Guest column/City’s consent decree was a pivotal decision
President Donald Trump recently made remarks before a Suffolk County, N.Y., police department that encouraged police actions that have occurred for decades. Never has a president encouraged this kind of old-school policing. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, despite his confirmation hearing promises to uphold the civil rights laws of this nation, has stated he won’t enforce the one law that has helped reign in such misconduct across this nation, what is called today, the “pattern and practice” misconduct federal oversight law.
Twenty years ago next month, the Justice Department first fully utilized this new federal law and authority and interposed its power into a small town’s police department to stop just such old-school heavy-handed policing, creating a landmark civil rights milestone for the nation and even the world to witness. It was our city, Steubenville.
It was here where Public Law 94 was first applied through a DOJ Civil Rights Division investigation directed toward our city’s police department, leaving Steubenville under a federal court consent decree for the next seven years.
I, through unusual and unexpected ways, came into contact with the deputy attorney general. By a random phone call made to the DOJ that had nothing to do with my hometown police department, I began a journey that would change not only my life but that of the city’s police department and create a template to be followed by other cities.
This official noted they had received numerous boxes of older case files from “some lawyer in Columbus” and “we don’t know what to do with it.” Of course, everyone knew James McNamara’s decades-long efforts to deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis with his old friend, Skip Mixon.
By the end of this pivotal phone call, I knew something profound had occurred and that it wasn’t merely human agency that was involved. As soon as I hung up the phone, I began to pray. My then wife and I then headed to Washington, D.C., to meet these officials by invitation and told what had been transpiring during the prior year and the dangers that were all around us. I knew this was nothing less than some kind of heaven-sent breakthrough.
This 1994 meeting — and about 20 years of prior civil rights litigation by McNamara — and the courage of a young lawyer willing to speak out against what he perceived as unconstitutional behavior by local officials and some local police — not all — are why Steubenville would be chosen as the first city in the United States to be fully exposed to the cleansing action of this new federal authority granted to the highest-ranking lawyer and law enforcement agency in the nation.
The Steubenville consent decree did not come about because of a history of brutality. It occurred because of a long series of constitutional violations and individual retaliatory conduct, combined with bad policing against ordinary local citizens black, white and red. It came about because the DOJ discovered conduct that included allegations of corruption that pointed to the county prosecutor’s office drug enforcement efforts at that time.
The consent decree would eventually lead to significant changes in our local law enforcement and eventually to a new chief, who serves today. He has told me he never would have had his position if it weren’t for the consent decree. The city hasn’t fully embraced this unique event in many ways for reasons that go well beyond this column, but I have always felt in not doing so, it has lost a major opportunity to become one of the leading municipalities in America to demonstrate to the world that change is inevitable and can happen in the most out-of- the-way places and circumstances.
The Steubenville decree, being the first of its kind, was recognized by major international human rights organizations. Amnesty International and the London-based Human Rights Watch organizations wrote of it being a critical human rights milestone in their 1999 annual reports.
I discovered, almost a decade after it was signed, that the decree was utilized by our government before a U.N. Committee on Human Rights Violations and Torture in Geneva, to show U.S. compliance with its treaty obligations.
The Bush and Obama administrations were slow to start, but eventually found their purpose and power in this federal authority to begin to reign in one of the last civil rights issues in this nation. This law was authored by two serious modern-day leaders, Joe Biden and John Conyers, the 90-year-old African-American who led the House Judiciary Committee for many years.
What do we say when I hear this president tell a group of young and courageous police officers who are going to risk their lives to keep citizens safe to use tactics that belong to the Nazis and to Stalin’s Russia?
It’s not a simple answer. It takes vigilance and determination, courage and endurance. It takes true progressives, moderates, liberals and conservatives with a conscience to speak up and not retreat or apologize for what they know is right if we believe in our nation’s highest values. What happened here in the 1990s is a testament to what can happen when ordinary citizens with personal courage combine with enlightened officials working within progressive ideals and truly show concern about their fellow citizens.
This kind of change can happen in the most forgotten areas and we can lead this nation in substantial civil rights reforms if we recognize when a God-given opportunity presents itself to us. Perhaps it will be our region that will once again show what believing in the fundamental freedoms of this nation mean. That is the hope contained inside of what this historical milestone means to me, one who lived and walked it through from start to finish.
This decree actually honors those in the law enforcement community who truly protect and serve us. We all need and want good police. We need lawful, constitutional policing. During the darkest hours of the two-year investigation, I often was given personal pivotal support by members of local law enforcement. I will never forget the officers who came to risk their lives the night a serious assassination attempt was made against my wife and I. One of them died and the other is my friend today.
If I can ask my hometown anything, it’s that it doesn’t forget and yet doesn’t live in the past. I take great pride in the tremendous contribution of my father, the late Judge Dominick Olivito, to this community’s spirit and the fact I helped in some small way, along with others, here and in Washington to bring about this unique first in American civil rights legal history. The University of Michigan Law School’s online legal clearinghouse lists this DOJ effort as among the most important civil rights cases in modern history. We ought to feel the impact of that contribution and make it our own positive narrative.
Ultimately, I believe it was the Lord who truly cared enough about the ordinary citizens of our hometown and allowed the young Yale and Harvard lawyers from Clinton’s DOJ to come here and affect a change for Steubenville and an entire nation, decades before the nation ever heard of a Ferguson (or Cleveland or Baltimore or Seattle or Albuquerque or Detroit etc.)
Once upon a time in America, it took true local individual courage and progressive national leadership to make those in Washington and around world take note that we are a nation of values, of true freedom that ought to apply to our citizens and its police. We demonstrated to the watching world that our country’s highest values do matter, especially when they mattered most to the ordinary citizens right here in our small town.
(Olivito is a member of the Jefferson County Progressive Democratic Coalition.)