Thursday, March 23, 2000

Officer taken off street duty

Record mixed as city officer, prison jail guard

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A day after a Cincinnati police internal investigation found an officer used excessive force when subduing an Alzheimer's victim, the officer was stripped of his police powers.

        Officer Robert J. Hill III will remain desk-bound pending a predisciplinary hearing, officials said Wednesday.

        Findings from the investigation, released Tuesday, determined Officer Hill, a three-year veteran, used excessive force Nov. 14 when he threw Robert L. Wittenberg of Silverton, then 68, to the floor of a Madisonville convenience store.

        The attorney for Mr. Wittenberg, Donald J. Moore Jr., was pleased with the results of the investigation.

        “We find it encouraging,” said Mr. Moore, who represents Mr. Wittenberg and his wife, Mary, in their $2.5 million lawsuit against the city of Cincinnati, the police division and Officer Hill. The city's attorney declined to comment, while Officer Hill's attorney, Don Hardin, turned his attention to the injuries Mr. Wittenberg contends Officer Hill's actions caused.

        “The plaintiff is blaming all of his serious injuries on Robert Hill,” Mr. Hardin said. “There were 16 hours between the time of (contact) and the time he was found with those injuries. Somebody needs to account for those 16 hours.”

        The 32-year-old officer's law enforcement history is mixed.

Convenience store camera records removal of Robert L. Wittenberg. | ZOOM |
        Besides a number of commendations, he has been accused twice of violating Cincinnati police protocol:

        • He was reprimanded July 27, 1997, for negligence when he crashed his police cruiser while attempting to help with a foot chase.

        • That same year, he was accused of improperly handling a suspect's money.

        For 19 months before joining the Cincinnati force, Officer Hill was a Warren County Jail corrections officer, where he was the subject of four administrative investigations.

        Investigations sustained charges of unprofessional conduct and violation of chain of command; lying; and inciting inmates to harm another inmate. He was cleared of an accusation of sexual harassment for cursing in front of a female employee.

        Officer Hill was reprimanded for violating chain of command and unprofessional conduct. Officials were deciding disciplinary actions for the remaining two when he resigned in 1996. Two months later — Jan. 5, 1997 — he was hired by Cincinnati.

        According to reports in his personnel file, the chain-of-command charges were brought by a nurse who worked with Warren County Jail inmates. She accused Officer Hill of threatening her and her family because he thought she was giving too much attention to one inmate.

        She told authorities she was so frightened “she went home early and loaded a gun.”

        A written reprimand was added to his file and a day later, Officer Hill wrote on the document: “I disagree with this letter.”

        In the other two incidents:

        • June 1996, an inmate accused him of telling other inmates that the inmate was a child molester so he would be attacked.

        Officer Hill denied the accusation, but failed a voice stress test and officials decided the inmate's claims were true.

        • August 1996, Officer Hill was overheard by a superior disclosing confidential information to a former employee.

        He denied the claim, saying he had been on the phone with a dispatcher who called him to ask for a ride home.

        But the county found the dispatcher had not been at work on the day in question. He again failed a voice stress test and was placed on administrative leave. And, when his leave ended, he resigned.

        During his time with Warren County, Officer Hill also received a number of good reviews and was complimented for his quick actions when an inmate attempted suicide.

        In January, Cincinnati police Sgt. Tom Waller, who heads the Recruiting Division, said records of the background investigation on Officer Hill — along with those of his entire academy class — had been destroyed. He said it is unknown if investigators were aware of the incidents.

        However, according to hiring regulations, the incidents would not have disqualified Officer Hill from consideration as a Cincinnati police officer.

        A candidate would be disqualified if there were two or more disciplinary incidents within five years of applying to the city of Cincinnati.

        In December, the Wittenbergs filed their lawsuit citing a number of infractions, including battery, false imprisonment and excessive use of force.

        Mr. Wittenberg wandered away from his home Nov. 14. He entered a Madisonville United Dairy Farmers store muttering something about someone needing help.

        After an employee called police, a dispatcher erroneously relayed to responding officers that an intoxicated man was inside the store threatening to hurt people with a drill and a paint brush.

        Officer Hill, who was first on the scene, threw Mr. Wittenberg to the floor and fell on top of him. The incident was captured on the store's surveillance camera.

        Police dropped Mr. Wittenberg at his home shortly after the 8 p.m. incident. His wife said police told her her husband had fallen. He walked into the house and she put him to bed.

        The next morning, she said he was unable to move.

        Doctors later determined Mr. Wittenberg suffered numerous injuries that were not consistent with a fall, Mr. Moore said.

        A retired pipe fitter, Mr. Wittenberg now lives in a nursing home and “has never been able to return home since this incident. ... He has also been in and out of the hospital at least twice with lung problems,” Mr. Moore said.

        Mrs. Wittenberg holds a part-time job with a greeting card company and is struggling to pay her husband's nursing home bills, which come to about $4,200 a month.

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