Cincinnati Enquirer - Two Cincinnati police officers used "horrible judgment" and may have violated department policy when they used their Tasers in an early August scuffle, say experts who reviewed body camera footage obtained by The Enquirer.
The Aug. 8 incident prompted an extraordinary intervention by the Hamilton County prosecutor in an external city investigation into the use of force and a major showdown between City Manager Harry Black and police union President Dan Hils.
Two experts – a professor and an expert witness/consultant – reviewed the footage for The Enquirer. The experts, both retired police officers, both said that neither the use of force nor the subsequent controversy had to happen.
They added that the officers clearly did not follow the city police policy of de-escalation when confronting two young men in their mother's living room in Clifton Heights.
And then once things escalated, the officers never stated they were arresting the two men and instead pulled their Tasers and eventually used them – a potential violation of CPD's official use of force policy.
The incident and its aftermath left both men with their first criminal convictions. One of them also suffered a collapsed lung during his arrest; he was recovering from back fusion surgery at the time.
CPD officials declined interview requests to discuss the incident and denied requests to interview Officers Richard Sullivan and Lawrence Johnson, citing an ongoing internal investigation.
Johnson was involved in the 2011 fatal police shooting of David "Bones" Hebert in Northside. He was the officer in front of Hebert that early morning when a knife appeared and another officer shot and killed Hebert.
Angela Brown, who originally called the police to get her sons to leave her apartment, did not return messages left on her cell phone.
The two half-brothers involved, Richard Coleman, 24, and James Crawley, 25, did not return emails seeking comment. Crawley's lawyer declined comment as the judge in his case has yet to issue a sentence.
The men told city investigators they were at their mother's apartment to help her grocery shop, with one saying Brown previously invited him to live there.
One of the experts said that the videos show the two officers actively escalating the situation instead of calming things down and eventually "using the Tasers as a form of torture to get them to do what they wanted them to do."
"Anyone with any common sense can see the officers never give the kids a chance … and they immediately turned to a weapon that is one step below using lethal force," said Gary A. Rini, a longtime police officer and commander from suburban Cleveland who now works as a police consultant and expert witness.
Following the incident, one of the brothers made a complaint to the Citizen Complaint Authority, which was created as part of the 2001 Collaborative Agreement to investigate allegations against police. Fraternal Order of Police President Hils requested that city investigators hold off on interviewing the officers until after the two men were fully prosecuted.
Eventually, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters took the previously unheard-of step of asking for and receiving a temporary restraining order against the city, preventing the Citizen Complaint Authority from interviewing the officers.
David Thomas, a 20-year police veteran who is now an associate forensics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, said he could see why the prosecutor didn't want the officers to be interviewed nor the footage made public until after the charges against the two men had gone through the courts.
"There's certainly enough in here to call into question the officers' actions in a criminal proceeding against the subjects," said Thomas, who is also a senior research fellowwith the Police Foundation, a nonprofit policy research group focusing on policing issues.
Chaos followed by Taser use
The incident took place at about 3:30 p.m. on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.
Johnson and Sullivan responded to a domestic call for help from Angela Brown, who asked the police to get her two sons out of her apartment.
The body camera and cell phone footage and later interviews show this chronology:
The two officers wait outside Brown's apartment until she shows up; they had been let in by a different resident and she had gone to a different door to let them in.
Brown escorts them into the apartment and waves toward the living room: "Here they at – disrespecting me and everything."
Coleman lounges on a couch while his older half-brother Crawley sits nearby.
One officer asks "What's going on with you fellas?" "We just chillin'," Coleman answers.
Then he stands up and approaches the officers, saying he wants to explain the situation while also trying to calm down his brother.
Sullivan orders him to sit down, but Coleman refuses, saying "I'm not going to sit down – this is my mother's house" while telling his brother not to say anything. (He would later testify to city investigators that he was invited to stay there by his mother.)
In the midst of the chaos, Brown yelling "Arrest these m----f-----, they are no good – get them out of my house!" among other things.
The officers then repeatedly ask Crawley where he lives but Crawley doesn't answer.
"Let me talk because here's the situation," Coleman says he approaches one of the officers and as his mother continually screams "they gotta get out of my house!"
Brown screams again, leading Crawley to slam his fist on a table and stand up aggressively toward his mother, screaming "You called the cops on us!"
The two officers then move to head off Crawley, but Coleman gets in between them.
After they separate, Sullivan pulls out his Taser and lights the red dot on Coleman and yells "move!" as Coleman continually yells "Stop!"
"You're gonna get tased," Sullivan shouts at Crawley. He then orders Crawley to put his hands behind his back, and Crawley complies.
"Are y'all really going to do this? We ain't doin' nuthin'," yells Coleman as the other officer, Johnson, holds him off to the side.
With Johnson holding Coleman's hands behind his back, Sullivan orders Crawley to turn around. Crawley's hands are still behind his head.
"Mama, you gonna let this happen?" Coleman yells to Brown. "Mama you are drunk!"
Johnson releases Coleman, who immediately goes and gets his cell phone. That leads Johnson to pull out his Taser and point it at the younger brother.
Sullivan orders Crawley to come to him, saying "you're going to get tased."
When Crawley refuses to comply, Sullivan barks into his radio: "Get on it … we're about to engage these guys," apparently calling for backup before shooting Crawley with his Taser.
Sullivan then uses his Taser on Crawley, causing him to curl up into a ball on the floor.
Coleman pulls the barbs and wires out of his brother and continues to video the scene on his cell phone while standing near the window.
Johnson then tases Coleman at least four times – with Coleman yelling "why do you keep tasing me … I'm trying to explain what's going on" as he repeatedly pulls out the barbs.
Johnson moves in and tries to physically subdue Coleman and is aided by Sullivan, pushing him to the ground.
Coleman is heard yelling at his mother:
"Mom, are you really going to let them do this? You just had three beers and were going to buy crack!"
But the mother just keeps yelling – "get them out of my house!"
Then Crawley jumps into the melee, saying later he was worried about the officers doing further damage to Coleman's back.
A third officer jumps in within seconds of arriving on the scene, and the police control the two men by wrestling and punching and eventually handcuffing them. Johnson's body camera falls off during this scuffle.
The officers lead the two men out of the apartment, with no indication of when the two are read their Miranda rights.
An ambulance takes Coleman to a hospital, while Crawley is eventually taken to jail.
What does CPD policy say?
Department policy clearly states in bold that Tasers are only to be deployed against those who "are actively resisting arrest."
In the recording, the officers never try to place either brother under arrest – or warn them they are going to do so.
The officers did warn the brothers several times that they would be using their Tasers. The CPD policy clearly states that officers should use "courtesy in all public contacts" and that only they should only use "whatever force is reasonably necessary to apprehend the offender or affect the arrest and no more." (The quoted material is underscored and bold in the written copy of the policy.)
In addition, CPD's stated policy for most of this decade has been to try to de-escalate situations whenever possible to avoid unnecessary arrests and force.
In their statements to supervisors, the officers reported that the two were subdued with Taser because they failed to comply with their commands to either move away or put their hands behind their backs.
The two men told CCA in tape-recorded interviews they were there to help their mother at the grocery store, and stayed afterward – and then she became irrational after drinking beer. They said this had happened several times before.
"She's called the cops before on us when she gets like that ... this is the first time that anyone ever showed up," Coleman told CCA investigators.
Since the incident, Hils asked both city and internal police investigators to delay interviewing the officers involved until after Coleman and Crawley were fully prosecuted.
An initial two-month delay was agreed to, but then Hils kept pushing for a ban until the case was adjudicated. He asked for help from Prosecutor Deters, who eventually got the restraining order against CCA investigators.
That led to that angry call from Black to Hils, who recorded it.
The restraining order expired within two weeks, and the CCA has since resumed its investigation and is conducting interviews with all involved.
If the agency's board finds the officers acted inappropriately, it can recommend to city manager Black to discipline or retrain them. City and police officials then would have to implement those recommendations.
Upon reviewing the videos, both outside experts said that the two officers should have immediately separated the brothers and the mother to get a better handle on what was going on.
"This is a domestic dispute, no different than if a husband and wife were going at it," said Thomas. "At a certain point, they could have just put them in handcuffs and walked them into separate rooms."
Said Rini: "The brothers were not looking to fight. And after that first question, at no point did the officers try and calm things down or even try to find out what was going on."
The two brothers were charged with resisting arrest and trespassing, with Crawley facing an additional felony charge of assaulting a police officer.
Last month, Coleman pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and received a sentence of six months of probation contingent on him finding stable housing.
Crawley pleaded guilty to fourth-degree felony assault and is awaiting sentencing with the possibility of probation. But he could receive between 2-8 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $20,000.
Thomas said the trespassing charges may have been added just to justify the use of force, which he said is a common practice with police.
But he added those charges may not have been justified, as Coleman testified that he was indeed living there at the invitation of his mother. The charges were later dropped for both men.
As for the Tasers, both experts said their use was extreme, even after the situation heated up.
"The magic words should have been 'you are under arrest' and at no point do either of the officers say that," Thomas said.
Still, he said officers were put on the defensive when Crawley went after his mother and that added to the tension.
Rini said it just appeared to him to be a case of the officers not wanting "to put up with these boys' nonsense and refusal to sit down and they tased them.