the attorneys. During that meeting, she
explained to the officers how she felt
while being arrested and held in jail,
being falsely charged, and having her
car impounded.
That opportunity to meet in a
respectful fashion with the officers was
more valuable to her than the money.
The village settled the case for less
money by identifying the real goal of the
plaintiff and offering both economic and
noneconomic terms for settlement.

The Trouble (and Opportunity)
With Lawsuits
Many people have no political or
economic power. Among them are
mentally ill prisoners, discharged workers, inner-city African Americans, and
others of different racial and ethnic
backgrounds. Lawsuits may be the only
way to secure their rights.
But lawsuits are limiting. A jury
trial ends with a verdict that allows
the jury to take only one action if it
finds liability—awarding money to the
plaintiff. An injunction claim can be
more comprehensive, but an injunction

12

puts the local government under a court
order. This is intrusive and is often
resented by rank-and-file officers and
police administrators.
Lawsuits as traditionally pursued are
simply one way to solve a problem and
not a good one at that. Some lawsuits
have no merit, and they need to run
their course and be vigorously defended.
But often the issues are clear and wrongs
were indeed committed.

formal, written apology from the county
commissioners, complete destruction
of all images and copies of any of the
photos, and the installation of a plaque
at the morgue entrance that states, “The
bodies entrusted to the county coroner
are sacred and shall be treated with the
utmost respect.”
Protecting battered women. In two
cases, police departments were accused

Apologies, training, policy changes,
plaques, and dialogue can all be considered
to make sure the plaintiff is heard and the
government expends only the appropriate
amount of time and resources.
In those instances, monetary damages can be minimized if the parties
explore ways to ensure that the problem
will not be repeated. That might be an
apology; that might be targeted training;
or that might be a face-to-face dialogue
pursued under ground rules of respect
and civility.

of failing to protect battered women.
The settlements included training and
also memorials placed near the department entrance. Examples of the memorials can be found at www.gbfirm.
com/thompson_photos.php or at www.
gbfirm.com/culberson_photos.php.

Outcome Options
Other Examples
Symbolic or noneconomic terms have
been parts of settlements in many cases:
Unarmed man shot at crash site. An
officer confronts a drunken driver at the
scene of a one-car crash. With a single
command, he orders the driver to turn
around, show his hands, and get down
on the ground. When the suspect turns,
the officer shoots him in the face. The
settlement includes training on threat
assessment, implementation of performance evaluations, and better screening
of officers.
Corpse abuse at the morgue. A
county coroner allows a commercial
photographer to enter the morgue and
photograph bodies after placing props
on them. The settlement includes a

P U B LIC MANAG E M E NT | AP R I L 20 12

Not every lawsuit should be settled. In
the majority of cases, public servants
do remarkably well in extremely trying
circumstances. But, occasionally,
mistakes are made. Although not every
lawsuit has merit, some do. In those
cases, the parties should sit down early
and consider more than money as tools
for resolution.
Apologies, training, policy changes,
plaques, and dialogue can all be
considered to make sure the plaintiff is
heard and the government expends
only the appropriate amount of time
and resources.
Alphonse
GerhArDsteIn is

a civil rights attorney,
Cincinnati, Ohio
(agerhardstein@gbfirm.
com), and DAvID KrInGs, ICMA-CM, is village
administrator, Lockland, Ohio (dkrings@cinci.rr.com).

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