Three lawsuits totaling $11 million were filed in D.C. Superior Court Jan. 24 against the District of Columbia and several Metropolitan Police Department officers, alleging wrongful death, police abuse and discrimination.
“The bottom line here is this: The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia is violating the constitutional rights of citizens in the District, is violating the rights of those persons who come to visit in the District and, in many instances, is violating the constitutional rights of young African-American men and even outright engaging in racial profiling,” Malik Shabazz, an attorney for the plaintiffs and a member of Black Lawyers for Justice, said at a press conference Monday.
“As a result,” he added, “persons here who are beloved to our community and their family have been killed, they have been injured, they have been embarrassed.”
The first complaint was filed by Carolyn Bell, the mother of 34-year-old Cleman Sweptson Jr., who was shot multiple times and killed by an unidentified officer from the department’s Seventh District in the early morning hours of April 9. Authorities said the African-American father of two was carrying a gun, but his family members dispute the claim and said that the same officer had stopped Sweptson earlier without cause while he sat outside his mother’s apartment.
Jubri Richardson-Bell, another plaintiff, filed suit over a Jan. 30, 2013 incident when, on his way home from school, he was allegedly stopped, mishandled and frisked by police without just cause.
“I told them, ‘You can’t do this; this is wrong; you’re violating my rights’ several times,” said Richardson-Bell, who was 16 at the time. He paused, eyes downcast as he visibly fought to control his emotions before adding, “I asked for a ‘white shirt’ (supervisor) to come out to the scene and they refused.”
O’Chauncey Maddux had a similar story, claiming that on Nov. 14 he was detained and “roughed up” over false allegations of truancy, he said. The then-19-year-old did not have any identification on him at the time, but his father, who was sitting in his car nearby, verified his age to the officers. Still, the younger man said, an officer proceeded to force his hands into handcuffs.
“He took my right hand and bent it into a position where I felt and I heard it snap…. He actually broke bones in my hands,” Maddux said.
The complaints are just a few of the “widespread” instances of police abuse occurring in the District’s Black community, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said, and are symbolic of a “systemic” problem of police misconduct within the Metropolitan Police Department—despite authorities’ claims to the contrary.
The police department recently came under sharp public scrutiny when two officers—both from the Seventh District—were charged respectively with running a prostitution ring involving minors and taking pictures of a nude teenager. The public outcry prompted a Jan 24 hearing before the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, during which Police Chief Cathy Lanier said that there is not the “widespread police corruption that the public may imagine when looking at the headlines.”
“The city is trying to describe these incidents as the actions of a ‘few bad apples’ but this is not a surface problem, it is a deep-rooted problem,” Shabazz told the AFRO.
The problem is particularly pervasive in the MPD’s Seventh District, where two of the officers named in the lawsuits serve, said Greg Lattimer, the other attorney involved in the cases.
“In the last year the Seventh District has basically been out of control. They have had incident after incident; they have refused to conform their actions; [its officers] treat the rights of individuals as if they are discretionary instead of mandatory,” said Lattimer.
“Chief Lanier has failed to do anything about it,” he added. “She has failed to properly train these officers. She has failed to properly discipline these officers. And as a result of that failure we feel that the only way we’re going to get their attention is to come back at them with a lawsuit for every right [they] violated.
Shabazz, who founded Black Lawyers for Justice, said the legal complaints are the first step in their campaign to protect the constitutional rights of District citizens from the excesses of law enforcement.
“Unless we organize, advocate and litigate as a community we will continue see these problems,” he said. “So we are trying to raise awareness of the problems so we as a community will not have to suffer from a police force that is largely becoming lawless by the day.”