Feds settle with Dayton police over Owensby case; city must modify policies

Paraplegic man was pulled out of car by hair during traffic stop

The U.S. Department of Justice announced it has reached a settlement agreement with the city of Dayton over allegations that police discriminated against a driver with disabilities during a traffic stop.

The incident in question involved Clifford Owensby, a paraplegic resident, who was yanked from his vehicle by Dayton police following a traffic stop in September 2021.

“No one should be subjected to discriminatory treatment during police interactions, and that includes people with disabilities,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Law enforcement agencies and their officers are required to make reasonable modifications to their policies and procedures when interacting with people with disabilities, and failure to do so may violate federal civil rights law.”

Owensby was pulled over by Dayton police after officers said they saw him leaving a suspected drug house.

The Justice Department said Owensby, who uses a wheelchair, told officers he could not get out of his vehicle safely without his wheelchair and he requested the officers to call a supervisor.

The officers did not call a supervisor and they forcibly pulled Owensby out of the vehicle, threw him to the ground, handcuffed him and dragged him to a police vehicle, causing injury, the settlement agreement states.

The Justice Department said its investigation “substantiated” that the Dayton Police Department provided Owensby with “unequal and ineffective” services by removing him without a mobility aid.

The department said police failed to reasonably modify policies, practices or procedures to avoid discrimination.

Officers could have obtained a wheelchair or asked a paramedic to assist to help Owensby safely exit the vehicle, the settlement agreement states.

Or officers could have performed a “free-air sniff” of the vehicle with Owensby inside the vehicle, while taking other steps to protect officer safety, the agreement says.

Police called for a K-9 to come to the scene of the traffic stop to sniff around the vehicle to see if the dog detected the scent of drugs.

Owensby eventually was charged and found guilty of window tint and child restraint violations as a result of the traffic stop. Both charges were minor misdemeanors, and he was fined $150 for each violation.

Police also seized about $22,450 in cash from Owensby’s vehicle. Owensby has filed a civil lawsuit demanding that police return the money.

Owensby also filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Dayton and two police officers who were involved in the traffic stop, claiming they violated his civil rights. The case is still ongoing.

The two-year settlement agreement requires the Dayton Police Department to modify its policies to be consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Justice Department said.

The Dayton Police Department also has agreed to provide ADA training to officers to teach them best practices when it comes to interacting with individuals with disabilities and to report back on its progress to the Justice Department, the DOJ said.

The Justice Department said the Americans with Disabilities Act requires cities, law enforcement agencies and other public entities to provide individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in their services, including policing.

The ADA also requires police departments and other public entities to reasonably modify their practices when necessary to avoid discrimination, the department said.

The Department of Justice began investigating the Dayton Police Department after a complaint was made regarding a traffic stop involving Owensby, said Andy Sexton, general counsel for the police department.

“The city of Dayton worked cooperatively with the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, for more than a year,” he said. “At the request of the DOJ, the city will be modifying its policies and practices when removing an individual with mobility limitations from a vehicle.”

The settlement agreement will allow the city to draft new policy and provide additional ADA-specific training, Sexton said.

He said the agreement is not a consent decree and did not involve the court or an admission of any wrongdoing or insufficiency of training or policies.

“I have always been a proponent for training,” said Dayton police Chief Kamran Afzal. “The Dayton Police Department’s training exceeds all legal mandates, and we will use this opportunity to further enhance our department.”

An attorney for Owensby did not immediately return a request for comment Monday afternoon.

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