Akron taxpayers shoulder cost of civil rights violations

Akron+Police+Department+settlements+from+2006-2016.

Akron Police Department settlements from 2006-2016.

Andrew Keiper

Jeffrey Stephens Sr. was lying on the ground when he was fatally shot 22 times by two Akron police officers after a late-night altercation with a neighbor on July 4, 2008 — the city awarded his family $400,000.

His death, along with the subsequent civil rights lawsuit against the city, is one of at least 20 civil rights settlements the city of Akron has paid out over the past decade, according to documents from the police department.

From 2006-2016, the city paid $1,199,451 to settle 79 cases, with the vast majority of them being small property-related settlements usually less than $1,000. The total is driven up by civil rights cases like Stephens’. Of the total amount, $1,144,629 was paid out for civil rights-related settlements. 

“In Akron, the settlements come out of the general fund,” said Terry Gilbert, a Cleveland-based civil rights attorney. “It’s very difficult to get them to pay out money because it’s coming from taxpayers’ funds. So, there’s a political component to all that, which is complex.”

Gilbert represented the Stephens family in their case against Akron. He said while the total settlement costs are low compared to Cleveland, the department is not without its problems. James Nice, the police chief since 2011, resigned in August after it surfaced he used racial slurs.

“We now have a case against Akron; it may be another potential shooting case that just happened,” Gilbert said. “They have problems with their leadership in the department.”

Lt. Rick Edwards, spokesman for the Akron Police Department, said the city has settled the majority of cases for moral claims, what he said are small settlements for property damages. Records affirm that, showing 58 of the 79 total settlements are unrelated to civil rights violations or police misconduct. Those cases totaled about $55,000 over the decade. 

“Sometimes it’s cheaper to pay someone the money and get them out of here,” Edwards said.

The bulk cost of the Akron Police Department’s settlements come from police misconduct or civil rights violation cases. Gilbert said there has been an explosion of such cases in recent years. He cited such high-profile cases as Tamir Rice’s killing in Cleveland, Eric Garner’s in New York City and the activism of groups like Black Lives Matter for the uptick in such litigation.

The more prolific cases are microcosms of the larger flow of litigation stemming from the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which provides legal recourse for civilians against local officials who infringe upon their civil rights. It’s now the cornerstone of federal police liability litigation.  

When an Akron officer finds himself named in a lawsuit, Edwards said he’d be represented by the city’s lawyers for the duration of the litigation.

“There is perceived to be, by many people, an epidemic of police abuse,” Gilbert said. “Actually, the Obama administration took an active part in using certain civil rights laws to force departments to reform themselves.”

Edwards said Akron has long been ahead of the curve in training their officers beyond the mandates of the state. He said the city especially focuses on crisis intervention and mental illness training for its officers. 

“We do our own training and outside training,” Edwards said. “We have never been in that situation where we’ve done just the minimum.”

Despite their best efforts, however, taxpayers have still shouldered the costs of about 20 settlements related to civil rights violations by city cops. This is hardly a problem unique to Akron, though.

A 2016 study conducted by Bowling Green State University professor Philip Stinson said that 22 percent of all officers arrested between 2005 and 2011 were named defendants in federal civil rights litigation. Stinson noted in his study that a lack of official statistics and consistent record keeping stymied efforts to determine how common civil rights actions are against police officers.

“The 10 cities in the United States with the largest police departments collectively paid out more than $1 billion during the five-year period 2010-2014 for court judgments and settlements in police misconduct cases,” Stinson wrote. 

His work found approximately 30,000 police misconduct lawsuits are filed annually in state and federal courts against cops, their departments and cities.

The $400,000 settlement received by the Stephens family, which was won by Gilbert, is the largest paid by the city of Akron from 2006 to 2016. It’s not, however, the only egregious example of misconduct by the city’s cops.

Merle Belford suffered a diabetic coma in his car in May 2005 when Akron officers pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, tased and beat him for perceived noncompliance. He was awarded $35,000 in a settlement.

It was around 4 a.m. in September of 2005 when James Washack decided to take his dog for a walk around the block. He was approached by several Akron officers who said he fit the description of a suspect in a pizza shop break-in. He gave officers his name and identification, but he refused to give his Social Security number, when they tackled and proceeded to beat him in his neighbor’s yard. When a supervising officer arrived, they acknowledged there had been no break-in at a pizza shop. He was awarded $45,000 for the ordeal.

Brandon Ellis was shot in the shoulder and hand, losing two fingers, while lying on the ground during an Akron police drug raid. The officer claimed he was bumped, which caused his finger to slip onto the trigger. Ellis said he was face down and alone in the hallway when the officer shot him. He was awarded $175,000 for a civil rights violation and permanent disfigurement. 

Akron is far from the worst city when it comes to police misconduct and abuses. An analysis by the Washington Post of several police stations found that larger cities paid head-and-shoulders more than the Rubber City has over the past decade. Chicago spent $500 million in settlements over the past decade. Oakland has paid $74 million in settlements since 1990. Denver has spent nearly $13 million to pay settlements over the past decade. 

“It’s a long process to reform police departments,” Gilbert said. “The culture is difficult to break through in terms of diversity training, in terms of police accountability, in terms of internal disciplinary matters. But the light has been shed on these police departments.”

Andrew Keiper is the enterprise editor. Contact him at [email protected]