These are the police misconduct lawsuits the public hears little about
"A Black woman received $150,000 after alleging a police officer yanked her from a public restroom and forced her onto the sidewalk in handcuffs while investigating a reported theft.
A computer engineer, who is also Black, got $192,000 after officers — mistaking him for a robbery suspect — beat him so severely on his front lawn that he was hospitalized.
Five other Black men collected a total of $116,000 after suing the same officer for assault and violating their civil rights as he cleared sidewalks in a gentrifying neighborhood. In one case, a video showed the officer sitting on a man’s chest and showering him with pepper spray after punching him in the face six times.
Over the past five years, the D.C. government has spent millions of dollars settling dozens of police misconduct lawsuits — settlements that, even as officers acknowledge no wrongdoing, document a trail of nonfatal encounters that went painfully wrong.
These agreements draw little attention compared with settlements resulting from high-profile police shootings, such as the $12 million awarded to Breonna Taylor’s family in Louisville; or the $20 million Prince George’s County is payingto the family of a man whom police shot six times while handcuffed in a patrol car.
But they illustrate the types of altercations that sow distrust of law enforcement and feed perceptions that police are overly aggressive, particularly with Black Americans. Such grievances are a driving focus of the protests that began after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May, fueling demands for reform nationwide.
“I was on the ground like a dog,” said Michele Hall, 36, the woman whom police dragged out of the bathroom while investigating whether she had walked out on a $1,100 restaurant tab — an allegation that turned out to be false. “I don’t know that I will ever heal again.”
In response to a public records request, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General released records of more than 70 lawsuits alleging police misconduct and negligence that the city has settled since 2016. One woman received $40,000 after saying an officer pulled her hair and punched her as she tried to defuse an argument between two others. An alleged shoplifter received $27,500 after he accused a police officer of slamming him to the ground and fracturing his leg.
Jason Goolsby got a settlement after police — responding to what they mistakenly thought was a robbery at an ATM — sped toward him in an SUV, then tackled and handcuffed him. A witness’s video of Goolsby on the ground, screaming, was widely circulated and turned him into a momentary symbol of police aggression against young Black men.
“It messed up my life,” said Goolsby, now 23. After the 2015 incident, he dropped out of the University of the District of Columbia. “It made the way people approach me different. They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s the boy who got beat up by the police.’ ”
Those who have collected settlements include D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who got $75,000 after claiming a police officer had assaulted him in 2013, when he was a school board member. In 2008, White received $13,000 after alleging an officer kicked and hit him in the head during a traffic stop.
Hamilton P. Fox III, a former prosecutor who is White, collected $80,000 after arguing with an officer who demanded he move his car from a no-standing-or-parking zone outside a CVS in 2008. Fox had been waiting for his wife, who was picking up medication. He was arrested for disorderly conduct. At one point, another officer told his wife, who is Black, to “shut up,” according to Fox’s lawsuit, and ordered her to put her hands on the car when she asked what was happening to her husband.
“The overreaction was unbelievable,” said Fox, who is the disciplinary counsel for the D.C. Bar Association. “If you don’t stand up to that kind of bullying, it just goes on.”
D.C. police officials say the settlements represent a fraction of the thousands of interactions between officers and the public and do not reflect the department overall. The city often contests litigation for years, offering to settle as a last option before a trial.
Despite a recommendation from the Police Complaints Board, which reviews citizen allegations of misconduct, the department has not released detailed reports about lawsuits and settlements. The board also said the department should follow other police agencies that “systematically review” lawsuits to correct issues and identify problem officers.
A D.C. police spokesman did not respond to questions about whether they do so.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said details about the lawsuits and settlements can help guide oversight and reforms of the agency.
“When you start to see it over and over again, it speaks to the nature of the police,” he said. “We want to understand what’s going on. And what trends do we see, and what are you doing about it?”
Michael Tobin, executive director of the Office of Police Complaints, said the police department is often wary of publicizing such details. “It’s the public’s money that’s used to pay off these lawsuits,” he said. “The public deserves to know where their money is going.”
A $40,000 settlement went to Lourdes Ashley Hunter, a Black transgender activist, after she claimed police officers entered her apartment without a warrant in 2016 as she was hosting a dinner party, and arrested her for allegedly assaulting a neighbor.
A friend’s Facebook Live broadcast of the commotion shows a gaggle of guests behind her as Hunter shouts, “Let me go!” and officers pull her from her foyer. They detained her at the station house for four hours.
“It was humiliating,” she said.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to prosecute her.
Negotiated settlements are a common way to resolve litigation involving police. Since 2015, New York City has paid more than $1 billion to settle police misconduct cases, while Chicago and Los Angeles spent more than $200 million, a Wall Street Journal survey showed.
Baltimore paid $6.4 million to the family of Freddie Gray, the Black man whose fatal injuries while in police custody catalyzed 2015 rioting. More recently, the city agreed to pay $8 million to two men who served prison time after officers planted drugs on them.
Since 2016, the District has spent more than $40 million to settle police misconduct lawsuits, according to the records released by the Office of Attorney General Karl A. Racine. The records did not include several settlements for lawsuits handled outside of Racine’s office, which the police department told the council cost taxpayers $805,000.
About $33 million detailed in the records from Racine’s office covered six claims of wrongful conviction and death, while $2.8 million was to settle the last of several lawsuits over botched arrests during 2002 protests in Pershing Park. The remaining $5 million was to resolve at least 65 other suits — alleging false arrest, excessive force, negligence and violations of constitutional rights — with amounts that often ranged from $25,000 to $200,000.
“Behind these dollars are real people who live here and visited here,” Allen said, adding that the collective tab is costly. “What more could we be doing with tax dollars to end violence and fund victim services?”
Police Chief Peter Newsham declined to speak on the record for this article. Dustin Sternbeck, a police spokesman, said in a statement that officers in the past five years have responded to more than 3 million calls and made nearly 150,000 arrests.
He said it would be “misleading and disingenuous to suggest any broad conclusions can be drawn from approximately 70 lawsuits that were settled by the city during a similar time frame where no fault was admitted.”
Four of the settlements, and a fifth approved in 2015, involved alleged misconduct by Officer Frederick Onoja.
One plaintiff, William Jarta Hall, says he was on Bladensburg Road NE on a fall afternoon in 2015 when Onoja pulled up on his bicycle, wrapped him in a bear hug and threw him down on the sidewalk. By then, Hall said in an interview, he was accustomed to Onoja harassing him and other Black men in the neighborhood.
A police report would later assert that Hall — just before the officer tackled him — had threatened to shoot Onoja, an allegation Hall denies. Hall was cleared of the charge in a plea deal in another case.
A security camera’s recording of their encounter, viewed by The Washington Post, shows Onoja pinning Hall’s arms with his knees, pummeling him and showering him in pepper spray. The District paid Hall $25,000 to resolve the lawsuit, which echoed four others alleging Onoja used excessive force and violated constitutional rights as he patrolled the H Street NE corridor.
Onoja was also accused of harassment in two complaints filed with the Office of Police Complaints in 2016, spokeswoman Nykisha Cleveland said. After examiners sustained the complaints, the police department ordered Onoja to undergo additional training.
Police did not respond to questions about Onoja’s conduct or requests to speak to the officer, who remains on the force. Efforts to reach him directly were not successful.
Government lawyers sometimes offer settlements because it is a relatively inexpensive means to resolving time-consuming litigation, attorneys say. The existence of damning evidence — video footage, for example — can drive some resolutions.
A 2017 video of an officer handcuffing M.B. Cottingham in Southeast Washington and then touching his buttocks and genitals over his sweatpants led the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit for invasive search.
“C’mon man! Hold! You stuck your finger in my ass!” Cottingham, who is Black, can be heard shouting at the officer, Sean Lojacono, who released him after finding no contraband.
Cottingham, who owns an ice cream truck, was celebrating his 40th birthday that day. He said he has regarded the police as adversaries since he was a teenager, when officers stopped him on his way to play basketball and ordered him to lift his shirt “as if I had weapons.”
The video of his encounter with Lojacono made him known as “the guy they stuck their hand all up inside,” said Cottingham, who declined to disclose the amount of his settlement. “I was very mentally distraught. I didn’t come outside. I didn’t work on my truck. I was so embarrassed.”
The District’s settlement offer — not included in the OAG records because the office did not handle the case — occurred five months after the lawsuit was filed. By then, the department had moved to fire Lojacono for a similar search on another man. In an interview, Lojacono, who is appealing his dismissal, said he learned the tactic at the D.C. Police Academy and had used it “a couple of hundred times.”
“We were instructed to search every square inch of an individual,” he said. “I’m confused because their policy seems to be extremely inconsistent with their decision to fire me.”
No one was videotaping when David Wood, then 50, encountered officers searching outside his house in Northeast Washington for two men who had just robbed a cabdriver.
Wood, a computer database specialist, had been watching “Downton Abbey” when he saw flashing emergency lights reflecting off his TV screen. He thought an elderly neighbor may have called an ambulance and went to find out. Officers would later say the cabbie pointed in the direction of Wood’s house to indicate the suspects’ escape route.
One officer handcuffed Wood on his front lawn when he would not stop to talk, according to an account in a judicial decision. Wood purportedly swung at the officer, while another officer tackled him. The officers “punched, pulled, stepped on and kicked Mr. Wood.”
Wood, who was hospitalized with head and shoulder injuries, was acquitted of assault charges. When he sued, all but one of his claims — including excessive force, false arrest and malicious prosecution — were dismissed. A jury could resolve his assault claim, Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled.
The District offered a $192,000 settlement, which Wood interpreted as validation.
“If I was wrong,” he said, “they would never have settled for that kind of money.”
As she absorbed news of an officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck in May, Michele Hall burst into tears, thinking of her own experience seven years earlier: a crowd of police on a downtown D.C. sidewalk, watching as an officer twisted her arm and kneed her in the back to force her down.
Moments before, a Cities restaurant employee reported that Hall had walked out on a $1,104 tab at a party celebrating her 29th birthday.
Hall, at the time an executive assistant at the National Crime Prevention Council, had left Cities to go with a friend to a bar across the street. But Cities still had her credit card, a fact that Officer Alice Lee apparently was unaware of when she and another officer broke down a bathroom door at the bar and handcuffed Hall.
It was after Lee placed her in a patrol car that Hall told another officer the restaurant had her credit card. The officer brought her the receipt, which she signed before being released.
Hall said she had scuff marks on her knees and Lee’s thumb prints on her arms. Because of the tightness of the handcuffs, she lost feeling in her right index finger and thumb and had to be treated for what she said was a hairline wrist fracture.
A judge dismissed her lawsuit, a ruling reversed by the D.C. Court of Appeals several years later. The District then offered a $150,000 settlement.
Hall moved to Jamaica after collecting her payment. But her memory of her encounter with the officer — who is still on the force — remains vivid.
“No one stepped up,” she said. “No one said they were sorry. No one said, ‘This shouldn’t have happened this way.’ ”