A Black computer engineer, mistaken by cops for a robber, is beaten so severely by law enforcement on his front lawn that hospitalization is necessary. He suffered head and shoulder injuries. A Black woman is dragged out of a restaurant restroom, thrown to the ground, and handcuffed by police after a false report that she walked out on the tab. A current DC council member was assaulted by a police officer while serving as a school board member.
What these people all have in common, besides experience with DC police misconduct, are sizeable settlements from the district with no admission of fault by police. They received $192,000, $150,000, and $75,000, respectively.
These settlements do not receive the same attention as the huge amounts victims of police shootings have received –or, more accurately, the estates of these victims. However, they indicate the types of police misconduct running rampant in many cities than the more high-profile shootings.
According to the Washington Post, over the past five years, the city government has spent millions of dollars settling “dozens” of police misconduct lawsuits. Records indicate the number of settlements at 70 or more. While the total amount in settlement agreements since 2016 adds up to $40 million, that does not include more than $800K in settlements handled outside the office of the DC Office of the Attorney General.
DC pales in comparison with New York City, which paid out over $1 billion over the same period to settle such cases. Los Angeles and Chicago paid more than $200 million, but they are much larger than DC.
For the DC government, a settlement is the last resort before a case goes to trial. The modus operandi usually contests these lawsuits for as long as possible, agreeing to settle only when a trial seems imminent.
One Police Officer, Five Settlements
Four of the settlements occurring since 2016 involve Officer Frederick Onoja of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Another settlement involving this officer took place in 2015. One plaintiff, William Jarta Hall, alleges he was walking down a road in 2015 when Onoja, riding a bicycle, pulled up to him, “wrapped him in a bear hug,” and then tossed him onto the ground. Hall claims Onoja regularly harassed him and other Black males in the area.
A security camera recorded the incident, and showed Onoja’s hitting Hall and using a large amount of pepper spray on him. Hall received a $25K settlement.
Onoja is still on the force.
Most Complaints Do Not Result in Discipline
A report released in October 2020 by the DC Complaints Board found that most validated police misconduct complaints in the city do not result in any type of serious punishment. Over the past two years, actions taken in more than 60 percent of such complaints were simply mild reprimands or more training requirements.
While there is a Table of Offenses and Penalties for police officers found engaging in misconduct, the MPC often does not use guide criteria for punishment. Instead, additional training, which is not considered disciplinary action, is imposed instead. Onoja’s punishment for two harassment complaints filed against him in 2016 was “additional training.”