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.

Why?

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)

Ouch.

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 )