Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
According to the City Attorney's office, the "vast majority" of plaintiffs in civil lawsuits have already filed a complaint with OPS prior to filing the lawsuit, but if they have not done so, the City Attorney's office makes OPS "aware" of a citizen's complaint.44 It is not clear whether the passing of such information leads to any inquiry on the part of the OPS.45 Nor is it clear whether civil lawsuits alleging brutality are utilized as part of the early warning system and whether such lawsuits are recorded as part of the subject officer's personnel or disciplinary record. When Human Rights Watch raised these questions with Chief Harvard, the oblique response was that "use of unauthorized force complaints" are part of the early warning system and that "whether an unauthorized use of force complaint does or does not result in a civil lawsuit does not deter the Atlanta police department from taking appropriate action...."46
The City Attorney's office does not maintain readily accessible data regarding the amounts paid by the city to settle police brutality lawsuits, revealing an apparent lack of interest in the financial implications of such lawsuits. In response to a 1996 Human Rights Watch request, a helpful staff member in the City Attorney's officepulled together a compilation of settlements and awards for 1994 and 1995 by asking attorneys which cases they remembered. According to this informal poll, Atlanta paid $610,368 in police brutality settlements in 1994 and $67,000 in 1995, a relatively small figure. As a representative from the City Attorney's office notes, the city "litigates aggressively."47 The 1996 total for the same categories, as provided by the City Attorney's office, was $437,184, with the largest single payout in the amount of $185,000 in the Roderick Stewart case (See below).48 The settlements are paid out of general funds, not by an insurer, which may contribute to the city's interest in fighting such lawsuits vigorously.
In July 1997, the city settled with the Holder family for $750,000, one of the largest single payouts in Atlanta's recent history.49 The attorney representing the Holder family claimed that the large settlement stemmed, in part, from the affidavit provided by a retired Atlanta police major who stated excessive force was not unusual on the Atlanta police force and that officers often protected one another with a "code of silence."50
The lawsuit stemmed from an incident on Christmas Eve, 1993, when three Atlanta police officers from Zone 1 arrived at the home of Zezar Holder, to arrest the man's stepson.51 The officers had allegedly heard there was a warrant for the stepson's arrest, but had no warrant in hand themselves. When Holder asked to see the warrant, the officers became combative, and one reportedly said to Holder, "I don't have to show you shit, nigger." Holder and the officer were in the kitchen where a physical altercation ensued. At this point, an African-American officer joined the officer fighting with Holder, and reportedly struck Holder in the head twice with his baton.
The officers later explained the beating by stating that Holder had reached for one officer's gun, and that the white officer was struggling with Holder and screaming, "He's going for the gun" as the other officer entered the house and hit the man; this version reportedly was disputed by another officer in the house. After Holder was cuffed and lying on the floor, the white officer stood over him allegedly taunting him while he bled. The family was arrested (father, mother, daughter, and stepson), and the mother and father were jailed until December 27, for allegedly obstructing justice - charges which were later dismissed.52 Holder was treated at Grady Hospital for scalp injuries and received stitches. A neurologist stated that he suffered a permanent brain "deficit."
No disciplinary sanctions were forthcoming until the FBI heard about the case a year later and started questioning police officials. Soon thereafter, disciplinary hearings were held and two officers were fired, with another two suspended for six days. The officers who were fired were found to have engaged in excessive force and to have used racial epithets, but the city offered them thirty-day suspensions if they would waive a civil service appeal. They refused and were fired.
44 Attorneys representing such complainants have stated, however, that they do not always advise their clients to file an OPS complaint prior to proceeding with a civil lawsuit.
45 Letter from Rosalind Rubens, senior assistant city attorney with the City Attorney's Office to Human Rights Watch, dated August 7, 1997. The City Attorney's office did not answer Human Rights Watch's question regarding whether or not it notified the CRB when a lawsuit is filed alleging brutality.
46 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Chief Harvard, January 27, 1998.
47 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with June Green, public safety division of the City Attorney's office of Atlanta, April 5, 1996.
48 Letter from the City Attorneys Office to Human Rights Watch, dated August 7, 1997.
49 According to attorneys representing Holder, he also received an official apology from the police chief and the mayor. Telephone call from attorney Stephen La Briola, July 8, 1997.
50 Lolita Browning, "Atlanta Pays $750,000 to settle police-abuse suit," Fulton County Daily Report, August 4, 1997.
51 Zezar M. Holder, et al. v. The City of Atlanta, et al., State Court of Fulton County, Civil Action File No. 95 vs 107983-B, filed December 22, 1995. The stepson did not normally reside at the Holders' home.
52 According to the plaintiff's lawsuit, the white officer initially denied to investigators that he used the word "nigger" but when he retold the story, he said that Holder told the officer he could not be in his house using the word "nigger."
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch