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In March 2012, an off-duty police officer shot and killed Kenny Smith outside a Cleveland bar. Although Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty initially said Officer Roger Jones "correctly and heroically took action to protect the safety of the citizens of Cleveland," Smith's family was awarded $5.5 million in a wrongful death claim in September.
Smith's family has yet to see any of that money, and they possibly never will. That's because Cleveland's law department is trying a new way around paying millions in civil judgments against the city's police officers.
Normally, a city, as the employer, is on the hook for the negligent acts of its employee police officers. Although public officials enjoy some qualified immunity from civil lawsuits, if police officers have violated an individual's "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights, they can be sued. If the individual, or the individual's family, wins the lawsuit against the officer, the city will often pay the award.
As Cleveland Scene reported, this is how it worked in the city: "Under state law and the terms of the union contract, chronically cash-strapped Cleveland indemnifies officers in the cases where they've been personally found liable, meaning ultimately, taxpayers foot the bill for an officer's misconduct." And in the ten years from 2004 to 2014, Cleveland paid out over $10 million in police misconduct cases.
But the days of indemnification may be over. Cleveland is reportedly refusing to indemnify Officer Jones and others while at the same time paying their legal fees as they declare bankruptcy. If successful, this would mean Cleveland is off the hook for the civil judgments, and the victims who were awarded damages may never get paid.
The legal maneuvering comes on the heels of the Justice Department's investigation last year that found the Cleveland Division of Police "engages in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution." Given the DOJ settlement, the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and the acquittal of Officer Michael Brelo (who fired 49 of 137 rounds into a car following a high-speed chase that killed two people) Cleveland has been at the forefront of the police brutality conversation. But if this legal gambit works, expect quite a few cities to follow suit.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.