Pressure Mounts on Bibb for Hire of Former Roommate Accused in Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit

The NAACP and some city council members say the hiring is "tone deaf" amid efforts to reform Cleveland police under the consent decree

click to enlarge Pressure Mounts on Bibb for Hire of Former Roommate Accused in Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit
(Phillip McHugh's LinkedIn Profile)

The City of Cleveland has a new Senior Public Safety Advisor in town— former D.C. Police detective, Phillip McHugh—despite allegations of him violating an elderly couple’s civil rights, which led to McHugh being part of lawsuit back in 2015. (Note: McHugh was not found liable in the case and was dismissed as a party in the lawsuit before Washington D.C. reached a settlement with the plaintiffs.)

Mayor Justin Bibb hired McHugh in January with a starting salary of $124,000. News 5 Investigators recently reported not only his involvement in the lawsuit but the fact that McHugh was Bibb’s former college roommate.

Members of the Cleveland NAACP and City Council members are concerned about the precedent McHugh’s hiring sets for the city, and how it could impact the safety of Cleveland residents.

“[This] tells me that the [Bibb] Administration is very tone deaf in this racially charged policing environment,” says Kayla Griffin, the president of the Cleveland NAACP, “and that our consent decree and prioritizing, fulfilling it and getting from under it is not in the forefront of their mind.”

According to the lawsuit, a Black, elderly married couple, Vashti and Eugene Sherrod, were involved in a car accident in the District of Columbia. The other driver, a white woman, made a false police report accusing Vashti Sherrod, who was 75 at the time, of threatening her with a gun after discussing the accident. The lawsuit alleged that McHugh was aware that the report was false but continued to lead a search warrant for the Sherrods’ home.

No gun was found on the property.

“If he could do that to a 70-something-year-old grandmother, I really fear how he would approach our young, Black men who are just navigating and being.”

The lawsuit was settled and McHugh wasn't found liable.

At last Monday's City Council meeting, both Richard Starr and Kevin Conwell spoke about the controversy.

“We are in the middle of a consent decree,” Conwell. “What kind of message is the mayor, he’s in leadership, is sending his safety forces? Because we don’t want to violate people’s civil rights, and then you bring him in?”

Starr added, "This administration is telling us who they are as well as who they value and respect, and we’d be fools not to believe them."

The Cleveland NAACP is demanding the immediate termination of McHugh with a petition, which so far has gathered more than 230 signatures. The group seeks to explore solutions beyond meetings and media talking points if the demand is not met.

“We are still under a consent decree. We still have a police monitor. We still have a citizen review board. There are other options, and this is not a fight that will just easily go away,” says Griffin.

In a lengthy statement from a spokesperson, the city defended the hire.

“Mr. McHugh has dedicated his life to public service. His resume reflects continuous advancement, and he has received several commendations, honors and awards throughout his career including as Officer of the Year, two United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Awards for Public Service, and a Life Saving Award for his successful negotiation with and physical rescue of a suicidal youth from a freeway overpass.

“The administration is aware that Mr. McHugh was a party in a lawsuit stemming from a criminal investigation he conducted in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office nearly ten years ago in Washington, D.C. All claims made against Mr. McHugh were dismissed with prejudice prior to the disposition of the matter and there was no finding of wrongdoing by the court or Mr. McHugh’s former employer. Throughout his career, there has never been a sustained finding related to Mr. McHugh’s bias or integrity.

“The city conducted a thorough search for the Senior Advisor for Public Safety and Mr. McHugh was identified as the most qualified candidate for the role. He brings a unique set of experience, knowledge and new ideas to the city.”

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