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Published: Monday, 5/11/2009

Lucas County paid out $140,000 in 5 years for jail lawsuits

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

More than a year before a Lucas County corrections officer was imprisoned for assaulting an inmate, the sheriff's office reminded its staff that verbally and physically abusing inmates could lead to "potential life-altering consequences."

And for the county, it could lead to thousands of dollars in civil litigation payouts.

A review of payouts in civil lawsuits filed against the Lucas County Sheriff's Office shows that the county has spent nearly $140,000 during the past five years on settlements and fees attached those lawsuits.

And the sheriff's office has come under fire this spring with federal charges filed against Sheriff James Telb and three of his staff - two of whom are now former employees - stemming from the 2004 death of an inmate at the county jail.

The sheriff's office is not alone statewide in having trouble within its walls.

"I see it from both perspectives. It's a very difficult job. You're dealing with a difficult portion of the population and in very tense situations," Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop said.

"But that being said, you have to operate and uphold the civil rights of all citizens, and you have to operate under the presumption of innocence," he added. "Like all things in government, there's always a balancing act. And obviously in some of these situations, we've not balanced it properly."

In September, 2007, Sheriff Telb initiated a reminder for his staff that while the job inside a jail is "challenging," being subjected to verbal abuse and threats "comes with the territory."

"You have the right and our 100 percent support to protect yourself, your fellow officers, and other inmates from physical harm," the bulletin said. "However, you do not have the right to intimidate, humiliate, or use excessive force beyond what is absolutely necessary.

" For your own well-being, we are urging you to exhibit self-control at all times, using the skills you learned in training for inmate communication and verbal persuasion," it continued. "Be forewarned that we will not tolerate those shirking their duties or using excessive force."

It was a reminder that stemmed from allegations that one corrections officer, Seth Bunke, had assaulted an inmate, causing severe injuries. Less than two years later, Bunke was sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted by a federal jury of civil rights violations.

Three lawsuits were filed against the county related to the ex-employee. One remains open and two were settled for a total of $14,000.

Commissioners Tina Skeldon Wozniak and Pete Gerken could not be reached for comment.

Sheriff Telb, who was charged recently with one count each of making false statements and misprision of a felony, or the cover-up of a crime in connection with an inmate's death, is not commenting on the federal case involving him, his attorney Richard Kerger said.

But Jail Administrator Jim O'Neal said it's difficult for those not involved in the criminal justice system to understand an environment where an average of 430 people are locked up on a daily basis. He said the staff works well together and with the inmates but that with so many people in close quarters, "tempers can flare."

"Our population is 90 percent felons. The most heinous crimes that you see in Toledo, those people are booked and are residents in this facility until their court dates," he said. "In some cases, the inmates are veterans to the system and they know what they can and can't get away with."

Butch Hunyadi, chief of the Bureau of Adult Detention for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, agreed that Lucas County is not alone in experiencing "critical incidents" in its jail.

Lucas County is one of 90 full-service jails in the state, he said. There are other jails that fall under different classifications.

He said about 665,000 people are booked each year in state jails. By comparison, about 52,000 people are housed in the state's 32 prisons.

"Jails are very volatile because you have all kinds of people coming through the front door," he said, adding that urban counties are dealing with a much greater volume of people. " It's a lot to manage and it's difficult to manage on a daily basis."

Mr. Hunyadi added that his department has embarked on an extensive project to create better standards for how jails are run.

The lofty goal is to eliminate critical incidents.

In 2007, the last year data was available, the Lucas County Corrections Center housed 26,597 adult inmates and experienced five serious suicide attempts, one inmate escape, 12 inmate-on-inmate assaults, and six inmate-on-staff assaults.

That same year, the numbers were much lower in the Montgomery County jail in Dayton, where 38,750 inmates were housed and there were no suicide attempts or assaults.

Much higher numbers were reported from the Stark County jail in Canton, where 11,761 inmates were housed and where there were 14 serious suicide attempts and 89 inmate-on-inmate assaults.

In Franklin County and Hamilton County also, those numbers were high.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction hopes to complete its analysis of jails this year and unveil new policies for them statewide in early 2010, Mr. Hunyadi said.

"Believe me, you're not alone in Lucas County. [Incidents] happen every single day," he said. "That bothers us. We try to figure out why these things are happening and how we can help other counties learn from them. I hope these new standards will mitigate those critical incidents."

Incidents that have occurred in northwest Ohio include a federal lawsuit that was filed last week against Sandusky County and Fremont officials claiming wrongdoing in the 2007 death of a 37-year-old man in custody. The family of Craig Burdine filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Toledo, asking for compensatory and punitive damages totaling $40 million.

In Hancock County, a sheriff's deputy was found guilty in 2007 of misdemeanor dereliction of duty and ordered to serve 30 days in jail for failing to provide adequate care to an inmate, who died while in custody. The family of Lisa Waddell was awarded $445,000 in a civil lawsuit, although the out-of-court settlement "specifically denied any liability or wrongdoing" on the county's part, officials said.

"On many occasions, clients who come to me are obviously concerned about the damages they suffered, but they have extreme hopes that the policies will be changed and this won't happen again," attorney Alan Konop said.

"I would say that the issues that [result] in the various lawsuits, certainly the vast majority of officers are not involved," he added. "We feel that hopefully civil lawsuits will send a message."

Alan Konop was involved in the lawsuit filed against the Lucas County Sheriff's Office on behalf of David and Diana Katterheinrich, who were awarded $60,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

The Springfield Township couple sued sheriff's deputies in 2007 after they claimed to have been wrongfully arrested.

In the past five years, that settlement has proven to be the most costly for the county in terms of those cases filed against the sheriff's office.

Currently in the court system is a federal lawsuit initiated by the family of Carlton Benton, the inmate whose 2004 death led to the indictments against Sheriff Telb and the three employees.

Attorneys for the Benton family said that they will take a "wait-and-see" attitude when it comes to the criminal charges filed in the case.

Mr. O'Neal said changes have been occurring in the jail to minimize real or perceived incidents.

The county is in the midst of an $800,000 project to install new cameras throughout the facility.

With eyes everywhere, officials will be able to both "exonerate and point fingers," he said.

He added that the sheriff takes the safety of his staff as well as the inmates seriously.

"We've tried to reiterate that there is no tolerance," he said.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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