Detroit Police misconduct lawsuits cost city tens of millions of dollars

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Police misconduct lawsuits have cost the City of Detroit tens of millions of dollars since 2008, according to a 7 Action News investigation.

Over a period of about 7 years, more than 300 people have been awarded judgments or settlements after alleging police misconduct, with payouts varying in size from $500 to more than $3 million.

"It’s good for my business," said attorney Dan Romano, who has dozens of pending lawsuits against Detroit Police. "It’s bad for the City of Detroit."

The allegations against officers run the gamut from assault and battery to false arrest and, in some cases, wrongful death.

Costly conduct

Many of the cases accuse officers of gross negligence, like a lawsuit stemming from a September 2010 incident that took place on Fairport Street in Detroit. That's where officers encountered two dogs while investigating a possible crime and called animal control employee Robert Cole for help.  According to a lawsuit, both officers on the scene opened fire at the dogs, but accidentally hit Cole twice. An arbitrator ruled that the city owed him $520,000.

The same year, Detroit Police encountered Craig Graves near the intersection of Mt. Elliott and Sylvester. While placing him under arrest for drug possession, a Detroit officer allegedly shot him the back while he laid face down on the ground. Graves sued and the city settled the case for $250,000.

Outside a home on Robinwood Street, Jason Vareen was handcuffed and placed into a squad card by a Detroit Police officer for suspected trespassing. Vareen was on his own property, but while he was handcuffed, an officer allegedly punched him in the head, struck him with a flashlight and then accused him of disorderly conduct. Vareen was found not guilty by a judge, then sued police. He was ultimately awarded a $240,000 settlement.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by 7 Action News, the City of Detroit reported that lawsuits against officers have cost taxpayers nearly $27 million since 2008. That’s much higher than what other similarly sized cities have paid out. Over a 10-year period, the city of Denver paid out $13 million. In Minneapolis, police misconduct cost taxpayers only $21 million.

True cost unknown

But the disparity is even bigger than that. In researching this story, 7 Action News came across several large lawsuit settlements that city officials never disclosed. A city attorney later admitted they should have.

In fact, attorney Dan Romano says at least a half-dozen payouts from cases he filed weren't listed in the records turned over by the city.

"This is not accurate at all," Romano said as he leafed through the city's list of settlements.

One of the biggest payouts not disclosed involved Omari Dixson. In 2008, an off-duty Detroit police got into an argument with Dixson while the two were sitting at a stoplight. The officer said Dixson pointed a gun at him, leading him to open fire. Dixson was struck four times in the back and later died.

But a witness to the crime said Dixson never pointed a gun at all. The cop who pulled the trigger was never charged criminally, but wen he was sued by Dixson’s family, the city paid $1.5 million to settle the lawsuit.

A city lawyer acknowledged that the records provided to WXYZ were incomplete and blamed a transition to new software. They acknowledge that the city's payouts for misconduct lawsuits is greater than $27 million.

City responds

Since Tuesday, 7 Action News has sought interviews with representatives of the mayor's office or police department in the production of this report. Neither department made anyone available, but late Thursday, the city's Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell cited police statistics showing reductions in fatal shootings, citizen complaints and other key areas since the 1990s.

Hollowell issued the following statement:

"We are incredibly proud of the improvements that have been made by the Detroit Police Department to become a model of constitutional policing in America. As he ruled to dissolve the federal consent decrees that were over DPD for 11 years, Judge Avern Cohen praised DPD for its efforts to improve its policies and practices. He specifically cited the sophisticated early warning systems the city implemented to flag potentially problematic behavior among officers and to have it immediately addressed. This is a big part of why complaints against DPD officers have gone down more than 40% since before the Justice Department intervened. Under the leadership of Chief James Craig, DPD will continue to improve its practices and strengthen its bond with the community."

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.