'Too dangerous' to leave cruiser? Homicide victim found hours after officer leaves
MILLVALE, OH (FOX19) - People living in Cumminsville asked FOX19 NOW to get answers last month after they say police never responded to their 911 calls and reports of shots fired in their neighborhood.
One man told 911 that bullets were fired into his house, possibly from a drive-by, while his seven children were home, according to a police communication report.
FOX19 dug into records to see how officers and call takers responded in the early morning hours of July 26.
Just before 3 a.m., callers reported hearing dozens of shots fired, including an anonymous person claiming up to 50 shots fired during a fight among a large group.
But some neighbors said they never saw the police.
No officers went to the house that was reportedly shot up.
Less than four hours later, at 6:30 a.m., a passerby saw a man down on the ground.
"I think there's a dead body in my backyard," one 911 caller told a dispatcher.
Homicide investigators determined Ralph Whitehead, 50, was shot at least once in the torso and may have been part of a fight several hours earlier in the same block, according to interdepartmental emails.
As the fight broke up, a shooting took place and Whitehead was hit as he tried to run away, a homicide investigator wrote in an email to police supervisors later that day.
FOX19 NOW has determined through multiple public records requests that the first officer who responded "failed to properly investigate" the report of shots fired into a house when he arrived on the scene at 3:04 a.m., police memos show.
The commander of Cincinnati Police District 3 on the city's West Side, Captain Paul Broxterman, wrote in an Aug. 6 memo to Police Chief Eliot Isaac that Officer Robert Johnson disregarded his backup officer and left, even though the city's 911 center advised him a male resident on Millvale Court called and reported shots fired into his house.
Johnson later acknowledged during a police administrative review he privately told a co-worker he didn't want to get out of his cruiser because it was "too dangerous," police records show.
"Robert Johnson disregards his backup and drives thru the area without getting out of his car to investigate?" Capt. Broxterman wrote July 27 in an email to Johnson's supervisor, Lt. Joe Williams.
His email goes on to state: "As you know, there was a homicide. And then I'm hearing Johnson stated he didn't get out of his car because he didn't feel safe???? Is that true? If so, why did he disregard his backup?"
Capt. Broxterman wrote in bold letters: "This is unacceptable."
Broxterman ordered "a full follow-up on this incident." So far, according to records released to us, an initial police investigation determined Johnson violated at least one police department rule and failed to properly investigate a report of shots fired into a home.
He didn't get out of his cruiser "because it was too dangerous" and "because he didn't feel safe," memos state.
The chief wrote in an email he felt the matter was something the Internal Investigation Section should look into. Cincinnati police have not responded to repeated verbal and written requests for comment about the situation.
An initial review of the response to the Millvale shooting also determined police communications were told the man who reported shots fired into his home had his seven children inside at the time.
"Although this information was added to the CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) report, responding officers were not made aware of these additional calls or that shots were fired into a habitation over the radio," wrote Sgt. Michelle Winslow in a July 27 memo to the chief.
Johnson arrived on scene at 3:04 a.m. and activated his body camera at 3:05 a.m., according to her memo.
Johnson asked dispatch if there had been any additional calls received and was told there was a caller at 2334 West Millvale Circle who had shots fired into his house. He acknowledged this information and kept driving, according to the memo.
Two minutes later, Johnson disregarded his back up, stating, "There is no one out here," Sgt. Winslow wrote.
"His body camera video is only four minutes and twenty seconds long and he clears the run investigated at 3:25 a.m. hours," her memo states.
When police were called back out to the area three hours later when the passerby spotted Whitehead's body, the residence at 2334 was found to have a number of obvious bullet holes in its window and siding.
"Homicide detectives interviewed the residents ... who stated that police had not made contact with them when they called regarding shots being fired into their house," Sgt. Winslow wrote. "The residents confirmed their seven children were home at the time of the shooting and that they were in fear for their lives. Investigators determined the shots fired (into their home) and the homicide had a connection."
Johnson's supervisor, Lt. Williams, wrote in his memo to the chief that Johnson stated no one tried to approach him or flag him down when he was looking in the area, according to a form he filled out as part of an administrative review.
"He also did not notice any damage to the buildings. When asked if he specifically went to 2334 Millvale Circle and look for damage, he stated he did not," Lt. Williams wrote.
Johnson was aware a resident at that address reported his home had been fired upon, but told Williams he forgot to go there to check on the man, according to Williams' memo.
"In addition to this incident, after the homicide victim's body had been found and Officer Johnson was in the District waiting to secure, he was overheard telling a fellow officer that he was not going to get out of the car because it was "too dangerous," Lt. Williams wrote.
"When I questioned him about his statement, he acknowledged that it was a statement he made to another officer, but it was in private and (was not) intended to be overheard," Lt. Williams' memo states." I asked him if it was that dangerous, why didn't he call for additional cars. He stated there were no cars available. I then reminded him that both me and the car that he disregarded were available."
Based on the body camera footage, documents including Johnson's form detailing his account of the incident, and Williams' preliminary interviews with Johnson, "it is apparent that his actions did not come close to meeting Standards and violated the Department Policies and Procedures," Lt. Williams wrote in his memo to the chief.
Williams also recommended the case be forwarded to internal investigators for further review.
In his own memo to the chief, Officer Johnson wrote that he didn't see anything of the ordinary when he responded to Millvale Court and Beekman Street "for an anonymous report of 50 shots fired in the area."
Johnson wrote that he radioed dispatch to request any updates referencing the run. Dispatch told him a caller in the 2300 block of Millvale Court reported his home had been fired into and another call came in from a residence in the 1999 block of Millvale Court.
You can read more of what Johnson wrote below:
I began attempting to decipher the run, noting the caller from (the home fired into) was uncooperative and disconnected twice on dispatch. I further noted additional calls made from 2303 Millvale Circle and, 1964 Millvale Court as well as Beekman Street and Millvale Court.
Due to the large area being described, I felt it most appropriate to continue canvassing the area at slow speeds from my police car. I noted multiple individuals out in the area, none of which approached or flagged me down reference the incident.
After thoroughly checking the area and no one requesting police contact, I cleared the run after approximately 20 minutes.
I did not respond to (the home fired into) as I believed an additional run would be generated if police response was needed or requested. I further did not notice any obvious damage to the exterior of that location which would be consistent with bullet holes. I felt it most appropriate to check the large area of Millvale for possible shooting victims or suspects at the time.
The comments that were overheard between me and fellow officers near the end of my shift were addressing the safety issues which arise when only two cars are available to check an area as large as Millvale.
I in no way meant or expressed a fear of exiting my police car to conduct an investigation if needed. I have been involved in many shots fired and other dangerous runs throughout my career and have never failed to safely and thoroughly investigate an incident.
It's not clear why 911 call takers or dispatchers didn't try to alert police supervisors about the calls for shots fired in Millvale or why supervisors like Lt. Williams didn't come on the radio on their own to check on the situation, or why they did not respond to the scene to assist officers there and orchestrate a tactical response.
The night chief on that shift got off duty at 3 a.m. without mention in his nightly report to colleagues and supervisors of any runs in the neighborhood, a copy of the report shows.
Police announced in a news release on Aug. 3 they arrested 19-year-old Austin Duncan "for the death of Mr. Whitehead."
As of early Thursday, however, court records show he is only charged at this point with improperly discharging a firearm at or into a habitation in the 2300 block of Millvale Circle on July 26, court records show.
Duncan was just arrested on that charge Wednesday and was due to appear in Hamilton County Municipal Court Thursday, court officials confirmed.
This is another in a series of cases FOX19 NOW has uncovered showing issues with police and/or call taker response to 911 calls.
Police and call taker response to emergency calls came under scrutiny earlier this year. Kyle Plush, 16, suffocated to death when he became trapped inside a mini-van at Seven Hills School in Madisonville despite calling Cincinnati's 911 center twice for help.
In that case, the responding Cincinnati police officers also did not get out of their cars. There were further issues with the dispatch response, communication with officers in the field and their equipment.
Officers also did not get out of their cars to investigate a report of shots fired that turned into a homicide in Walnut Hills in January 2017.
A few hours after the incident was cleared by police, who said they saw no signs of a shooting, the same construction crew who reported hearing shots fired called 911 again and reported finding a man shot to death.
In this latest incident in Millvale, Capt. Broxterman's supervisors praised him for demanding a thorough review of the incident, one that came as we put in multiple records requests to Cincinnati police for all documents, audio recordings and body and street cameras related to the shots fired calls. Once we learned of Broxterman's probe, we asked for those documents, too.
"Paul, Thank you. This is what separates you from your peers," wrote Assistant Chief Mike John, "And why I have always, and continue to have the utmost respect for your leadership. I have tried to emulate many of our leadership traits. You make the tough calls, which is not easy and not popular. Thanks again."
Capt. Broxterman responded: "Wow. That is much appreciated sir. You've made my day. I can't see a way they are going to be able to spin this one. I have always been a believer in holding people accountable, including myself."
John wrote back: "You are the picture of consistency; and fair and just actions. Thanks again."
The Millvale incident also made Cincinnati police aware that they do not have a camera in the area to capture crimes, records show. They are now are working with the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority to make sure one is installed as soon as possible, memos state.
Mark Manning, from the city law department, wrote the following in a July 26 email about 11:30 a.m. to officials with Cincinnati police and the housing authority:
In case you were not aware, a homicide occurred this morning at Millvale. Unfortunately, the crime was not caught on camera.
CPD was wondering about the status of cameras in Millvale. The Millvale Safety Project report from a few years ago indicated there were cameras in this area. If there is nothing currently functional in the area, it would be helpful to have something basic installed with a recorded feed in the circle.
Just to underscore the importance of the issue, we've had an increase in shooting victims in Millvale from 2 last year to 14 so far this year. That ranks Millvale as the neighborhood with the third most in the city. It has had the most shootings per capita in the city this year.
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