Monday, March 19, 2001

Fangman is tough voice for cops

If you don't like him, well, that's too bad

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FOP President Keith Fangman speaks to council.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        He's bold and he's brash — and he's got a bigger mouth than Cincinnati cops have had in their union leader in years. Keith Fangman is in your face.

        He's on talk radio, TV and in newspapers almost daily, defending his 1,020 fellow officers against alleged misdeeds from racial profiling to beating suspects excessively with nightsticks.

        He's helping raise money to pay the attorneys for two officers indicted in the controversial death of a black suspect last fall.

        And to the many people who say this 36-year-old, second-generation officer is too blindly pro-cop, that the union boss should tone down his inflammatory speechifying while Cincinnati struggles through myriad race-relations issues:

        Don't hold your breath.

  • Police/community relations: “Frankly, better police/community relations makes my job easier. This constant conflict is not healthy. But by the same token, I'm not going to roll over and sell out our officers.”
        “I was not elected to play warm and fuzzy with the police critics,” he says. “I was not elected to play footsies with them.”

        A television reporter, camera rolling, recently asked Mr. Fangman why all 14 people killed by Cincinnati police in the past five years have been African-American.

        The burly leader of Fraternal Order of Police Queen City Lodge #69 positioned himself directly below pictures of 12 dead officers in a police academy classroom. One by one, he pointed to each dead officer's face and counted out loud from one to 12.

        They'd all been killed by African-American men, he said. Yet officers don't assume that all black people want to kill cops.

Fangman accompanies Officer Robert Jorg, accused of involuntary manslaughter, to an administrative hearing.
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        Cops, he likes to say, are the city's “human punching bags.” That's the way he talks, with a lot of big-drama words.

  • Accusations of racial profiling: “This isn't Mayberry RFD. We have enough crime in this city (to keep busy). Our officers don't have time to play these little racist games. Like, "Ha, ha, I pulled you over because you're black?' If an officer does that and they can't explain or justify why they're making these stops, they're gone. It is not an accepted practice in this city.”
        He cites Officers Blaine Jorg and Patrick Caton, who face trial for assault and involuntary manslaughter in the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby Jr. Mr. Owensby suffocated in police custody in a Roselawn gas station parking lot.

        After Mr. Owensby's death, Mr. Fangman called for the rest of the force to be extra careful, to “think twice” before doing any self-initiated police work.

        He repeatedly insisted that he wasn't suggesting any work slowdown or job action. Still, those words — and the disconcerting image of officers holding back — were out there.

        When Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey decided earlier this year to stop paying Officer Jorg and another cop awaiting a separate trial, Mr. Fangman summoned the media to the FOP lodge on Central Parkway. Pounding his fist on the lectern, he accused the city manager of declaring war — on the entire police division.

  • His reputation of supporting officers no matter what: “That's just not true. In the case of Officers Caton and Jorg (facing trial in the death of a suspect), I've never said they are innocent. What I've said is let the officers have a chance to tell their side of the story in court.”
        When City Council members in January squawked about losing every one of 10 cases taken to arbitration in the past five years by fired officers, he pointedly said they didn't seem to notice just weeks before when they approved a new contract with the same arbitration plan in it. The council's complaining, Mr. Fangman said, “smacks of political grandstanding.”

        After listening recently to almost a dozen community leaders accuse his colleagues of targeting black people in traffic stops, the union chief characterized the situation as a perception problem. It was not a popular opinion among African-Americans.

        Officers already work under the microscope of City Council and the media, he says. They'd have to be “out of their mind” to risk their jobs just to stop people because they're black.

In a rare departure, Fangman works in uniform during downtown protests against the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue last November.
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Love him or hate him

        Stop a cop in the street and drop Mr. Fangman's name. The responses, from both black and white officers: He speaks up for us. He knows how to play politics. He doesn't mess around, and he doesn't dwell on whether he offends.

        Officer Bill Fagin, a white, 28-year motorcycle cop, joined the force in 1976, when the FOP last was led by such a boisterous figure. He was Elmer Dunaway, famous for his cowboy boots, cowboy hat and loud hysterics.

• Counting black drivers stopped: “It doesn't tell us what's in the hearts and minds of police officers when they make a traffic stop. If we're ordered to do it, we'll do it. But what is it going to accomplish?”
        “Keith's not as crude,” Officer Fagin says. “He says what he feels, but he doesn't do it in such a nasty way. He's good. He can call you an a------, and you walk away thinking it's a compliment.”

        Officer Shawn George met Mr. Fangman when they were recruits together in 1994. He was elected class vice president; Mr. Fangman, president.

        “His views are what's best for the police, what's best for the FOP,” Officer George says. “He wants to make sure every police officer is safe, black or white.”

        But mention Keith Fangman to some black leaders, and a different picture emerges.

        “I don't think he believes 90 percent of the things he says,” says lawyer Ken Lawson, who helped prepare a lawsuit filed last week accusing Cincinnati cops of targeting drivers because they're black.

        “In order to be a good leader, you have to be credible.”

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III, president of Cincinnati Black United Front, the grass-roots group that emerged after a series of racially charged incidents last year, calls Mr. Fangman inflammatory and myopic.

        The two have sparred often during the ongoing racial profiling debate. At various times, Mr. Fangman has tried to divert attention to what he considers a more salient issue — black-on-black crime. He asks why Mr. Lynch's group doesn't delve into that.

  • Being exceedingly vocal: “I don't say things to hurt people's feelings. It's not the way I was raised. I don't say things to get under people's skin. ... I feel I should have the same right to express opinions as any other leader in this city. I'm open to constructive criticism. And I like nothing better than a good compromise. But never at the expense of our officers.”
        “He only sees police officers in one way, that they are always right in what they do,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says. “He seems to want to stand by them no matter what. Even after, you know, they may be indicted for killing a man.”

        Others say the from-the-hip act is just that, a shtick, and that the “I'm just a guy out there sticking up for the underdog” is really just part of his calculated, media-savvy action plan.

        “He's very conscious of everything he says,” says Sgt. Harry Roberts, a member of the FOP executive board who supervised Mr. Fangman when he was a rookie. “Everything is exactly what he means. He's professional, and he's eloquent.”

        Mr. Fangman doesn't celebrate being called divisive and polarizing. But all in all, he's pretty cool with most criticism — he knows he's behaving exactly as his membership wants

Job preparation

        Keith Fangman followed his dad, Jerry, and his brothers Paul and Gary onto the force. He had been a Cincinnati officer less than four years when he first ran for FOP president in 1997.

        Some officers hesitated to vote for him because he hadn't been in the division long. But he had a uniquely saleable background — two brothers on the force, a dad retired from it, college studies in industrial relations and collective bargaining, and City Hall political experience as an aide to former Councilman Jim Cissell, now county clerk.

        Mr. Fangman has delivered on his campaign promise of “Strong, Vocal Leadership.” Even his City Hall critics don't dispute the muscle in his vocal cords.

        Some wonder, though, if Mr. Fangman couldn't do his job just as well, maybe even better, without being so brash. Mayor Charlie Luken is among them.

        Mr. Luken and Mr. Fangman fought last year after the mayor voted to cut a police recruit class, something even Chief Tom Streicher didn't oppose. Mr. Fangman responded by saying many officers wished they could take back their FOP endorsement of Mr. Luken, whom they expected would be more supportive. The exchange left the mayor feeling befuddled.

        “It's difficult for me to say how he should represent his men and women,” Mr. Luken says now. “I would just urge him to be more understanding and less vocal. I try to work with him when I can, which hasn't always been easy.”

Hard work, long hours

        Mr. Fangman repeats his quotes, in perfect sound bites, until he's sure the reporter gets them down. He asks if he's speaking too quickly. He has even been known to suggest where the commas should go.

        He works sometimes more hours in a week than two street cops combined. During street protests last fall prompted by the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue conference, he put his uniform back on to work the detail.

        He meets officers late at night after they get off work, and he goes with them any time there's an inquiry into something they've done. He hits meetings of retirees, spouses, the auxiliary. He attends a few retirement parties a month.

        He's still answering the office phone long after his kids' bedtimes. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Anderson Township with Jessica, 12, Samantha, 7, and Seth, 4. He admits the job has caused tremendous stress on his marriage. He anticipated the hours would be long, just not as long as they have been lately.

        He says he doesn't have political aspirations, that the FOP job isn't a stepping stone to City Council, the mayor's office or anything else. Very few people actually believe that; he sounds a lot like a guy who's running for something.

        Mr. Fangman's old boss, Mr. Cissell, is a believer. He says Mr. Fangman could have jumped into politics from his City Hall job if he didn't really want to be a cop.

        Mr. Cissell says he'll be surprised if his friend doesn't stay with the police division until he retires.

        The union leader turned Charlie Winburn down last year when the then-councilman asked if he'd like to replace him on City Council. Both say he didn't think about it for more than a few seconds.

        He plans to run for union president again in December. It's a full-time job he wants for at least one more two-year term. Members of his executive board predict he again will have no competition.

        He makes $50,000 a year, the same as he would if he were still on patrol. But the salary doesn't come from the taxpayers — police chip in.

Trained on the lot<>                Maybe Mr. Fangman's verbosity and single-minded focus shouldn't be a surprise. He is, after all, a former used-car salesman. And proud of it.

        After making a considerable amount of college money selling Buicks and Lincoln Town Cars, Mr. Fangman assuaged his guilt about his part in the ugly sales culture by making a video about how to avoid getting swindled.

        He taught classes, too, and started a business through which he brokered car deals.

        “It felt great because I was actually helping people,” he says. “Of course, the car dealerships hated me. But that was OK.”

        The 1989 video — How to Negotiate a Car Deal Without Being Eaten By Wolves! — then made him more money.

        He still has copies, complete with him on the front dressed as the Big, Bad Wolf.

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