Officers who said “n-word” sue Cincinnati police chief, city manager, allege unfair punishment

After the suits were filed, Police Chief Eliot Isaac immediately restored both officers’ police powers, attorney says

Officers who said “n-word” sue Cincinnati police chief, city manager, allege unfair punishment
FOX19 NOW/file

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Two Cincinnati police officers who used the “n-word” to refer to black citizens during responses last year and now face 7-day suspensions in addition to losing their police powers for the past four months sued Police Chief Eliot Isaac and City Manager Patrick Duhaney on Friday.

The chief and city manager were each sued in their official capacities and personally in separate suits by Officers Dennis Barnette and Donte Hill.

The officers’ cases were handled differently and unfairly - and it’s all part of mercurial pattern by the police chief, said their attorney, Zachary Gottesman of downtown Cincinnati.

“The Police Chief, Eliot Isaac, has historically used suspension of CPD personnel police powers as an unchecked and completely discretionary disciplinary measure in an arbitrary, capricious and radically discriminatory manner,” Gottesman wrote in both officer’s lawsuits.

The actions violate the officers’ rights and discriminate against them, the suits allege.

Each officer seeks general, compensatory, special and punitive damages of more than $25,000, “immediate and permanent equitable relief,” attorneys fees, “and such other relief as this Court deems just," according to the suits.

After the suits were filed Friday morning in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, the police chief immediately restored both officers’ police powers, Gottesman tells FOX19 NOW.

We reached out for comment to the police chief, a spokesman for Cincinnati police, the city manager, a city spokesman and representatives of the City Solicitor’s Office.

In response, police spokesman Lt. Steve Saunders declined comment on the lawsuit or to say if the officers’ powers had been restored.

“We appreciate your request for comment, but we respectfully decline,” he wrote in an email to FOX19 NOW.

A couple hours later, he elaborated in another email response:

“I have been advised that both officers have had their police powers restored. It is normal protocol to restore an officers police powers after they are notified of their discipline.”

The chief announced seven-day suspensions for each officer just one week ago, according to a memo Isaac wrote Duhaney that FOX19 NOW obtained via a public records request to the city.

Body camera footage captured both officers saying the racial slur in separate responses last year.

How the police department handled their discipline, however, differs dramatically, police records show.

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Hill, who is black, said the N-word as he intervened in a fight at a Westwood home in September.

Barnette, who is white, used it to refer to an African-American woman he restrained during her arrest as she struggled and struck him in the face outside the Brownstone nightclub in Roselawn in December, police records show.

Both officers gave their sides of the story during separate administrative hearings last month.

Hill argued he used a variation of the N-word that was not derogatory, according to police records.

The police supervisor who served as a hearing officer during his administrative hearing, Captain Doug Wiesman, said any use of the racial slur is unacceptable by a police employee, police records state.

The city and police department erred by originally concluding Hill violated a policy against profanity when he violated the one against prejudicial expression concerning race, religion and gender, Wiesman wrote in a memo to the chief.

So it would be unfair now at this point to find another rule violation “for the exact same violation he has already been disciplined for,” according to Wiesman’s memo.

But the police chief still assigned a seven-day suspension to Hill.

Any similar conduct by both officers would result in recommendation for termination, Isaac wrote Duhaney.

Hill and Barnette have both been placed on employee intervention and monitoring plans and must attend additional training, police records show.

The starkly different way top Cincinnati police officials handled the officers’ initial discipline has led to two different lawsuits that could wind up costing taxpayers money.

Earlier this year, Gottesman amended an existing federal lawsuit that alleges a racial divide within the Cincinnati Police Department favors African-American officers over white ones through race-based double standards with claims of “obvious disparity of discipline” of Hill and Barnette.

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, Duhaney, Isaac, Lt. (now Captain) 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 in March about the very different discipline of two officers - one white, one black - after they used the N-word during separate responses months apart.

Gottesman has said Brown and Ludgatis hope their lawsuit forces institutional charge within the police department and city administration and "the removal of politics and racial bias from police discipline.”

In January, 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.

City Council also has 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

Sgt. Dan Hils, president the union that represents Cincinnati police, defended Barnette and Hill in a recent lengthy Facebook post.

The officers, he wrote, have not been treated fairly or consistently by the city and police department.

“Police Officers like Donte Hill and Dennis Barnette assigned to street duty, work in an environment of violence, danger and shocking human behavior,” Hils’ April 20 post states.

“The language they hear on a daily or nightly basis is abhorrent, but they are expected to remain above the fray and be professional in their conduct and speech. When they fail in doing so, it is the police and city administration’s responsibility to discipline the officers in a fair and consistent manor.

“Officer Hill and Barnette have not been treated fairly or consistently. Officer Hill had previously been reprimanded for his language in this single incident. Officer Hill accepted his discipline and then refrained from any similar behavior. Police administration has delivered a second round of discipline to Officer Hill after the Barnette incident. This glaring violation of the double jeopardy clause in the 5th amendment of the constitution was for political purpose and is a complete rejection of reasonable due process.

“The greatest shame in this entire incident is that the reprimand received by Officer Hill would be more consistent with a first time non-criminal administrative violation. Officer Hill, an African American, used a variation of the “N-word” commonly used and accepted in the culture in which he works. Officer Barnette had just been assaulted by an extremely turbulent citizen when he uttered the slur. Officer Barnette didn’t recall saying the slur and was in disbelief that he had. He is embarrassed and disappointed by what he said in that instant.

“A seven day suspension amounts to a fine of hundreds of dollars. Then there is the prolonged process of this investigation and discipline. Both officers have been suspended of their police powers for months without justification. This action is without a contractual ability to grieve or appeal. The Chief of Police needs to have the ability to suspend police powers of an officer for a myriad of reasons. This authority should not be abused to deliver punishment that is without appeal. Most police officers work extra duty details and take advantage of overtime opportunities, some depend on this extra income. Both Officer Hill and Officer Barnette have been deprived of these opportunities and income for months, equating to thousands of dollars."

This is not the first time the police union president has criticized how the chief has handled discipline of officers.

In October, Hils 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, Hils wrote in a letter to Duhaney.

In a lengthy Facebook post, Barnette’s wife also defended him and revealed he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

He is a military veteran who served 25 years in the U.S. Marines, including time in Kuwait during Iraqi Freedom, and also has worked 15 years “on the streets of Cincinnati,” according to her post Sunday on “Support the Blue in Cincy” Facebook page.

“What We Have Learned: First and foremost, we have learned our God is loving and merciful, even when people aren’t," she wrote.

"We have learned that PTSD is more pervasive than most know. It can result from “small” things that build over time. A person does not have to have a huge trauma to be affected. As police officers, our LEO’s are exposed to many small traumas - such as children begging them to not take their mommy or daddy, dealing with a woman that’s been beaten by a “loved” one, to be spit on, cussed out and completely disrespected.

"After 25 years as a Marine, serving in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and almost 15 years on the streets of Cincinnati, my husband’s “trauma box” was filled to the brim. When he was hit in the face, which is a very personal attack, the box came open. We have learned through almost four months of counseling that during such a situation, a person can react in a manner inconsistent with his beliefs and normal behavior. This is what happened on Dec 23rd. Dennis is ashamed and embarrassed by his reaction.

"He is also thankful that he was still in control enough to not use any other foul language or excessive force, nor did he use his tazor (cq) in anger. We are grateful for the response of those who work with him for their love and support. He has consistently heard that his fellow LEOs know that his reaction does not reflect his true character and they are proud to serve with him. We have learned that our family and friends will stand with us through times of struggles and just who those people are.

"Finally, We have also learned that specific members of city council expect the public to understand that they are humans and deserve forgiveness and another chance, even though they aren’t willing to grant the same to officers who have served the city faithfully longer than they have been in office.”

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