City of Cleveland Reaches $375,000 Settlement With Family of Man Who Died in Police Custody After Telling Officers "I Can't Breathe"

Update: "I can't breathe."

"So, who gives a fuck?"

The disturbing details in the death of Rodney Brown, who died after being taken into Cleveland police custody back in 2010, include that snippet of conversation between a Cleveland police officer and Brown, who'd been tased at least twice after a traffic stop and died a little over an hour later. Officers contended he'd resisted arrest.

Brown's family filed a federal lawsuit and six years of motions and legal wrangling followed. Eventually, a federal appeals court ruled the case would go to trial, saying the officer, Erick Melendez, could be found liable for Brown's death. That trial was supposed to happen but the city announced yesterday it had reached a preliminary settlement with the family: Cleveland will pay out $375,000. The settlement still needs to be approved by probate court. The Brown family's attorney told yesterday the decision to settle came because the case had lingered for so long. 


(Original story 1/14/15): After years of motions and scattered exhibit filings, U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells has allowed much of Rodney Brown's family's lawsuit against the city of Cleveland to go forward — namely, the parts about police officers' use of excessive force and other officers' willful indifference toward the same.

The 2010 death of Rodney Brown sparked little outrage compared to the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York City.  The Plain Dealer ran a great front page in December, revealing a moment that foreshadowed much of 2014's debate over police use of excessive force. Amid a violent altercation and after Brown had been arrested, he told an officer that he could not breathe. The officer replied: "So? Who gives a fuck?" Brown died shortly thereafter. Garner's story was similar — particularly the "I can't breathe" quote — though the national climate is much more electrified these days.

With Wells' order to move forward on the wrongful death lawsuit, Rodney Brown's murder is returned to the local discourse. 

The two parties' divergent stories are outlined on pages 2-8 in the judge's order

In short: On Dec. 31, 2010, Brown was pulled over for a traffic stop. Police assert that his headlights were off; Brown's family claims otherwise. Suspecting alcohol consumption, officers ordered Brown out of the car. As they patted him down, the lawsuit contends, Chapman elbowed Brown in the back of his head, prompting Brown to run across the street and face the officers. Chapman tased Brown, though he said that had little effect on the man. The officers pretty much deny all of that, writing that Brown resisted the pat-down and refused to comply with orders before being tased.

Brown ran, and the officers chased him down East 114th Street. When they caught up to him, tasings continued to no effect. A scuffle ensued, ending with Chapman sticking his gun into Brown's back before another officer subdued Brown. In all, eight officers ended up at the scene to control Brown. A crowd began gathering. Brown was arrested, and when he was stood up by Chapman he told the officer that he couldn't breathe. 

Brown died about an hour-and-a-half after first being pulled over.

Though the lawsuit was filed in July 2011, one can expect some action on this case following Wells' order. 

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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