CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Records obtained by FOX19 NOW are raising questions about how Cincinnati police leaders including Chief Eliot Isaac handle discipline amid accusations of race-based double standards and hypocrisy.
The chief and other officials were aware a black officer, Donte Hill, used the N-word during a response Sept. 26 yet issued a written reprimand to him a month later for a violation of a policy to avoid the use of coarse, violent or profane language, according to a copy of an interdepartmental complaint.
"During the radio run, Officer Hill used excessively profane language fourteen times in an inappropriate way,” read an Oct. 11 memo titled “Request for Official Reprimand - Police Officer Donte Hill” from District 3 Sgt. Luke Putnick to Isaac.
“The way Officer Hill used excessive profane language was not ‘Verbal Stunning,’ he wrote. “Some examples of Officer Hill’s language on the radio run are ‘that got damn alcohol out here got you (N-word) acting stupid,’ ‘because I’m pissed the f--- off that’s why.'”
The entire incident can be heard on Hill’s body camera, the memo states, and this is Hill’s second violation in the last 36 months. After the previous instance on Aug. 4, 2017, Hill was verbally counseled.
District 3′s commander, Captain Paul Broxterman supported Putnick’s request: “Recommend. Written reprimand is warranted. Unprofessional language was excessive.” He signed his name and dated it Oct. 22.
From there, the request went to Broxterman’s boss, Assistant Chief Paul Neudigate, who oversees CPD’s patrol section: “Approved for service,” Neudigate wrote and initialed Oct. 23.
The same day, the police chief wrote “Approved,” above his initials.
Two days later, Broxterman wrote: “For service,” and initialed it.
Three months later, however, the chief said the “wrong” violation was used in meting out that discipline, reopened the case and suspended Hill’s police powers.
Isaac said the violation that should have been applied prohibits police from expressing, verbally or in writing, any prejudice or offensive comments concerning race, religion, national origin, lifestyle, gender or similar personal characteristics.
This development came after a member of internal investigations mentioned Hill’s case to the chief after a white officer, Dennis Barnette, received different treatment for using the racial slur in reference to black woman he arrested Dec. 23, records show.
In that case, Isaac suspended Barnette’s police powers just a few days later, stripped him of his badge and gun and put him on desk duty.
He also launched an internal investigation and alerted City Manager Patrick Duhaney to the situation in an email media picked up on shortly after.
"This type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated inside the department,” the chief wrote.
"I will keep you updated on the progress of the investigation and have a recommendation for discipline at the conclusion of the disciplinary process.”
After Hill’s case was pointed out to him, the chief sent Duhaney another memo indicating the way Hill’s discipline was handled was flawed, records show.
“During the incident, Officer Hill used excessive profane language and also utilized a racial slur (the “N” word) when addressing the individuals involved,” the chief wrote.
"The matter was investigated by District supervision and not the Internal Investigations Section(IIS). District Three recommended a written reprimand for the violation. The reprimand was approved through the chain of command and a form 17 memo was presented to me on 10-23-18, where I approved the recommended 1.06B violation of the department’s Manual of Rules and Regulations as recommended in the memo.
“However, it was brought my attention yesterday by a member of the IIS team that Officer Hill’s conduct was as egregious as Officer Barnette’s and that I needed to view the Body Worn Camera footage. After viewing the footage, I agreed and determined the 1.06B violation was not appropriate. The charge should have been a 1.23C violation and violation of city Admin. Regulations; additionally the matter should have been investigated by IIS.”
"Again this type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated inside the department. I have directed that Officer Hill’s police powers be taken and he is restricted to desk duty. I have also directed the department’s Internal Investigations Section to begin an immediate investigation to determine all of the facts of the incident. I will keep you updated on the progress of the investigation and have a recommendation for discipline to you at the conclusion of the disciplinary process. "
The chief’s memo does not define a 1.23C violation. We looked it up: “Members of the Department shall not express, verbally or in writing any prejudice or offensive comments concerning race, religion, national origin, life-style, gender, or similar personal characteristics.
Duhaney forwarded the chief’s email to Mayor John Cranley and City Council, expressing concern about the discrepancy between the handling of the two cases.
“The offending officer received only a reprimand because the matter was incorrectly categorized when presented to Chief Isaac. This error was only recently discovered. The matter is now being evaluated by the Internal Investigations Section, which is what should have occurred initially, per CPD policy," Duhaney wrote.
Cincinnati police immediately referred our requests for comment to the law department, which did not respond to requests for interviews.
We also are still waiting for both officers' personnel files and records related to their suspensions and the original incidents. Police have told us the records are not available yet, even though Hill’s incident occurred nearly four months ago.
We obtained the records used in this story from Hill’s lawyer.
As soon as the police department releases the records we have requested, we will update our coverage.
Earlier this week, Cincinnati City Council passed an emergency ordinance requiring all city employees to undergo implicit and explicit bias training.
Mayor John Cranley, the chief and other city leaders held a news conference earlier this month to announce his ordinance.
Duhaney explained he updated the city’s policy in October. It suspends workers without pay 40 hours and requires them to undergo sensitivity training.
City Council Member Tamaya Dennard held her own news conference last week to unveil her ordinance that would impose a zero-tolerance policy and enable the city to fire employees on the first offense.
Councilman Jeff Pastor said the idea of firing an officer on the first offense, especially one with a good record, “scares” him. The N-word is used as a term of endearment in the black community, he noted.
Hill’s attorney, Zachary Gottesman, agreed, writing in a letter to a city lawyer Wednesday Hill “is steadfast that he used the term (n----as), which in his mind is more colloquial and not offensive to the relevant community”
In fact, he said, the man Hill arrested during the incident recently thanked him for helping him: “That argument that somebody was offended or this was outside cultural boundaries in that time in that place is just without basis.”
He wants CPD to reinstate Hill’s police powers but said he was informed Wednesday night the police chief was not interested in changing the process currently in place.
“To try to cover up their hypocrisy and race-based double standard, they just yanked Donte out of the workforce," Gottesman said in an interview Thursday.
Barnette’s swift suspension of his police powers for saying the same racial slur as Hill also reveals CPD’s double-standard/hypocrisy in disciplining officers based on race, Gottesman wrote to city’s chief counsel for civil litigation, Peter Stackpole,
" It is apparent that given any offending behavior, the ethnicity of the officer involved is the controlling factor in determining the imposed discipline," his letter reads.
“This systemic flaw in the Cincinnati Police Department’s disciplinary system violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Further, to cover up this systemic flaw and compounding it, the random and counter-intuitive suspension of P.O. Hill, pending the reopened investigation makes obvious that the discipline system is prone to manipulation for political purposes.”
The city, he wrote, “needs to change course. Right now, P.O. Hill is losing approximately $4,000 per month in income from police details for which he is no longer eligible and his work as a part-time EMT/Firefighter with the Deer Park/Silverton Joint District Fire Department, which has been suspended pending the investigation by IIS.
"He is a 35-year-old married father of 5. He is dependent on his income and he has no ability to replace it. His life is being unfairly disrupted by the shameful political machinations at City Hall.”
The handling of discipline within the Cincinnati Police Department has come under harsh criticism over the past year.
Cincinnati police officials were accused in a federal lawsuit filed by two white officers of favoring black officers through unconstitutional, race-based double standards.
Then, in October, the police union president asked the city manager to look into what he called “mismanagement" of CPD’s internal administrative review and discipline process.
"Unsanctioned and inconsistent discipline” in several use of force cases is having a chilling effect on officers' ability to proactively police - and could make them hesitate to use force when necessary, Sgt. Dan Hils wrote in a letter to Duhaney.
Moving forward, Gottesman said he is considering Hill’s legal options.
Any new discipline beyond Hill’s previous written reprimand “will be vigorously defended" and “give rise” to a lawsuit for violations of constitutional rights, he added, alleging Hill has been deprived of due process.
“Please consider the foregoing and take whatever remedial steps are necessary to avoid further indefensible litigation for the City," he wrote in closing.