Police misconduct allegations not confined to big cities
November 10, 1999
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio (CNN) -- James Spencer says police beat him, then arrested him for parking in front of a policeman's home.
"They beat me across my back, they kicked me. They beat me with the night stick," said Spencer.
That was 17 years ago. Spencer sued successfully and won more than $100,000.
Spencer's attorney, James McNamara, said, "If they thought you were doing something, they were gonna grab you, hold you and search you and take you in. If you said something they didn't like, you might get hit for it."
High profile cases draw more public scrutiny
In the years since the Spencer case, many more people across the country have filed complaints about police actions, drawing more and more attention from local and federal officials.
In New York, city officials defended police in two high- profile cases of alleged police brutality. In one, an unarmed African immigrant was killed, shot at 41 times and hit 19 times. In another, police are alleged to have tortured and brutalized a Haitian immigrant.
In Los Angeles, a board was formed to examine allegations of widespread police corruption, including claims that police framed an innocent man and stole drugs from an evidence room. Police also may have used questionable tactics in 25 fatal shootings. The cases involve people who may have been mentally ill or drug-impaired.
But Spencer's story unfolded not in the Big Apple or the City of Angels -- it happened in Steubenville, Ohio, population 21,000. The city has a police force of about 50 officers and is known best to many as the birthplace of Dean Martin.
Alleged pattern of abuse leads to court decree
Spencer's case and others prompted the Justice Department to investigate an alleged pattern of police abuse and misconduct in Steubenville -- a probe that led the federal government to sign a court decree in 1997 ordering the department to change its ways.
James Montgomery's allegation of Steubenville police brutality also drew attention.
Montgomery says in 1991 police made his late-night trip to a restaurant a nightmare. He says when he honked his car horn at the car in front of him at the restaurant's takeout window, a policeman got out of the car and began screaming.
"He walked back to my car and then he bent down and then he punched me through the face," said Montgomery.
He said other officers who arrived at the scene accused him of having a gun and jailed him. When no gun was found, the charges were dropped and Montgomery filed a lawsuit against the police. He won more than $100,000.
City accused of routine force, false arrests
The Justice Department accused Steubenville police of routinely engaging in excessive force, false arrests and the improper stopping of vehicles.
Over a period of about 20 years, the city lost or settled 48 civil rights suits involving its police. In those cases, which often involved minorities, the city paid out more than $800,000 -- $400,000 between 1990 and 1996.
At one point, the police department's insurance policy was canceled.
A complaint from City Councilman Ed Mixon about the police led to their call for his impeachment.
"The police had the attitude they own the community, they run the community and anybody that falls afoul of them is going to be seriously damaged," said Mixon.
Police challenge assertions, decry federal tactics
Steubenville police, however, challenge any assertions of a pattern of abuse and say they have been maligned.
"If they add up all the arrests we made since 1972, I'll guarantee you there is no pattern of abuse," said Police Chief Jerry McCartney.
McCartney also questions the legitimacy of many of the complaints. "A lot of people that we have arrested here I consider ... to be undesirables," he said.
However, the federal government disagreed and used a 1994 federal law which allows the Justice Department to investigate and sue police departments for alleged abuses, leading to a 1997 court decree mandating changes.
McCartney says he likes additional training and resources provided by the decree -- but he does not like the Justice Department's tactics.
"I think it was railroaded. I think it was very sneaky. I think it was intimidation and I don't appreciate that," he said.
Steubenville City Attorney Gary Repella says the intervention has produced dramatic, positive results. "Since the decree has been put in, we're working on our third year now of no lawsuits."
Victim sees no police remorse
Despite claims of change in how police conduct themselves, some feelings remain raw.
"If they had any regret they would have apologized, made a public apology, and that was never done, so I don't feel they had any regrets," said Montgomery. "In fact, the city has never admitted to anything."
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