Judge: Youngstown tolerated officer's violation of federal rights

By David Skolnick



A federal judge sharply criticized the city for “a pattern of federal rights-violations” by a police officer, “which appears to have been acquiesced to or tolerated by” Youngstown.

U.S. District Judge Benita Y. Pearson ruled in a federal lawsuit filed in 2011 by Desiree Johnson, a 47-year-old Youngstown woman, against the city that the plaintiff “sufficiently” showed that the police department’s internal-affairs division failed to properly investigate a number of complaints against Lt. Kevin Mercer.

That allows Johnson’s civil suit against the city to go forward.

Youngstown Law Director Martin Hume, who’s held the position for about two months, said this was “not a ruling on the merits of the case. The judge decided the plaintiff had the right to go to trial. Those are not final rulings. She didn’t decide the police did anything wrong.”

In a 17-page order issued Feb. 20, Judge Pearson called the police’s investigation into Johnson’s complaint of misconduct by Mercer to be “cursory, one-sided, and incomplete. The city failed to take the most basic of investigative steps.”

Judge Pearson also wrote in that order about two other investigations into Mercer’s conduct that exonerated him.

In one case, she wrote: “The limited focus of the city’s investigation is alarming.”

In the other, which involved Mercer’s daughter and her boyfriend — the officer was involved in a custody battle with his daughter over custody of her baby — the judge wrote: “The lack of disciplinary action is, again, concerning.”

Johnson showed in her court filing, Judge Pearson wrote, that “Officer Mercer has engaged in a pattern of unlawfully seizing Youngstown residents in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. The city undisputedly knew about these incidents, and its consistent failure to properly conduct an investigation or take disciplinary action suffices to demonstrate indifference towards the federally protected rights of its inhabitants. Officer Mercer was not appropriately investigated or disciplined. In fact, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.”

John A. McNally, Youngstown mayor since January, said he was aware of the judge’s filing, but wasn’t with the city at the time of the lawsuit’s filing or the incidents included in the order.

“I’m not sure what the judge looked at,” McNally said. “We’ll proceed to a trial or a settlement down the road.”

The judge also wrote that Mercer’s “intrusive search and seizure” of Johnson’s then-12-year-old son in 2009 “was a direct consequence of his belief that he could act with impunity in accordance with city custom.”

Johnson filed the lawsuit against Youngstown, former Police Chief Jimmy Hughes, and officers Mercer, Patrick Mulligan and Malik Mostella.

In her lawsuit, she contends the three officers used “excessive and unreasonable force, and search and seized” her son, Benjamin “Benji” Roberts, “without probable cause or justification” while pointing guns at him in 2009. The boy wasn’t charged with a crime.

Johnson was arrested in 2011 by Mercer and Mulligan, and convicted a year later with obstructing official business, resisting arrest and two counts of assault after she and a friend were stopped by the two officers. She was sentenced to 120 days in jail, but received a stay of her sentence.

She contended that her family and young black males were targeted by police for harassment.

The case is scheduled for trial April 21.

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