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Published: Sunday, 7/5/2009

Aftermath of Ottawa Hills shooting casts cloud over village

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
McCloskey McCloskey
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Michael McCloskey is paralyzed, the result of a May traffic stop in Ottawa Hills that ended with a village police officer shooting him in the back, the bullet severing his spine.

The officer, Thomas Caine White, 27, was indicted by a Lucas County grand jury last week and was charged with one count of felonious assault with a gun specification.

Ottawa Hills is facing a different kind of charge - a potentially very expensive one - with a civil lawsuit already filed by Mr. McCloskey's lawyer against the affluent Toledo suburb.

As both cases wind through the court system - Officer White's in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and Mr. McCloskey's in U.S. District Court in Toledo - the police department in the upscale village of about 4,600 residents is again facing scrutiny.

In response to a public records request, village attorneys supplied The Blade with records of lawsuit settlements paid out over the past 10 years. Ottawa Hills paid out nearly $370,000 to settle six lawsuits over the past decade, more than half of which was paid to two plaintiffs who sued the village as a result of actions by members of the police department.

One, in particular, generated a controversial perception that the village police had a tendency toward racial bias, a stain that the community continues to monitor.

"It's an ongoing effort," said Village Manager Marc Thompson, referring to a continuous effort to study issues and improve the village, similar to what he said any municipality would do. "We're always trying to improve our organization."

In 1998, a black construction worker was arrested after he began to walk away from a village police officer who was questioning him. Suron Jacobs, who was working on a renovation project at Ottawa Hills High School, alleged that he was being harassed by officers because he was black.

Charges against Mr. Jacobs were subsequently dismissed by a Toledo Municipal Court judge. Mr. Jacobs sued the village and was awarded $165,000 in a January, 2002, settlement.

"We were obviously hoping that there would be greater sensitivity toward law enforcement's position regarding minorities," attorney Alan Konop said recently of the lawsuit he filed on Mr. Jacobs' behalf. "We think there was some attention that was given to that."

In response to the incident and to help determine whether police were ticketing minority drivers unfairly, Ottawa Hills surveyed thousands of drivers at the five village intersections in 1999 to determine their race and sought out the advice of a legal consultant to review the issue.

By 2006, the department was again under fire when a 24-year-old woman sued Ottawa Hills after she was pulled from her car and wrestled to the ground during a confrontation with a village police officer.

LaToya Brown, an African-American, was paid $60,000 by the village in a September, 2007, settlement. Ms. Brown, who was stopped for speeding on Secor Road near Edgevale Road, was yanked from her vehicle after she threw from her car window a ticket that a village officer had given her.

The officer involved in that incident, who had worked full time for the department for five years, resigned.

The village police department stayed out of the news until the May 23 incident in which Mr. McCloskey, a Maumee motorcyclist who is white, was shot by an officer during a seemingly routine traffic stop.

Mr. McCloskey filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Toledo against two officers and the village alleging that his civil rights were violated. The lawsuit, filed by Michigan attorney Geoffrey Fieger, alleges that the officers involved assaulted Mr. McCloskey "by unnecessarily and illegally shooting him in the back, which severed his spine resulting in paralysis."

The lawsuit asks for in excess of $300,000 in damages, although the actual number would be determined either by a federal jury or as a result of a settlement.

"He appears to have turned the corner on his other medical problems that were threatening him but he's still paralyzed," said attorney Arnie Matusz, a member of the Fieger law firm.

Mr. Matusz said his client, who at one time had his own concrete business, has struggled with the physical condition in which the shooting left him. He said that even if Mr. McCloskey was speeding that night, "that doesn't give anybody the justification to shoot somebody."

"He's struggling with his condition. He's struggling with what's happened," Mr. Matusz said recently of his client. "He's on high doses of pain mediation."

Officer White, who was hired as a part-time dispatcher for the village in 2003, remains on administrative leave. According to Chief Bob Overmeyer, the shooting was the first involving an Ottawa Hills police officer in at least 25 years.

He said the department is made up of 20 employees, including 11 full-time police officers.

Chief Overmeyer said he cannot comment on any changes that may or may not be put in place because of the recent shooting. He said the department will conduct its own investigation once information from the Ohio Attorney General's Office is forwarded to him.

The criminal and civil proceedings that result from the incident will continue independently of each other. And Ottawa Hills may find itself facing the possibility of another significant monetary settlement.

According to village attorneys, Ottawa Hills is part of a municipal insurance pool and is covered for claims up to $5 million.

At one time, the village contemplated eliminating the police department after its then-solicitor said that its "claim history" was to blame for problems getting liability insurance. In 1986, the village struggled with how to remain insured after claims against the village were awarded.

Included in the claims was a $12,000 settlement paid to two black men who had accused police of unlawfully detaining them as they were walking through the village to their Toledo home in December, 1984.

In October, 1985, a federal jury awarded a $1.3 million judgment to the family of Peter Sawicki, an area real estate developer slain in 1981. The Sawickis alleged that village police failed to respond to Leslie Sawicki's calls for help on the morning her father was killed because the call came from just across the village boundary.

The verdict was unanimously overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court in June, 1988, saying the village was not liable for the death. The village did not have to pay in the lawsuit but an agreement was reached for the village and Toledo's police departments to work more closely together.

Despite the publicity involved in some of its settlements, Ottawa Hills officials point to the small amount of litigation that the village has encountered in the past two decades.

"Given the explosion of litigation and the fact that a municipality can be sued for a wide range of claims, from sidewalk defects to employment decisions, police misconduct and constitutional claims, the village's payment to resolve three injury claims over the course of the last 25 years is hardly excessive," said village attorney Sarah McHugh.

"Numerous instances of filed and threatened litigation were resolved without payment," she added. "We continue to enhance our internal practices to minimize the risk of harm to residents and visitors and to ensure the safety and protection of our community in a fiscally responsible manner."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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