John S. Cooper Jr. was pleading with Franklin County deputy sheriffs to give him a blood-alcohol test as he was led into the jail for the first time in his life.
Minutes before, Cooper, son of former Ohio State football coach John Cooper, had been waiting for pizzas at Tommy’s on West Lane Avenue before the 2007 OSU-Wisconsin football game. Then he was arrested by Deputy Jack Burns on a charge of disorderly conduct.
Burns, who was working special duty in the restaurant, said Cooper refused to leave the store after two warnings to quietly wait for his pizzas, according to court records. Burns said Cooper was intoxicated.
Cooper spent that night in jail before posting bail and was never given a blood-alcohol test. Prosecutors later dropped the charge because of lack of evidence.
In December, Franklin County agreed to pay Cooper $35,000 to settle the false-imprisonment lawsuit he filed in 2009.
His lawsuit is one of 27 against the sheriff’s office that Franklin County has settled since 2009, more than any of the largest Ohio counties, a Columbus Dispatch analysis found.
In terms of cost, Franklin County’s $1.1 million in settlements rank second to Cuyahoga County’s.
Cuyahoga County settled eight lawsuits totaling $4.8 million involving its sheriff’s office. Most of it, $3.3 million, was paid out after singer Sean Levert died in the county jail in 2008.
In addition to the 27 deals involving financial payouts, Franklin County this year settled a lawsuit that claimed improper use of Tasers on prisoners. Damages from that case are pending.
Last month, a federal judge ruled the county was not liable in a lawsuit alleging two deputies fed a bologna sandwich to an inmate after another inmate had rubbed it with his penis.
The deputies were fired.
County Administrator Don Brown said he and commissioners met with Sheriff Zach Scott “within the last month” to discuss the mounting settlements. Scott promised to implement new training procedures.
“I am concerned about the (lawsuits) and, remember I just got here, but we are going to address the issues,” said Scott, who was appointed in July after the death of longtime Sheriff Jim Karnes.
This month, county commissioners agreed to pay Brian Fisher $37,500 after he was knocked unconscious by Deputy Anthony Whitworth in the jail in March, according to an internal investigation by the sheriff’s office.
The investigation found that Whitworth used improper force and was not honest about the events that led to Fisher being taken to the hospital. Whitworth received a two-day suspension for the incident.
Commissioners on Sept. 6 agreed to pay Jason Tucker $88,000 after he sued in federal court, saying he was hospitalized for four days in 2009 after Deputy Scott Downing dragged him down stairs while he was handcuffed and broke his jaw with a flashlight.
The county admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, and Downing was not disciplined for the incident.
For Cooper’s settlement, Burns was not disciplined, and there’s no record of an internal investigation, according to the sheriff’s office.
Burns has been a deputy since 1989, and his annual evaluations state that he has a “temper” and “does not always display self-control in demanding situations,” according to records filed in court.
He has since been transferred to the patrol division, where he provides security at Westland High School.
“(Burns) arrested (Cooper) just to prove ‘You can’t say something to me without me being able to smack you down,’ ’’ said Gerry Leeseberg, Cooper’s attorney.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien would not comment on the specifics of the case, adding that “both sides agreed to settle the case, and there was no admission of guilt or wrongdoing.”
Scott said he could not comment on the Burns case because he was not aware of the circumstances, but he said Downing’s case was a “he said, she said” type of incident.
“Downing had to go in without backup, and there was no proof beyond a reasonable doubt there was any wrongdoing,” Scott said. “But that doesn’t prevent someone from suing.”
Traffic leads suits
Most of the sheriff’s settlements (22) involve traffic accidents in which deputies rear-ended vehicles, hit parked cars or collided with motorists after running stop signs or red lights.
Those settlements account for about $50,000.
O’Brien said his office looks at each lawsuit on its merits and almost always aggressively seeks a dismissal.
Scott said that with 680 sworn deputies with “400 of them at the jails” and he has one of the largest sheriff’s operations in the state.
“I understand we might have the most settlements; I have more deputies and have a higher-populated area than anyone else. But we need to fix some problems,” he said.
Scott said much of a deputy’s training is in firearms and Taser use because that represents most of the county’s liability. He said a driver-training center is planned at the deputy training academy.
He added that his office might have more officer-involved accidents than offices in counties such as Cuyahoga and Lucas, which have eliminated or significantly reduced road patrols.
Sworn deputy sheriffs in the state’s other largest counties range from 345 in Summit to 160 in Cuyahoga.
The Franklin County sheriff’s $85 million operating budget is the largest allocation in the county’s $308 million general-fund budget. It is about $4 million less than in 2010.
As for punishing his deputies, Scott said any discipline handed out is based on years of arbitration rulings and protocol. He said the goal is to deter bad behavior while trying to avoid costly arbitration.
Scott said he will not tolerate misbehavior by his deputies. “We are held to a higher standard, and we should be,” he said.
Lucas Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org