Tim Tolka, author of the new book Blue Mafia: Police Brutality and Consent Decrees in Ohio, knows more about the issue of police brutality than most. His research is extensive and his book covers in horrifying and aggravating detail how in just the State of Ohio alone this oily undercurrent can drag away anyone, especially those brave enough to put a mirror up to the problem.
The reality of police brutality, especially continuing patterns of it, has always enraged and astounded me. When they happen, there are two injuries that occur; the physical abuse and the abuse of trust. If you have a motto emblazoned on your car stating ‘To Protect and Serve’, it doesn’t mean serving your most base and unchecked instincts. Yet over and over again we hear the cases, see the footage, and watch the corruption continue as the attackers behind badges walk free.
Tolka follows the legal milestone cases of civil rights attorney Richard Olivito, a lawyer and son of a judge, who made it his life’s purpose to argue cases of police brutality and corruption. In the towns of Warren and Steubenville, Olivito took on major civil rights cases, and in the case of Steubenville, succeeded in bringing the Department of Justice to town, resulting in the placement of a consent decree on the Steubenville Police Department. It was only the second of these decrees in the country (first was in Pittsburgh).
Consent decrees related to this book are federal orders issued down for cases of police use of force and practices that display a pattern of discrimination against a specific subset of their citizens. It basically puts the department and/or the city under federal watch.
A series of guidelines and proactive steps are set out for the police and a timeline in which they must complete them in order to get the decree lifted. One major point of the decree is the department that accepts the decree rather than fight the charges through the courts does not admit to any guilt. The specific officers never have it attached to their record as a crime.
Now, the town of Steubenville was Olivito’s hometown, but it staked its place in his legal career through the case of Andre Hython. Andre was a twenty-eight year old African American man who was arrested after being followed by two unmarked police cars. The officers pulled Hython and his friends over, got out guns drawn, and claimed they saw one of the passengers throw a small baggie out the window. They had also tried to set up Hython by creating a ‘controlled buy’ where the money given to him by the fake user would be traceable. Problem was, Hython never had any drugs on him, nothing was thrown out the window of their car, and no marked money could be traced to him.
Olivito defended Hython against the SPD and won. It was a huge embarrassment for the city prosecutor and the department that allowed these officers to operate with brazen disrespect for the citizens or their constitutional rights.
The case led Olivito to investigating the SPD regarding a growing number of tips and stories he was receiving from residents all over the town. Everything pointed to a distinct pattern of abuse and intentional ignorance of the civil rights of Steubenville’s populace, specifically those who were African American or female.
The response from the people in power was not subtle. Olivito and his wife would return home on multiple occasions to find their house ransacked, death threats on their answering machine, and one almost deadly incident where Olivito’s wife was laying in bed, eight months pregnant, and a tiny red dot appeared on her through their bedroom window. She went to tell her husband what she saw, when luckily a neighbor banged on a shared wall alerting them to the imminent danger. The neighbor chased the gunman, but couldn’t catch him.
This review could go on and on about the flames of powerful retaliation and retribution Olivito received from those who portrayed him as a wild-mouthed, sloppily dressed hack who was only stirring up trouble for his own personal gain, both in Steubenville and in Warren. In reality they attacked him because he had the audacity to challenge the status quo of corruption, backroom deals, and routine violence doled out on a daily basis.
What makes Ohio special against other places where this same problem exists is summed up nicely by Tolka:
Today, Ohio is one of only three state where seven or more DOJ investigations have been undertaken over patterns of police misconduct as of 2016. Not only have Columbus, Cincinnati, Steubenville, Warren, and Lorain been investigated, but Cleveland has hosted investigations twice. As of this writing, only California has hosted more investigations, and New York has an equal number, both of which have metropolitan areas with many more inhabitants than the total populations of the State of Ohio.
Blue Mafia opens a window into a world we all know exists, but most of us have not had the clarity to see how bad it really is. Tolka makes sure in the book’s closing to note that these cases and his research is not an attempt to label all police and local governments as corrupt. Rather it is a stark warning how so few people in the right places can systematically gain and retain utter control, legality and constitutionality be damned.