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You don’t want to mess with Bill Capretta. Thick-necked, square-shouldered, strong-armed, with a pack of Marlboros torn open on his desk and his police uniform hanging behind him, he looks and sounds like the profile of the Tough Cop, someone who could reach across the desk and subdue his visitor without dropping an ash. “I feel like I’m policing again,” he says. “I’m protecting the public — from the federal government.” Capretta is president of Columbus, Ohio’s Fraternal Order of Police, one of the most powerful police unions in the country. For 25 years before that, he was an inner-city street patrolman. “You have to draw the line for respect of law and order,” Capretta says. “You only live in the free world because of rules. You take the rules away and you have chaos.” Capretta isn’t into chaos, and he isn’t much for compromise. That’s why this central Ohio city, at the urging of the police union, has become the only city in the nation to tell the Justice Department to go pound salt when it comes to how its police department is run. Columbus was the target of one of five lawsuits filed by the DOJ since 1997 accusing local police departments of civil rights abuses against citizens. The others caved: the New Jersey state police; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Steubenville, Ohio; and Los Angeles. Each city entered into consent decrees in which they agreed to restructure their departments and revamp training procedures. Not Columbus. The Justice Department filed its civil rights complaint in Columbus last year after a proposed settlement with the city was scuttled by the union, which, by virtue of its contract, had to go along for the deal to be binding. This summer, the government amended its complaint, adding a racial profiling charge. “I want a trial. Put your money where your mouth is,” Capretta says. “It’s a states’ rights issue. This is the federal government putting restraints on police departments. Clean your own house before you start with us. I mean, the DOJ did real well at Ruby Ridge and Waco, didn’t they?” It may not get any more quintessentially American than Columbus — land-locked in the middle of the country, big city and small town at the same time. Its metropolitan population is more than a million. And the talk of the town is the new National Hockey League franchise, the city’s first professional team. It’s a friendly, economically buoyant place. A retail haven. You’ll find national chain stores and restaurants of every stripe. The city center, anchored by a 60,000-student state university, is progressive and diverse. Last year, voters elected the city’s first African-American mayor. Its police chief is also African-American. But its roots are as an agricultural town, and as late as the 1970s it wasn’t unusual for daily farm reports and ads for weed-killer to dominate the local news. College football remains king, with no heir apparent. The 4th of July parades are taken with deadly seriousness. People here like low taxes and low-key government that stays out of their way. Much of its African-American population is sequestered within a northeast parcel of the city. Historically, the lines between white and black areas were so sharply drawn as to warrant federal intervention in 1977. Then a federal judge ordered school desegregation through busing. Federal control over the schools lasted for 13 years. In some areas, tensions haven’t gone away. “You can walk up and down this street and ask any black citizen, and they’ll tell you racial profiling has been going on for years,” says James Moss, a former Columbus police officer who heads Police Officers for Equal Rights, a community action group. “This has always been a problem in Columbus, but it’s always been hidden. The real deal is here now.” It was Moss who, in 1995, met with lawyers in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, coming to them with accounts of police misconduct. A 24-year burglary squad sergeant who left the force in 1994, Moss says he formed his group as a means to collect citizen complaints about the police. “I went to [DOJ] and took a lot of documentation to them,” Moss says. “I made several trips to Washington. They took a two-foot stack from me — 50 more complaints.” Later, Moss says, he got a call: Justice was coming to town. He helped put them in touch with complainants. So did local civil rights lawyer James McNamara. McNamara says he first helped Justice with its investigation of the police force in tiny Steubenville, Ohio, an industrial town two hours to the northeast. When the department came to Columbus, McNamara turned over his files. He estimates that he has between 30 and 40 active civil rights cases against the Columbus Police Department. “They were looking for places where there were already some proven cases they could use as a basis to start investigating,” McNamara says. One case, in particular, was a clarion call. On New Year’s Eve 1994, Christopher Kinneer, 27, was arrested by a group of Columbus police officers for fighting with his girlfriend. He was hogtied and placed on his stomach. In that position, he choked and died. Two years later, weeks before trial, the city settled with Kinneer’s family for $800,000 — the largest police-related payout in its history. The officers themselves were never disciplined. Between 1995 and 1999, the city paid $2.7 million to settle civil rights and false arrest lawsuits. And in May of this year, a state jury found that police had wrongly arrested a member of local citizens group, Copwatch, for videotaping police officers at work. The activist, Josh Klein, had been arrested in 1996 for “obstructing police business.” The jury awarded Klein $10,000. McNamara was Klein’s lawyer. “It’s really like the police feel any criticism of them borders on a lack of patriotism, like it’s un-American,” McNamara says. Moss uses his storefront office on Mt. Vernon Avenue to take civilian complaints and file public record requests to force the department to disclose its disciplinary records. “When DOJ made it clear that there was going to be a lawsuit, we started getting 20 calls a day,” Moss says. Moss has a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on his wall. Next to it is a banner, dated 1972, from the National Black Police Association. The words on the banner read, “Peace. Unity. Justice.” The door to his office opens. A black woman in her 20s, professionally polished, enters. “Can you help me?” she asks, approaching Moss. “I had a very violent arrest. I need to talk to someone.” Moss takes her name, gives her his card, tells her that he’ll call her. “We just can’t keep up,” Moss says. “We have a serious problem here. We are going to have a problem like they had in New York or L.A. We have a very explosive situation.” TAKING ON THE BROTHERHOOD In 1994, at the urging of Attorney General Janet Reno, Congress included a provision in its crime bill that allowed for a new civil rights cause of action that could be brought against local police forces. As a result, Reno, who as state attorney in Miami prosecuted several incendiary police abuse cases, created a unit within the Civil Rights Division dedicated solely to monitoring police department activity. Currently, the unit is conducting 14 investigations across the country, including one in Prince George’s County, Md. In a way, the effort isn’t unlike the one undertaken by Reno’s role model, Robert Kennedy, when he ordered the Justice Department into the South to fight for the rights of black voters in the 1960s. The unit brought suits against the state police of New Jersey and the police forces in Pittsburgh and Steubenville, which both quickly capitulated. “One of the reasons [cities settle] is because the reforms that we are asking for make sense,” says a Justice Department official familiar with program. And, the official adds, “None of these settlements involve us running a police department.” But Chuck Bosetti, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Pittsburgh, says the lawsuits are part of an effort “to establish federal standards for urban policing and appease angry minorities and the American political left.” Bosetti, whose union was helpless to prevent Pittsburgh from signing its consent decree in 1997, contends that violent crime in his city has increased as a result of the deal because police are so worried about civilian complaints that they have stopped aggressively patrolling the streets. The numbers only partially bear that out. According to FBI statistics, serious crime did rise 4.5 percent in Pittsburgh in 1998. But murders were down 21 percent. Under the decree, the Pittsburgh police must complete written reports on each use of force, warrantless search and seizure, strip search, and traffic stop. Police must also receive training in cultural diversity, implement a computerized system to track potential problem officers and patterns of misconduct, and investigate all complaints. An independent auditor monitors the department for compliance. After Pittsburgh, the DOJ pressed ahead in Columbus. In July 1998, Bill Lann Lee, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, wrote to Janet Jackson, the Columbus city attorney, charging that the city’s police had engaged in a “pattern or practice of using excessive force, making false arrests and lodging false charges and conducting improper searches and seizures.” Lee said he had at his disposal more than 300 complaints from Columbus citizens. Lee, who signs off on all decisions to bring suit against a police department, offered to defer the filing of a lawsuit if the city agreed to enter into negotiations over a consent decree. Columbus did so without notifying the police union, something the union says was illegal. In August 1999, after Jackson had made several trips to Washington, the city and the Justice Department announced they had negotiated a consent decree. The union went ballistic. The city presented the union with the decree and told the union it had 45 days to agree to it, Capretta says. “Our honor was at stake,” Capretta says. “You make allegations. You prove them.” Fortunately, Capretta says, the union was armed with “a contract that is one of the strongest in the nation.” Capretta wanted to litigate. He took the matter to his membership, which took a vote. It came back 81 percent in favor, with the 1,700 members agreeing to pledge $25 of their dues to defend against the Justice Department suit. “Eighty-one percent said, ‘Bill, go do it!’ ” he says. Because of its contractual relationship with the union, the city was stuck. It couldn’t enter into the settlement, and everyone went to federal court. Assistant Columbus City Attorney Timothy Magnan, however, said the city did not do so reluctantly. “We’re in court and we are defending [the suit] vigorously,” Magnan says. “We are very comfortable doing that.” The city’s language in its pleadings has been provocative. This case, its lawyers say, is about “the federal government’s intrusion into a matter that goes to the heart of local governance.” HOLDING PATTERN Not much has happened since the suit has been filed. Both sides have squabbled over discovery. In a year, the case has barely moved. “That’s because DOJ is in deep doo-doo,” says James Phillips. It’s rare to find a pony-tailed lawyer like Phillips in a large, tradition-bound law firm like 300-attorney Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease. Even rarer in a straight-and-narrow town like Columbus. But you sort of get the feeling that Phillips likes it that way. The plaque on his wall reads, “Transcend the bullshit.” Phillips is the lawyer for the police union, paid for by union dues. He doesn’t think Justice has a case. “Look,” Phillips says, “we don’t have a [Abner] Louima here. We don’t have a Rodney King. I’m not suggesting that there have been no events. There have. But 50 cases over 7-1/2 years — out of what, seven million cases? That’s what this is about?” He says the DOJ hasn’t identified and handed over details relating to specific incidents. “They don’t have it,” he says. “That’s why they’re not pushing it. They’re waiting. Every day, some cop might f**k up, and that adds to their ‘pattern and practice.’ “ Because Columbus is the first to fight the Justice Department, the case marks the first time the 1994 statute has been tested in court. A few months ago, the city and the union won a major victory when the federal judge presiding over the case ruled that the Justice Department would have to show that supervisors knew of and condoned wrongful acts in order for the department and the city to be liable. Phillips says the city’s image, built up for the last 20 years, is at stake: “You have to take into account what intangible message is being sent to the city of Columbus about how bad their police department is. You file this lawsuit, you’re calling everyone in this city a racist.”

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