Apr 3, 2024 - News

Columbus police settlements are common and costly

Data: Columbus City Attorney's Office; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Columbus City Attorney's Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Columbus paid out over $21.5 million between 2018-2023 to settle complaints against the Division of Police, an Axios investigation finds.

Why it matters: Taxpayers regularly foot the bill for alleged police misconduct like wrongful shootings and discrimination claims.

What we did: Axios obtained settlement records from the city attorney's office and reviewed six years of City Council ordinances approving those settlements.

  • The Division of Police and the city attorney's office referred all comments to George Speaks, the Department of Public Safety's deputy director, who helps oversee litigation against the city.

State of play: Columbus paid out 40 settlements in that period, or around one every eight weeks.

  • They range from a few thousand dollars paid to settle officers' car crashes to a $10 million settlement for the 2020 shooting death of Andre Hill.
  • Numerous settlements involved excessive use of force complaints, including $5.75 million given to those who were pepper sprayed and hit with wooden baton rounds during the 2020 racial justice protests.

Zoom in: The department's vice unit, which investigated "moral crimes" like illegal gambling and prostitution before it was disbanded in 2019, was involved in a handful of incidents resulting in settlements.

  • Officer Andrew Mitchell's fatal shooting of Donna Castleberry during an alleged prostitution sting led to a $1 million payout. He was later acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges after arguing he acted in self-defense, though he pleaded guilty to kidnapping sex workers.
  • The city also paid $600,000 following the unlawful arrests of Stormy Daniels and two employees of a northeast side strip club. Several officers involved in those arrests were fired.

Also, the city settled five internal department disputes.

Columbus police officers clash with protestors on a street, with an officer spraying something into a row of people.
Columbus paid out a $5.75 million settlement to those injured by police during racial justice protests in 2020. Photo: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

Allegations of law enforcement misconduct are nothing new in American history, OSU urban sociologist and associate professor Townsand Price-Spratlen tells Axios.

But a formal remedy via the judicial system has become more common since 1978 as people sue police departments in civil court via the federal statute Section 1983 by claiming their civil rights were violated.

  • He says it's a sign of societal progress compared to complaints of police brutality that "would have, in previous generations, never seen the light of day."

Inside the room: Speaks, the Department of Public Safety's deputy director, explained Columbus' settlement negotiation process to us.

By the numbers: Between 2018-2023, there were 282 closed legal matters involving Speaks' department, though not all were related to police conduct.

  • Fewer than 20% ended in settlements, per figures provided by Speaks. The rest went through a trial process or were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs.

Between the lines: Speaks says he balances the city's interests with those of the plaintiffs when deciding which cases to settle.

  • A settlement does not necessarily mean the city acknowledges wrongdoing, though Speaks says it's generally important the city make "reasonable amends" when police mistakes are made.
  • Negotiating a settlement greatly mitigates the financial risk of going to trial.
  • If the plaintiff prevails at trial, Columbus is automatically obligated to pay costly court fees, plus potential awards and damages.

Follow the money: Columbus does not have police liability insurance, so settlements are paid out from the city's $1.2 billion general fund, which comes primarily through income and property taxes.

  • Insurance companies view large cities like Columbus as "uninsurable" because of police department size and "volume of interactions," Speaks says.

Zoom out: Columbus is not alone in reckoning with pricey police settlements.

  • For example, Denver paid out millions to 2020 racial justice protesters, and Salt Lake City-area communities big and small have resolved police misconduct complaints for years.
Photo illustration of a Columbus police cruiser with lines emanating from it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Once a settlement is negotiated, it goes to the City Council for approval.

How it works: Council members often discuss the case for a few minutes in open session before voting.

  • Councilors have previously asked if Columbus can use police seizure funds forfeited by criminal defendants to pay for these settlements.
  • The city attorney's office maintains it "would not be appropriate" to use those funds for settlements, deputy city attorney Lara Baker-Morrish said at a February 2023 City Council meeting.

Flashback: Council member Nick Bankston shared frustrations during that meeting when approving a settlement involving an allegation of excessive force.

  • Cameryn Standifer, who was injured in a 2018 takedown maneuver while being arrested on a warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket, received $440,000.

What they're saying: "When mistakes are made like this, it costs taxpayer dollars," Bankston told colleagues.

  • "My vote tonight is a procedural one in that if this fails, it could cost the taxpayers even more money. And not only that, retraumatize this individual … it is not a vote that I want to be taking today."

The other side: Speaks boasts of Columbus' "world class training facility" and the "outstanding" leadership of chief Elaine Bryant and assistant chief LaShanna Potts, who both took over the department in 2021.

  • Bankston has also praised Bryant's leadership, noting the Standifer incident took place before she became chief.

Fast forward: Council went on to approve four more settlements in 2023, including $200,000 given to a Delaware County man who was punched, tased and maced by officers responding to his late-night car accident in 2019.

  • The first settlement in 2024 — approved by the Council on Feb. 12 — was $300,000 given to a man accidentally shot during an arrest nearly a decade ago.
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