The allegations include excessive force, false arrests and improper searches. The Justice Department reviewed more than 300 complaints.
The lawsuit comes the day after the local Fraternal Order of Police rejected an offer to settle the case. The city and Justice Department reached a tentative settlement agreement in August, but union approval was necessary.
Columbus was only the third city in the United States to be threatened with such a lawsuit by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Steubenville and Pittsburgh reached agreements, known as consent decrees, in which they promised to correct problems in the training, supervision and discipline of officers.
The Justice Department said it found a pattern of civil rights abuses in the 1,700-member Columbus police department. The investigation also included a review of recent lawsuits and records from a 1996 mayoral investigation of Police Chief James Jackson.
Telephone messages were not immediately returned Thursday from the city attorney's office and police union President William Capretta.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, demands improvements in the training and supervision of police officers, and the investigation of civilian complaints.
"We would still prefer to bring about needed changes in the police department through negotiations, rather than contested litigation,'' said Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.
In the proposed settlement, the city would not have admitted liability, and the police department and individual officers would not be penalized.
Provisions of the agreement included:
- Appointment of an independent monitor, to be paid for by the city, to ensure that agreement requirements are met.
- Increased training, including a requirement that new officers complete a four-month field training program.
- The hiring of a deputy director of training, who will ensure that officer training meets police needs.
- Establishment of reporting procedures for instances involving the use of force, serious law enforcement related injuries, warrant-less searches and seizures and traffic stops.