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South Bend settled $1.3-million in civil rights violations, police brutality lawsuits

WSBT-22

The City of South Bend has paid more than $1.3-million to settle lawsuits alleging police brutality and civil rights violations over the past five years. A WSBT 22 investigation revealed more than half of that money was related to police wiretapping cases.

“A settlement means something went wrong, or you’ve gotten yourself in a situation where it would be even more expensive to litigate and win than it would be to pay that out,” said South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “That’s not a desirable place to be for any executive.”

WSBT 22 combed through dozens of documents from January 2011 to September 2016. Buttigieg wasn’t mayor when many of the cases originated, but he took an active role in the outcomes.

The City paid $785,000 in settlements related to the police wiretapping cases, which began in 2011. Four officers involved received $500,000, the former police chief received $50,000 and the former communications director received $235,000.

“That was a case where it was almost a cross-fire of lawsuits,” said Buttigieg. “But the bottom line was, we knew there had been a problem with violations of the federal wiretap act, and we also knew the longer it was left dangling, the worse it was for the city.”

Several settlements fell into the category of alleged police brutality and civil rights violations including Lucky Weah's and Germaine Harris’ cases.

Weah was walking on a sidewalk in South Bend when he was hit during a high-speed police chase. He was detained on scene and suffered injuries.

He sued for excessive force and received a settlement of $225,000.

Harris sued the city after former South Bend Officer Theo Robert punched Harris while Harris was at the jail. That lawsuit settled for $55,000.

“We want to take a case to the mat. Sometimes we do, but often we don’t because we know the litigation, the court fees – even when we think we’re right – may not be worth it compared to arranging a settlement that will put a firm lid on the amount of taxpayer money,” said Buttigieg. “C”

Local attorney Peter Agostino said there are many reasons for a party to settle.

“There’s a lack of predictability when you let someone else decide a case for you, whether it’s a judge or a jury, and that uncertainty always gets factored into driving a settlement,” said Agostino.

South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski also was not chief when many of these incidents occurred, but he said he’s doing everything he can to avoid any potential lawsuits by holding every officer accountable. He said all officers undergo training to learn more about using force.

“You can train all you want, but when your life is about to end and that’s your belief you have to make a choice, and it’s probably a life or death choice,” he said.

Ruszkowski said his officers all undergo force training while they’re in the academy and also at South Bend Police Department.

Chris Brady teaches defensive tactics at SBPD.

He said officers must make a decision about force as any situation unfolds, whether that’s to use pepper spray, a baton, gun, or even just to call for back up.

“When you’re actually there doing it, and you have all these other factors you’re trying to take into consideration, it’s not as easy as you would think,” Brady said.

Of the 103,000 calls for service to SBPD, at least 2,500 resulted in arrests last year, according to Ruszkowski. Of the 2,500 arrests, SBPD officers used force 72 times and had three “use of force” complaints filed against the department.

Trends in settlements

While WSBT 22’s request focused on alleged police brutality and civil rights cases, Buttigieg said in general, the city has paid less to settle lawsuits every year since 2013.

Records showed the city paid about $800,000 in 2013 settling lawsuits.

The number dropped slightly in 2014, and then dropped again in 2015 to $600,000. Last year, the City paid just under $188,000 in settlements.

Settlements regarding liability or tort claims dropped significantly from 2013 to 2014, rose slightly in 2015, and again in 2016.

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