Amended lawsuit: ‘Obvious disparity in discipline’ of 2 Cincinnati officers who said N-word

Amended lawsuit: ‘Obvious disparity in discipline’ of 2 Cincinnati officers who said N-word
FOX19 NOW/file

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A federal lawsuit alleging a racial divide within the Cincinnati Police Department favors African-American officers over white ones through race-based double standards was amended this week with claims of “obvious disparity of discipline” of two officers who recently used the N-word during responses.

Two white officers, Specialist Joy Ludgatis and Officer Tamara Brown, filed the suit in June against the city of Cincinnati, John Cranley (in his capacity as mayor and individually); the former city manager, Harry Black, the current city manager, Patrick Duhaney, Police Chief Eliot Isaac, Lt. Danita Pettis (individually and in her official capacity) and the Sentinel Police Association, an advocacy group for African-American Cincinnati police officers.

The lawsuit alleges discrimination, a hostile work environment, retaliation and unlawful employment practices and seeks unspecified damages.

It claims Cincinnati Police Department is mired in a racially tense atmosphere with “open hostility between officers of different races” and that hostility has jeopardized officer safety.

Now the suit includes details FOX19 NOW exclusively reported last month about the very different discipline of two officers - one white, one black - after they used the N-word during separate responses months apart.

An attorney for Ludgatis and Brown, Zach Gottesman, said they hope the lawsuit forces institutional charge within the police department and city administration and "the removal of politics and racial bias from police discipline.”

The city of Cincinnati never comments on pending litigation, a spokesman for Cincinnati police wrote in an email to FOX19 NOW when we reached out to police, a spokeswoman for the mayor and city attorneys.

Pettis referred us to her lawyer, Janaya Trotter, who said that after years of public records requests, these allegations -- the lawsuit -- are frivolous.

“There is no way they can make a case that white officers are discriminated against,” said Trotter.

Trotter said the public records requests contain data that will show the lawsuit is frivolous and therefore a case cannot be made.

FOX19 is seeking comment from all other parties named in the suit and the police union president and will update this story when we hear back.

The police chief and three other police supervisors – District 3 Sgt. Luke Putnick, District 3 Captain Paul Broxterman and Assistant Chief Paul Neudigate - 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 an interdepartmental complaint.

Three months later, Officer Dennis Barnette, who is white, received harsher and more immediate discipline for using the racial slur in reference to black woman he arrested in December, records show.

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Barnette was stripped of his police powers, gun and badge and put on desk duty a few days later and an internal investigation was launched.

“This type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated inside the department,” the chief wrote in a memo to Duhaney. ”I will keep you updated on the progress of the investigation and have a recommendation for discipline at the conclusion of the disciplinary process.”

Once this difference in discipline was pointed out to the chief by an internal investigations employee, police records show, he wrote the city manager another memo indicating the way Hill’s discipline was handled was flawed, records show.

He put Hill on desk duty and ordered an internal investigation.

“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 the mayor 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.

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The amended lawsuit includes details about contrasting ways the officers’ cases were handled and states:

“In an effort to address the obvious disparity in the discipline imposed on the two officers and conceal the obvious double standard, Isaac claimed that the prior approval of P.O. Hill’s discipline was an oversight despite being signed off on and approved by Capt. Broxterman, Capt. Neudigate, and Chief Isaac.

"As a result, on 27 December 2018, P.O. Hill’s police powers were suspended and the 26 September 2018 incident was referred to IIS for further investigation and potential discipline. The immediate suspension of P.O. Barnette’s police powers for uttering a similar epithet as P.O. Hill reveals the Cincinnati Police Department’s double-standard and hypocrisy in disciplining officers based on race.

"For any behavior that may subject an officer to discipline, the ethnicity of the officer involved is the controlling factor in determining the discipline imposed. This systemic flaw in the Cincinnati Police Department’s disciplinary system violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To cover up this systemic flaw and compounding it, the random and counterintuitive suspension of P.O. Hill pending the reopened investigation makes obvious that the discipline system is prone to manipulation for political purposes.”

The lawsuit also claims that in a separate incident, a supervisor referred to officers as “white devils” yet no discipline was doled out after an internal investigation. A copy of the internal investigation report is attached to the complaint.

“In another prime example of the routine uneven imposition of discipline by the Cincinnati Police Department and the City based on race, Sgt. Jacob Hicks and Sgt. Eric Schank, who are white, complained internally that Lt. Joseph Williams routinely refers to Sgt. (Jacob) Hicks and other white officers as “white devils’," the suit states.

"After an extensive investigation by the IIS, no discipline was imposed on Lt. Williams for the use of the racially charged term “white devil” in reference to white officers.”

A copy of the internal investigation report shows Hicks “stated Lieutenant Williams has called him ‘white devil.' This began in September 2017. Additionally, Lieutenant Williams has several nicknames that are racially infused, such as ‘pale rider.’"

Williams, according to the report, denied saying “white devils” and the internal investigation closed with a finding of the allegation “Not sustained.”

The amended suit goes on to alleges “there is an unconstitutional race-based policy permitting black officers to speak with media outlets and exercise their First Amendment rights while denying the same to white officers…..Since the initial filing of this lawsuit, Defendants have denied Plaintiffs the right and opportunity to speak publicly about their allegations of discrimination and disparate treatment based on race and sex.

“Specifically, pursuant to Cincinnati Police Department policy, Plaintiffs submitted requests to Isaac for permission to speak to the media about this lawsuit. Isaac denied Plaintiffs’ requests without explanation. Pettis, on the other hand, participated in a press conference held by the Sentinel Police Association and its attorney, Alphonse A. Gerhardstein, on 19 June 2018.”

The suit singled out Pettis when it was filed back in June, alleges Pettis’ conduct would have, but for her race, resulted in discipline “and/or criminal charges.”

Pettis, however, blames racial tension within CPD on “the inequal and/or complete lack of representation and inclusion of black officers” by the police union, federal court records show.

She said in court filing late last year she has been disciplined more harshly because of her race and the white officers who sued her have shown “racist, hostile and harassing behavior.”

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Her attorney filed a 10-page response to the lawsuit in November. The lawsuit also accuses her of criminal acts including “allegedly stealing money” from a Fifth Third Bank during a detail and trying to obstruct justice through her role as a representative for the Sentinel Police Association. She denied those allegations in her response.

Last month, the city manager announced he amended the city’s policy related to racial slurs back in October.

Workers who violate it are suspended without pay 40 hours and required to undergo sensitivity training.

They face termination for second offense.

Also last month, City Council passed an emergency ordinance requiring all city employees to undergo implicit and explicit bias training.

READ MORE | Wrong, racist, and we will not stand for it’: Mayor addresses use of ‘n-word,' announces bias training

More recently, Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard introduced a motion that would allow the city to immediately fire any city employee, contractor or vendor who used racial, religious or other slurs while doing city business in any incident involving the general public.

Council is expected to vote on her measure later this month.

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