Sunday, February 11, 2001

Just the facts

Officer Hill is no maniac

        Let's play cops and robbers. You're a Cincinnati cop cruising your beat when suddenly the radio sends you on a “weapons run.”

        “Male, white, dirty white T-shirt, blue jeans, extremely intoxicated, carrying a drill and paintbrush, threatening to hurt people,” the dispatcher says.

        Your heart thumps like the rhythm section in a Salsa band. Synapses crackle and pop. Movie previews flash through your head: Hostages? Holdup?

        Officer Robert Hill took that call and raced to a United Dairy Farmers store on Madison Road in September 1999. He found a man at the counter holding a cordless drill. He told him to drop it, but the man ignored him. So he put his arms around the suspect. The man pushed back and Officer Hill wrestled him to the floor.

        Hero, right? Nope. The city fired him.

        The take-down was caught on videotape. The man with a weapon turned out to be an elderly Alzheimer's patient. Suddenly, Officer Hill was the bad guy in a video that played on the TV news more often than ads for denture glue: “The cop who body slammed a helpless old man.”

        They say the camera doesn't lie. But it doesn't tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, either.

        “There's no sound on the tape, so you can't hear him say "Drop the drill,”' said Stephen Lazarus, counsel to the Fraternal Order of Police, who defended Officer Hill during two days of hearings.

        “I hear all this stuff, people just throw it out there, and I wonder, was this the same case I worked on?”

        Mr. Lazarus thinks Officer Hill got a raw deal. So did the arbitrator who reinstated him with back pay. And now that I've seen the report, so do I.

        Pretend again you're a cop who has been sent on a “weapons run.” Then, as you flip on the siren and lights, the dispatcher breaks in again: “Hold on. It's just a confused old man.”

        That's closer to what the store clerk reported. But a 911 dispatcher mangled the report.

        “Um, it's not an emergency, but it's a guy in here, I guess he's drunk,” the clerk said. She described him and mentioned he was carrying a drill. “He's talking about he has some people that are hurt or something . . . I don't know. We can barely understand what he's saying.”

        The dispatcher twisted that into a “highly intoxicated” man with a weapon, “threatening to hurt people.”

        The dispatcher was reprimanded for “altering the urgency of a radio run.” But the city missed its deadline. The reprimand was reversed.

        City officials accused Officer Hill of lying about a paintbrush in the old man's hand, because they saw one sitting on a nearby counter. But the arbitrator slowed down the tape and saw “what appeared to be a paint brush in the subject's hand and it was picked up off the floor by the (cop) once the subject was subdued.”

        The city said the “elderly gentleman was no threat to anyone” when Officer Hill hit him “like a blitzing linebacker.” But a police division training officer testified that Officer Hill acted by the book.

        “Officer Hill attempted to physically secure the drill and, if successful, minimize the risk of injury to himself and others,” the report by arbitrator Daniel Kosanovich said. “(He) acted in an objectively reasonable manner in connection with the incident . . . and not like the "blitzing linebacker' to which he was compared by the city.”

        All this is a dash of cold water to everyone who sanctimoniously condemned Officer Hill — me included.

        Instead of a maniac cop on the muscle, he looks like an officer who was misled but followed the book.

        Officer Hill has been banished to cop-Siberia to keep him off the streets. He publicly apologized for a scatological remark about Madisonville. But nobody has apologized to him.

        So pretend you're a cop. What do you call it when people see a few seconds of videotape and immediately assume you're the bad guy?

        Sounds like anti-police profiling.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.


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