Arbitrator: Suspension overturned for cop who used racial slur, city must pay

Arbitrator: Suspension overturned for cop who used racial slur, city must pay
Officers Dennis Barnette and Donte Hill both used the N-word in separate incidents last year. Both instances were captured on body-worn cameras. Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac approved seven-day suspensions for both officers on Friday. (Photo: Liz Dufour/The Enquirer)

CINCINNATI - The City of Cincinnati must pay lost wages to a black Cincinnati police officer who was suspended for using a racial slur, and the suspension should be removed from his record, an arbitrator ruled Thursday.

Donte Hill, an 11-year veteran with the Cincinnati Police Department, was given an unpaid 56-hour suspension for using the word after an early reprimand from Chief Eliot Issac.

According to our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer, it was this “double jeopardy,” the arbitrator said, that prompted the ruling in favor of Hill.

While responding to a fight in Westwood in November 2018, Hill said: “This is f***in’ stupid. I told you to f***in’ walk home, didn’t I? That g**d**** alcohol got you n****** out here acting stupid.”

Hill was given a written reprimand following the incident. This incident did not receive much, if any, media attention, until a white police officer was also recorded using a racial slur about a month later.

That officer, Dennis Barnette was responding telling another officer, “n***** slapped me in the face" after he was struck during an arrest, according to court documents.

Chief Eliot Isaac then had Hill's case reviewed stating he had not read an earlier memo closely enough to see the language Hill had used. Then, both Barnette and Hill were given unpaid suspensions.

This spring, Hill and Barnette filed lawsuits against the city fighting the suspensions.

The city argued Hill's case was not reopened to impose a harsher penalty, but because Isaac had made a mistake.

In addition to double jeopardy, Cincinnati's police union argued that Hill's use of the word was not discriminatory or prejudicial.

"He used the word 'n***a,' which is commonly used in the African-American community," court documents state recounting the union's argument.

The arbitrator rejected this argument stating: “It is not necessary for purposes of this award to distinguish between the words ‘n****r’ and ‘n***a.’”

"Simply put, Chief Isaac erred in not reading the memo closely enough," the arbitrator wrote. "That his error was later brought to his attention does not justify trying to correct it by disciplining (Hill) again. Rather, the City must live with the error."

Cincinnati’s police union president Dan Hils said this decision should send a message to city leaders.

"This shows that political knee-jerk reactions that lead to double jeopardy – throwing great employees under the bus – do nothing to serve the citizens, the agency or its members," Hils said.

He said the decision of the arbitrator can be appealed by the City of Cincinnati. Barnette's case against the city is still under arbitration, Hils said.

The city did not immediately respond for comment at the time of this report.