In 2003, Russo’s office negotiated the largest legal settlement in Oakland municipal history. Plaintiffs who claimed they were victimized by a group of rogue cops known as "the Riders" shared $10.5 million in damages. The settlement brought major changes to police department operations and dealings with the public. The case riveted the city as it was the largest case of police misconduct in Oakland in decades. Despite the settlement's hefty price tag, Russo said the cases could have cost the city tens of millions of dollars more had they gone to trial, pointing out that the victims had spent more than 25 years, combined, imprisoned on false charges. By comparison, Los Angeles spent $40 million to settle litigation stemming from the Rampart corruption scandal.
The payout went to 119 plaintiffs who filed federal civil rights lawsuits claiming four police officers kidnapped, beat and planted drugs on them during the summer of 2000. The plaintiffs alleged that the Oakland Police Department either encouraged or turned a blind eye to the abuse. U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson approved the settlement in the civil cases after 18 months of negotiations.
"We did not bury our heads in the sand. We acknowledged freely our faults, and we've worked arm in arm toward fixing the problem rather than hiding from or denying the problem," said City Attorney John Russo. "A lot of the plaintiffs are people who have bad histories with the law," Russo said. But "there are some people who did not have trouble with the law who got caught up in this kind of overzealous behavior. And even people who are career criminals are entitled to their constitutional rights."
In addition, he said, the settlement prevented the U.S. Justice Department from imposing changes on the police department through consent decree, as it has done in other cities facing police misconduct scandals such as Los Angeles. Russo said the changes will make it easier for police brass to identify problem officers and deal with them.
"At the high point of their careers, the so-called "Riders" were considered the best and the brightest, veterans whom rookie police officers tried to emulate. Their specialty: bringing in reputed drug dealers in record numbers from the crime-plagued streets of West Oakland.
The alleged abuses came to light after a rookie officer, just 10 days on the job and fresh out of the police academy, resigned and reported his former co-workers' activities to the police department's internal affairs division.
Read more about this topic: John A. Russo (politician)
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