City Should Approve Crosby Settlement, Admit Wrongdoing | Editorial

Update Jan. 28, 2019, 9:19pm: Council approved settlement terms on consent agenda without discussion and without admission of liability

By Misty Witenberg

City Council will vote tonight on approval of a $1.25 million settlement with Dr. Lawrence Crosby, the former doctoral student who was beaten and arrested after police thought he’d stolen his own car.

As a term of the settlement, the City is released from having to admit any wrongdoing or say there was any validity to Dr. Crosby’s claims of battery, conspiracy or malicious prosecution.

It’s a standard corporate boilerplate. Corporations, like the City of Evanston, throw huge amounts of money—your money—to avoid having to say they did anything wrong.

Evanston is a municipal corporation. All of its staff attorneys and outside counsel, funded by taxpayers, serve the City’s corporate interest. We have zero advisors primarily serving public interest.

And that’s a problem, because when public interest and corporate interest conflict, as in the Crosby case, residents are footing the bill exclusively for lawyers actively working against our interest—and protecting the City from having to admit when it’s wronged the public.

It’s also a problem because the alderpersons, who are there to serve public interest, have only corporation counsel to look to for legal advisement.

As public fiduciaries, I would ask City Counsel to consider what the City’s corporate advisement has already cost Dr. Crosby and the public. The bulk of the $1.25 million is compensation for reputational harm caused by the City in its refusal to take responsibility from the start.

  • Instead of apologizing to Dr. Crosby after finding out the car was registered to him, he was arrested.
  • Instead of dropping the charges the City reasonably knew were false and/or would fall apart, as officers on the scene admitted, it chose to pursue them, prompting his lawsuit.
  • Instead of immediately settling that initial $50,000, the City chose to push back, hire an outside firm and continue perpetuating false charges against him on City platforms, all at taxpayer expense.

The overriding public interest in the City’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing goes far beyond the financial costs. It’s essential for public trust. It’s essential for the safety of our police officers who put great effort in establishing trust in the community they serve. Admitting fault is also essential for deterring reoccurrence of an offense. That’s why its required in plea bargains. And why even the SEC more strictly required admissions of guilt by banks following the financial crisis. Judges generally agreed the “neither-admit-nor-deny” option is contrary to public interest. The interest is in the public’s knowing the truth, particularly when there is such significant harm and risk posed.

Particularly flagrant was the City’s use of public resources as public relation tools to improve its image (corporate interest) rather than to inform the public with an accurate depiction of events transpired (public interest).

The City’s released dashcam footage opened by continuing to falsely accuse Dr. Crosby of “actively resisting arrest” and failing to comply with officers. This was almost a year after he’d been acquitted of those charges.

The City’s published timeline of events, goes into great detail to highlight the City’s steps to improve its police training and policies, illustrate the City’s compliance with a subpoena in its own misdemeanor trial, to explain why FOIA records weren’t immediately accessible and to notate that the opposing attorney didn’t call back a City assistant attorney. 

What’s missing from those records are anything approaching culpability as it relates to the City’s treatment of Dr. Crosby during or following his brutal arrestFor example, at the onset of the encounter, rather than deescalate the situation, officers simultaneously shouted at Crosby making it difficult to make out any one order. It was not until an officer rushed to tackle him, as he stood with arms raised, that Crosby made any movement away, trying to ensure the encounter was visible to his dashcam. Well-founded behavior, especially as an officer told him, “I didn’t shoot you mother f***er, so you should feel lucky for that.” 

Crosby spoke remarkably calmly, after being kneed, punched and pinned on the ground by five officers. He identified himself and his car, advised officers he was recording them, recited his license plate number and where and when he’d purchased his car, and asked why he was being arrested. Police told him they needed to verify the car wasn’t stolen. But when dispatch confirmed the car was Crosby’s, the officers kept him on the ground before placing him under arrest and in a squad car where officers continued to harass and threaten him.

It was Crosby’s videoing of the incident that appeared to particularly incite some officers. When an officer accused him of trying to “bait” them, Crosby responded by saying, “No, I wanted video evidence regardless of what happened.” The officer then told Crosby, “Well then, you’re going to be charged with disobedience to police. If you’re going to put us on trial, then we’re going to put you on trial.” In the audio, another officer can be heard saying, he thinks he can do whatever the f*** he wants.”

Officers who act with willful wrong or unjustly in the discharge of their official duties violate Evanston Municipal Code 9-1-9 Neglect of Duties. But rather than charging officers with any violations, the City defended the officers and went after Crosby, charging him with resisting arrest and disobedience to officers. This was despite knowing the case was “going to fall apart.” Which it did, and Crosby was acquitted.

It was the City’s pressing of charges that ultimately prompted Crosby to sue the City. As originally reported by the Chicago Tribune, Crosby said he appreciated that police work is stressful and mistakes can be made. “Instead of apologizing when they had an opportunity to do that, when they ascertained that I was the owner of the vehicle, even that would have ended the rest of the night,” Crosby said. “It would have been somewhat traumatic still, but the actions they took after that were the most egregious to me. They knew that I owned the car, they made a mistake, and they decided to persist in prosecuting these crimes that they knew I didn’t commit.” Crosby’s suit initially asked for at least $50,000.  

Corporations don’t like to admit fault because of what they call “complex collateral consequences.” It’s not as easy to deny wrongdoing you’ve already admitted to. Even if a police department felt compelled to admit and discipline misconduct, its City corporation and representatives concerned with probable, pending or additional litigation will likely advise them against it. Former Police Chief Eddington alluded to the dilemma, in reference to the Crosby case, at an EPD Open House, as originally reported by The Daily Northwestern

“The city is still in somewhat of a handcuffed position dealing with pending litigation,” Eddington had said. “Part of our guarded response to date has been to keep that settlement to a minimum…I don’t want to do anything that’s going to add zeroes to the end of the settlement. That’s part of why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we’re going about it.”

OK…but I would argue that now, at this point, an agreement has been reached. Retrying this case would mean bringing criminal charges, with a higher burden of proof. That action would be entirely inconsistent with what Dr. Crosby has stated are his intentions, to move on as an advocate at Stanford University.

Public trust in our government requires some degree of confidence that it will hold itself accountable for wrongdoing. And that means more than cutting a check.

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