Suit: CPD punishes, reprimands, retaliates against cops who 'do not toe the line'

Former Cincinnati police officer Jason Cotterman wants his job back, alleging police...
Former Cincinnati police officer Jason Cotterman wants his job back, alleging police administrators violated his constitutional rights. (FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Baker)
Published: Aug. 7, 2017 at 10:42 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2017 at 7:04 PM EDT
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Attorney Robert Croskery and Jason Cotterman (FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Edwards Baker)
Attorney Robert Croskery and Jason Cotterman (FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Edwards Baker)

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The Cincinnati Police Department 'has a policy of punishing, reprimanding and otherwise retaliating against officers that do not toe the line and go along with" its public version of events, a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges.

Former Cincinnati police officer Jason Cotterman alleges the city, aided by the police department, maliciously prosecuted him in a 2015 criminal case related to a fellow officer's off duty, single vehicle crash. He was acquitted in a March 2016 trial.

"The City of Cincinnati and its Police Department, knowing its charges were frivolous and could not be supported under the law, brought charges against Jason Cotterman for an ulterior purpose, that of making an example of a policeman who did not go along with the Department's official story," his suit states.

Then, according to the suit, his constitutional rights were violated by the city and police department through a HIPPA violation.

The records were ultimately used in the city's process to medically separate him from the police department two months after the charges were dismissed. He received a medical retirement recommendation from the department's psychologist, the suit states.

"The city of Cincinnati and its Police Department, acted improperly to obtain Jason Cotterman's military medical records, not relevant to his policing, after thirteen years, and used them to trump up a reason to administratively discharge Jason Cotterman, in violation of HIPPA," the suit states.

The suit specifically names the city of Cincinnati and Police Chief Eliot Isaac in his official capacity and "John Doe #1" and "John Doe #2."

It asks a federal judge to order city officials to reinstate Cotterman, 40, to the department.

The suit also seeks his back pay, medical expenses, reasonable costs and attorney fees, "punitive damages to the extent allowed by law and  any and other such relief as this Court or a jury may direct."

The development comes about a month after the police department denied Cotterman's reinstatement request.

He began working for the Cincinnati Police Department as an officer in 2004.

Former Cincinnati cop fights to get job back

We reached out to Cincinnati police and city representatives for reaction to the lawsuit.

"As this case is in Federal Court, it can only be addressed by the City's attorneys. Since this is under current litigation, we are not able to respond at this time," wrote a police spokeswoman, Tiffaney Hardy, in an email Wednesday.

The Cincinnati police union president, Sgt. Dan Hils, declined comment Tuesday.

A city spokesman responded to our request for comment Tuesday by emailing us prepared statements from City Manager Harry Black and City Solicitor Paula Boggs-Muething related to another, separate federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, one from Police Captain Jeff Butler.

City manager accused of running city purchases through pal's company, he claims lawsuit 'frivolous'

Butler's suit claims Black denied him a promotion after Butler complained about possible misuse of state tax funds.

On Wednesday, city spokesman Rocky Merz released a brief statement:

"The law department is reviewing the lawsuit and defers comment at this time on this ongoing litigation."

Cotterman was charged with misdemeanor counts of dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice, along with his then-supervisor, Sgt. Richard Sulfsted, in July 2016 related to a sergeant's off-duty March 22, 2015 crash.

City prosecutors accused Cotterman of helping to cover up Sgt. Andrew Mitchell's accident.

At the time, Cotterman was a successful officer with a solid service record, good evaluations and several commendations including a MADD award nomination, his suit states.

He was responded to and investigated Mitchell's crash just before 5 a.m. on West McMicken Avenue.

Mitchell didn't show signs of impairment, according to the suit.

Cotterman wasn't told at the time that another officer, who was on scene but remained in his cruiser and didn't approach Cotterman, received a statement from a third party witness who indicated Mitchell appeared to have been driving impaired several blocks earlier, the suit reads.

The witness's story was later found to not be credible, the suit states, and Cotterman behaved properly.

"There are literally dozens of incidents involving police officers who have had one car incidents and not been cited, including Chief Eliot Isaacs (sic) and the senior police officer on the scene who failed to share information," the suit states.

On April 29, 2015, the city of Cincinnati brought Cotterman to be read his rights to remain silent, or to be "Mirandized" for a potential criminal charge, the lawsuit reads.

As part of that process, there are interrogation rooms that contain audio and video recording equipment.

Prior to entering those rooms, a police sergeant told Cotterman, according to the suit, "it is in your best interest to go along with the Administration's version of events."

Cotterman invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.

The city then suspended Cotterman's police powers for "Fitness for Duty" on May 1, 2015, and two days later, moved him from District 5 to District 2.

"Officer Cotterman became angry at the unfair turn of events, and an OIC for Internal ordered (him) to begin seeing the CPD psychologist on a weekly basis," the suit reads.

After Cotterman was charged, he considered it "politically motivated, grossly unfair and frivolous," according to the suit. It also came as he was "hounded" by the media and while his wife was in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy. He began to use his hundreds of hours off he had banked to deal with the situation and stress.

Around July 7, 2015, he saw the psychologist, James Daum, who put him on administrative leave.

Cotterman said in a recent interview he had a breakdown and tried to commit suicide a few months later, in October 2015.

He said he held a gun to his head and fired it as he stood alongside the Great Miami River.

The gun misfired, he said.

"My entire being was completely crushed. The foundations I built myself on were destroyed," Cotterman recalled.

He said he emptied his weapon of ammunition and got rid of it in the water.

When Cotterman and Sulfsted were acquitted on all charges a year later, in bench trial by Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Josh Berkowitz, they didn't even have to present a defense.

The judge noted that the prosecution's own witnesses, including the police department's own traffic section commander, testified the allegations shouldn't have resulted in criminal charges.

He also said the case was based on opinion and conjecture.

"I cannot, in good conscience, say that I'm firmly convinced of the truth of the charges," the judge said at the time.

During the trial, an internal affairs investigator read several text messages exchanged between Cotterman and Sulfsted after the crash and charges being filed against them.

Cotterman jokingly texted in one message he was "worried I'm going to kill someone."

He also talked about seeing Daum.

"I'm really thinking about Dauming out," Cotterman wrote in a text message read aloud in court.

Cotterman also talked about another officer, James Pike, who responded to the crash and, according to testimony, didn't get involved.

"I feel like cold-cocking Pike in the jaw when he opens his mouth at roll call," Cotterman said in a text message.

FOX 19 NOW asked Cotterman about the text messages and some of his former fellow officers now referring to him as "Crazy Cotterman."

He said he and Sulfsted were venting frustrations at being accused of crimes they didn't commit, and the judge in the case agreed during the trial.

"I don't know too many people who have not said something to somebody else that they want out,"Cotterman said.

"Most people have their private thoughts and conversations with people and they want them to remain private. Just because you say something doesn't necessarily mean you act on something."

Mitchell, who now is a lieutenant, pleaded guilty in December 2015 to two traffic violations related to the crash, failure to maintain reasonable control of a motor vehicle and not wearing a seat belt.

He was ordered to pay $315 and returned to active duty. A misdemeanor count of reckless operation of a motor vehicle was dropped.

After Cotterman was acquitted in the trial, the city, through its police department, acted to administratively discharge Cotterman within six weeks, his lawsuit states.

"The city did so by improperly obtaining, and then using, ancient military records," the suit states, adding that he did not "provide any valid authorization" for the city or police department to obtain the records.

The records include details about a "very traumatic hazing incident" that occurred to Cotterman while he was Marine, Croskery said in a recent interview.

He received an honorary discharge from the military after two years, according to Croskery.

Earlier this year, an independent psychologist hired by Cotterman accessed him for five hours and concluded he was fit for service, according to a copy of his reinstatement request.

The police psychologist, Daum, accessed Cotterman also over the summer for 30 minutes and confirmed in his report that Cotterman is "fit for duty by objective testing measures," but still recommended against rehiring him, according to Croskery.

Croskery says that recommendation is flawed because the police psychologist's three main points in advocating against Cotterman's return are based on "inaccurate and false information."

The third is "ancient history" and irrelevant to someone who has worked in law enforcement as long as Cotterman has.

Croskery said he notified a city solicitor of the "inaccuracies," last month and asked that Daum research and correct his report and and the police department reconsider the reinstatement denial.

The city never responded, he said Tuesday, so Cotterman sued.

"To keep him off the force for something that he is well suited for simply based on this inaccurate and incomplete subjective psychological evaluation does a great disservice not only to Jason but also to the citizens of Cincinnati," Croskery said.

"We need good police officers right now. Jason is an outstanding police officer. We need him back on active duty."

Cotterman said he is eager to return to policing, a job he says "I was born to do." He has been working in the private sector in a job that puts him in daily contact with the public.

"I'd like to be restored back to my job. That way I can put this ugly chapter of my life back behind me."

"I'm living paycheck to paycheck and not always making it. I'm working as much as I possibly can to provide. I have an 18-month-old daughter at home right now who I love with all my heart and soul that I would do anything for.

"My wife and my daughter are the entire reason I am going through this instead of just walking away and calling it a day. I've chosen to fight and that's the reason why. I"m not going to give up."

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