A U.S. Justice Department lawsuit that accuses the Columbus police force of brutality and other civil rights violations could become a major test of wills between the government and the city's police union.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 21, demands improvements in the training and supervision of police officers and in the investigation of civilian complaints against the 1,700-member force.
The city and the Columbus Fraternal Order of Police are disputing the allegations. And the FOP has argued that the new procedures demanded by the government would make the city less safe by tying up officers with paperwork.
Cities don't need the federal government telling them how to police local streets, FOP President Bill Capretta said. "They didn't do a very good job at Ruby Ridge or Waco," he said, referring to deadly standoffs in Idaho and Texas in 1992 and 1993.
Columbus is the third city to be threatened with a lawsuit under a 1994 law that allows the Justice Department to sue over an alleged pattern of civil rights violations by a police department. But it is the first city to fight back.
The two other cities--Steubenville, Ohio, and Pittsburgh--reached consent decrees in which they promised to correct problems in the training, supervision and discipline of officers.
"We're interested in how we can develop professional policing at every level and practice and procedure, and how we can do it together," Attorney General Janet Reno said earlier this month.
The Justice Department accused police in Ohio's capital of such things as roughing up residents and falsely arresting people who witnessed police misconduct.
The lawsuit came after a review of 300 complaints from diverse residents. But it started with complaints from 10 black people in Columbus, which is the nation's 15th-largest city, with a population of 670,000, and is about one-fifth black.
Columbus was hit with the lawsuit the day after the FOP rejected an offer to settle the case. The city and the Justice Department had reached a tentative settlement, but it needed FOP approval because it required changes in the police officers' contract.
"This is going to be very closely watched across the country because this is the first time that a union's got involved in this way," said David Bayley, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany. "It also will really test the powers of the feds to come into local operations and obtain consent decrees, especially if there's a strong union."
Under the proposed settlement, the city would not have admitted any wrongdoing and the police department and individual officers would not have been penalized.
But Capretta complained that the new procedures would have been too burdensome. He said, for example, that after a "courtesy stop" to let a motorist know about a burned-out headlight, an officer would have had to fill out a form to spell out the driver's race and age and why he was stopped.
Capretta also said he is worried that "if you are a person of color or of another nationality, and you are the only ticket I wrote all month, the only person I stopped, that could possibly red-flag me as a person who picks on different races of people, even if it's not true."
The union has asked a federal court to let it join the city in defending the lawsuit, and the city attorney agreed to a limited role for the union. A federal magistrate will decide after the Justice Department responds.
Law enforcement officers in surrounding Franklin County voted to contribute to a $2.5 million legal defense fund. For four years, Columbus officers will pay $25 a month and suburban officers and county deputies $10 a month. The national FOP also has pledged support.
If the government gets its way, "you've got Big Brother taking over and running your cities," Capretta said. "They want to control things."