Ohio Gang Rape: DOJ Found Steubenville Police Misconduct in 1997

Turns out, the protests claiming a “police cover-up” or “corruption” by the Steubenville Police Department and City Leaders to protect a group of local “Big Red” high school football players allegedly involved in the gang rape of a teenage girl were to be expected.


In 1997, the US Department of Justice found a “pattern or practice of” civil rights violations by the Steubenville Police Department including excessive use of force, false arrests, false charges, tampering with evidence, false reporting, and political corruption resulting in a lawsuit against the City of Steubenville, the Steubenville Police Department, the City Manager, and the Civil Service Commission.

The DOJ alleged in the Steubenville lawsuit, “that officers of the Steubenville Police Department have engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights, privileges,or immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and that the City of Steubenville, the Steubenville Police Department, and the Steubenville City Manager (in his capacity as Director of Public Safety) have caused and condoned this conduct through inadequate policies and failure to train, monitor, supervise, and discipline police officers, and to investigate alleged misconduct, all in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 14141.” (US v. City of Steubenville, Steubenville Police Department, Steubenville City Manager, in his capacity as director of Public Safety, and Steubenville Civil Service Commission, Civil No. C2 97-966, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, August 28, 1997.)

Over a twenty year period, the city (Steubenville) lost, or settled out of court, 48 civil rights lawsuits involving its police force. The city paid out more than $800,000, $400,000 of which was between 1990 and 1996. As a result, the city’s police force became the second city in the United States to sign a consent decree with the federal government due to an excessive number of civil rights lawsuits, as stated on wikipedia.com. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steubenville,_Ohio)


As a settlement, the City of Steubenville agreed to a Court Consent Decree allowing for monitoring of the Steubenville police department by the DOJ and the implementation of an extensive list of changes to the police department’s training program, police procedures including the creation of an internal affairs unit to handle police complaints. Read full consent decree here.

This all may just be old news from 14 years ago, but, when the DOJ finds a “pattern or practice'” of civil rights violations and police misconduct, most attorneys will continue to look under the hood, especially, given that the current gang rape investigation was done and remains in the hands of the Steubenville Police Department. As we all know, cases can be won or lost depending on what a police officer/investigation did or didn’t do. Just ask OJ Simpson.

So, what’s changed in Steubenville? Has there been a significant reduction in the number of civil rights lawsuits and police complaints? Have the players changed? I can’t tell by the City’s new “transparent” website, but, I did find out that the current police chief and others did not go to the same Big Red high school as the defendant football players. (http://steubenvillefacts.squarespace.com/).

However, I did notice that Steubenville’s attorney has not changed. Mr. Gary Rapella, Steubenville’s law director, was the attorney of record back in 1997 for all the Steubenville defendants during the DOJ lawsuit and his name appears today as the law director. (http://www.clearinghouse.net/chDocs/public/PN-OH-0002-0003.pdf) Having been a deputy city attorney myself, I presume that Mr. Rapella continues to provide legal advice to the Steubenville Police Department, City Council and the City of Steubenville on the handling of their current police cases including the current gang rape investigation, media scrutiny and public protests.

On most days, police departments and city officials walk a tough line. Yet, these days, it may be wiser to call in an outside agency to handle the prosecution and the investigation of a potentially high-profile case (think Penn State and Duke) to avoid allegations of a “cover-up”, the intense media scrutiny and the expected public protests (Anonymous'”Occupy Steubenville”) especially, when the jurisdiction has a marked history of police misconduct and civil rights violations. Not to mention, the potential of jeopardizing the underlying case.

The question remains has Steubenville learned the lessons of the past.

Simply my opinion, what say you?

(Update 1/31/2013: In the Ohio gang rape case, Judge Thomas R. Lipps denied the defense’s request for change of venue and trial will be open to media against the wishes of the victim’s family and the prosecution. Media lawyers had requested open proceedings. Trial date continued to March 13 in juvenile court.)

(Update 1/10/2013: Please read the comments, including those from Steubenville Attorney (and NAACP chair) Richard Olivito whose case “kicked” off the DOJ police misconduct investigation…he is still shining the light…)

(Update: 1/8/2013: As to what’s changed? It was not until 2005 that the Steubenville police department was found in full compliance with the 1997 court-ordered consent decree. During those 8 years, the court-appointed auditor Charles Reynolds filed quarterly reports, noting problems including with “supervision and discipline” of officers.http://www.parc.info/client_files/Newsletters/2002/7%20-%20novemberbpr02.pdf. The current police chief, William McCafferty, has been with the police department since 1989, thus, he was on the force during the time of the “excessive” “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations resulting in the consent decree. He was promoted to acting police chief in 2001, as many officers had left as they “didn’t want any part of the consent decree”. In 2003, he became the permanent police chief when the DOJ allowed him to be sworn in. His interview is worth the read. I wonder if it may have been a better idea to have an outside police chief, rather than promote one who was “trained” and “raised” in an environment that required a DOJ (taxpayer) lawsuit to get the police officers and the police department in compliance with the law. http://www.parc.info/client_files/Newsletters/2005/4%20-%20aprilppr05.pdf. Also, I wonder if the Steubenville police training includes the proper recovery and preservation of certain forensic evidence like cell phones, videos and tweets.

(Update 1/6/2013: As just reported on CNN, a defense attorney claims that the alleged victim sent a text to his client stating that the “rape didn’t happen” and that the attorney doesn’t think “she (victim) thinks she was raped”. The other defense attorney when asked about the issue of consent and alcohol, stated that the victim “was conscious”. What? This is an alleged gang rape case–who consents to a gang rape? Speaking as a former DV prosecutor, rape is about power, control, humiliation and violence. It is not about love or sex, and given those dynamics, alleged victim recantation is not a surprise and it doesn’t stop a prosecution in light of other physical and witness evidence. BTW in Ohio, it’s not a statutory rape case if the victim is 16, the age of consent. The defendants were charged as juveniles as the age of an adult is 18 and charging as an adult is up to the judge. Lastly, as to the police department, I wonder why no adult including the football coach who reportedly hosted one of the parties that August night where alcohol was allegedly served hasn’t been charged with any offense. Apparently, as reported on CNN, no other defendants will be charged in the alleged gang rape case. For rape crisis services, please contact http://www.rccmsc.org/faq.aspx or National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE; suspected civil rights violation contact US DOJ at http://www.justice.gov/crt/complaint/#one )

9 Comments on “Ohio Gang Rape: DOJ Found Steubenville Police Misconduct in 1997”

  1. mccrguy says:

    and thanku…for your article and its detail and your focus on the background into the deep patterns of deliberate indifference that were part and parcel to the culture of our city unfortunately for years….among the city police and some of the others who were official here…you have put your finger on a critical component of the entire “big picture” of a very unique historical but in this era, for most of my life….and that of my family..a tragic place in some ways…because…there were so many good people who cared deeply about so many things and have sacrficed for so many…as my father did, and who built his career from the a humble D Day vet returning home up to become one of the most respected and fair minded jurists in recent Modern Ohio trial judiciary history in Ohio, not just this small town, widely known to presidents and governors and held in humble but highest regard by the poor and downtrodden and working persons, alike…no mean feat….in any life

  2. mccrguy says:

    michelle…i am the solo private lawyer who initiated the civil rights cases in the 90’s which led directly to my Washington DC invite and the first discussions which basically “kicked” off the DOJ Special Litigation Units first ever model test case 14141 pattern and pattern practice investigation….i would be glad to share my views on both the DOJ’s efforts, my own and what i believe is the currrent status of the SPD as it may relate to this currrent issue…

    its critical background and it IS relevant…civil rights abuses and human rights abuses and sexual trafficking and rape …all contain very strong bearing and relationships to each other in who the powerful treat the vulnerable and the politics of denial …

    please read and have your followers and those interested in the story…my related blogs about civil rights advocacy in Steubenville and Eastern Ohio and

    i would suggest as a good starting point….the national award winning investigative journalist article.. “The Blue Mob” by Aina Hunter …of the Cleveland Scene Magazine…


    and…my own midwest center for constitutional rights facebook and blog

    and its related links to various city of steubenville civil rights cases, several important professional law reviews re the DOJ consent decree and other related links

    also check out my blog….”red rain …richard olivito…on google…

    and its links……theres much more….than what meets the eye here in the ohio valley and its improved somewhat and simply become less and less…

    but this recent case…has its basis…in a way….to the underlying issues….which don’t encompass the police dept in the city…only or strictly…

    but begin….with the culture…..itself….

    and…i would say in closing…..keep your focus on what you have already very intuitively have stated…

    the law director….

    i will not say more…..but you have a very very good eye….

  3. Tim says:

    Great article. Very well said. I applaud you!!!

  4. I’m wondering when the victims birthday is, because when the reports first came out they said she was 15 but now their saying she’s 16 !

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