Part of Cincinnati police captain’s lawsuit can proceed against city officials, federal judge rules

Part of Cincinnati police captain’s lawsuit can proceed against city officials, federal judge rules
Cincinnati Police Captain Jeff Butler (Photo: Facebook). Butler retired earlier this year.

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A federal judge is allowing part of a lawsuit filed by a now-retired Cincinnati police captain to proceed against Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and former City Manager Harry Black.

With the most recent ruling in the case this week, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett is allowing about half of the 12 claims from Jeff Butler to go to trial. The other claims were dismissed.

The judge did not rule yet whether to grant qualified immunity to the mayor or his former city manager with whom he fell into a bitter dispute before Black resigned literally moments before being fired in 2018.

We have a request for comment into city officials, Mayor Cranley and Butler’s lawyer, Randy Freking. We will update this story once we hear back.

Butler claims in his original lawsuit, filed in September 2017, he was retaliated against after he raised questions about how the city spent its 911 fees and grant dollars while he was overseeing the Emergency Communications Center from Jan. 3, 2016 to Jan. 1, 2017.

That’s when he says he was moved and stripped of his managerial duties with virtually no notice.

Then, Butler’s suit says, the mayor led “a concerted public campaign to demonize Captain Butler as a racist, a bad cop, and someone whose lawsuit was designed to undermine the contractual relationship between the City of Cincinnati and minority-owned business enterprises.”

Butler’s lawsuit contends Black and Cranley “instructed” prominent African-Americans contact media and make statements to damage Butler’s image and “arranged to have materials delivered” to media to “establish that Captain Butler was a racist and a bad cop.”

The judge dismissed a defamation claim against Black but not Butler’s claims of defamation against both Cranley and Black.

Butler’s claim of free speech violations also can proceed, the judge wrote: “Plaintiff alleges plausible First Amendment retaliation violations.”

The judge also has allowed claims to proceed of retaliation, conspiracy of retaliation and spoliation of evidence against the city, former and current city and police officials.

RELATED | Did CPD misplace or destroy evidence in state overtime audit? | City response to missing box of police audit records: It’s ‘futile’

The spoliation of evidence claim is related to a box of police overtime audit records that vanished within the department in 2018, court records show.

Butler twice requested an outside criminal and/or administrative investigation into the whereabouts of a box, but the police department did an internal investigation.

Police officials say the box of audit records was discovered unaccounted for within CPD sometime between March and mid-June 2018 - just as the city’s annual state audit began.

The state audit scrutinized police overtime at the request of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters due to Butler’s allegations of “illegal abuse.”

Butler amended his lawsuit 2018 and alleged “illegal abuse” by officers scamming the system for more pay while Police Chief Eliot Isaac turned a blind eye, court records show.

The state audit of the city of Cincinnati did not produce any criminal findings, Deters said, but state auditors did conclude there was a “systematic” overtime problem in the police and fire departments and in public works.

Meanwhile, overtime in the police department fell a stunning 47 percent in 2018 once the audit began, indicating something was off, State Auditor Keith Faber told FOX19 last year.

State auditors recommended changes and improvements in how overtime wages and compensatory time is handled, changes the police department already had incorporated by the time the audit was released.

MORE | OT nosedives at Cincinnati Police District 5 after ‘felony abuse’ claim | Deters: No crime, but some officers purposely maximized their OT

After Cincinnati police internal investigators concluded their investigation into the whereabouts of the box of missing audit records, Butler received a written reprimand for “Failure of Good Behavior” in July 2019.

Butler’s reprimand was related to remarks Butler made about the chief, implicating him, during the internal investigation, according to police records.

The reprimand was tossed out by the panel of his peers, however, who determined “the investigation posed several conflicts of interest,” police records show.

The peer review panel questioned the integrity of the probe. They ultimately found it to be “not fair or objective.”

The panel - comprised of CPD veterans who all were internal section commanders at one point: Paul Broxterman, Craig Gregoire and Doug Wiesman - identified the following conflicts of interest in it, police records show:

  • “A direct familial relationship between the evidence of the investigating and investigative body.” (Butler’s direct supervisor, Assistant Chief Teresa Theetge, who was involved in the city’s annual state audit and oversaw the section in CPD where the box was last seen, is the sister of the Russ Neville, the captain assigned to oversee the internal investigation. He has since been transferred to run the entire internal investigation section).
  • “Due to an active captain’s promotion list, the lead (internal) investigator was potentially in a position to benefit from a sustained finding of Captain Butler.” (Lt. Doug Snider is next on the promotional eligibility list for captain).
  • “While being implicated in the investigation, the Police Chief attended discussions related to this investigation prior to the conclusion of the investigation.”

“The panel,” they wrote in their July 25, 2019 decision,”believes that because of these conflicts identified, one could consider the investigation not fair or objective, which further leads to the veracity of the sustained finding.”

Butler then sued in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to try to have the entire internal investigation and the administrative charge levied against him dismissed.

He also requested a restraining order to prevent city and police officials from placing him on the Brady List.

The list, kept by prosecutors’ offices, can include information related to officers’ truthfulness and misconduct. Defense and other attorneys can use this to impeach their credibility in court.

Judge Robert Ruehlman dismissed Butler’s county lawsuit and ordered him to pay costs related to the litigation, court records show. Ruehlman agreed with city attorneys that Butler was required under the union contact to handle grievances through a process outlined in that document and the court lacks jurisdiction.

The police union filed a grievance that put the issue before an arbitrator.

In the meantime, Butler was placed on the Brady list for Hamilton County. He is 118th on the list for “Intentionally Report Inaccuracies or Omissions,” a copy of it shows.

Earlier this year, he also lost the arbitration.

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