Sunday, July 08, 2001

Police review themselves
when citizens complain

Officers exonerated on 90% of minor issues

By Robert Anglen and Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hundreds of people complain every year about the behavior of Cincinnati police officers. They say officers curse them, mock their distress, refuse help and get nasty when confronted with their discourtesy. But every year, more than 90 percent of minor complaints against officers are dismissed.

        The complaints are rarely forwarded to the division's internal investigators and are seldom seen by the city's independent investigatory agency, an Enquirer review of police records shows.

Complaints in 1997-2000
        Cincinnati police officials say officers are held accountable through a system that brings citizens together with the officer and a supervisor. They say complaints are taken seriously, and officers are counseled and reprimanded when necessary.

        Some law enforcement experts say this is not how a good system is supposed to work. They say police shouldn't be allowed to police themselves and that outside review is better, no matter how minor the complaint.

        While complaints alleging excessive force and other serious misconduct get a more thorough review, minor complaints often reveal more about how officers deal with average citizens on average days. And the way in which complaints are handled, experts say, can speak volumes about the overall quality of an officer and a police department.

Complete coverage in our special section.
        The police division's system to resolve citizen complaints is one of many areas under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department following the April riots. If investigators conclude that civil rights violations occurred, the Justice Department could sue the city to force reforms.

        Members of the Citizens Police Review Panel — charged with reviewing all citizen complaints against Cincinnati police — say the city's system minimizes police misconduct and reduces oversight of the division.

        “This is pointing to something really scary,” panel member Paul DeMarco says.

        The result: Citizens who file minor complaints often are left in the dark about the outcome of their cases and, even years later, still resent the way police treated them.

Complaints increasing

        “I just wanted to get this on the (officer's) record,” says Mount Washington dentist Stephen Curran, who complained about an officer in 1998 and didn't learn the outcome until contacted by reporters last month.

        “I certainly didn't know they had turned around and said he was exonerated,” Dr. Curran says. “That couldn't be further from the truth.”

        Dr. Curran is one of 855 citizens who filed minor complaints against Cincinnati police officers from 1997 through 2000. Most of the complaints involved rudeness during traffic stops, inappropriate remarks at crime scenes or poor service at the police station.

        An Enquirer review of police records at each of the city's five district stations shows that minor complaints by citizens have steadily increased in the past four years.

        Of the 855 total, 765 cases were resolved. Of those, officers were exonerated 699 times.

        In 22 cases, officers received verbal admonitions. Thirty-two complaints generated the type of disciplines that would show as a negative mark in a personnel file: 30 notations in employment logs and two written reprimands.

        Four others resulted in unspecified disciplines, and eight were referred to the police division's Internal Investigations Section, which deals with more serious complaints.

        In 90 cases, outcomes were not specified. The race of the person complaining and of the officer are not noted in records of minor complaints.

        But how minor complaints are handled is often as important as the outcomes. If citizens don't like the process, experts say, they probably will come away feeling they got a raw deal.

Officer "got really nasty'

        Dr. Curran says his dispute began at the bottom of a Mount Adams hill after the annual Labor Day weekend Riverfest celebration. He wanted to drive up the hill to pick up his wife, who was suffering from a broken tailbone, and their 6-year-old twin daughters.

        But an officer refused to let him pass, saying the road was closed and the only way up was on foot. However, when Dr. Curran walked down the hill a short time later with his family, he found the road open.

        When he asked why, Dr. Curran says, the officer “got really nasty” and began making rude comments.

        Upset, Dr. Curran asked the officer for his name and badge number. He said the officer spoke too fast to understand. When asked to repeat it, the officer told Dr. Curran he would only give his name once. So, Dr. Curran said, he told the officer to spell it. “It's spelled the way it sounds,” Dr. Curran said the officer replied.

        Dr. Curran called the District 4 station to complain and was told he could come in for a meeting with the officer and a supervisor. He says he declined because he didn't want to see the officer again.

        Officer Richard Judon, now a member of the fraud squad, says he vaguely recalls the incident but does not remember Dr. Curran by name. Records show this is the only citizen complaint filed against him.

        “It's rare that you see my name on a complaint,” Officer Judon says. “I've never had to go through a meeting.”

        But he says the system does work, and street officers are aware of how seriously the division takes citizen complaints.

Police say system works

        To handle the minor complaints, Cincinnati police created the Citizen Complaint Resolution Process four years ago. The system allows residents to file complaints by phone, fax, e-mail and in person. Once a complaint comes in, the officer's supervisor is supposed to investigate and attempt to set up a meeting with the officer and the resident.

        Experts say that is where Cincinnati's system breaks down.

        “There should be a centralized clearinghouse, an independent body” to field complaints, says James Ginger, a San Antonio police consultant who oversees court-ordered changes in police departments in Pittsburgh and New Jersey.

        “You're asking for individuals who may be partially responsible for the officer's behavior to investigate that behavior,” Mr. Ginger says. "Supervisors know the officers. You have to insulate against the friendship factor.”

        Cincinnati police say the supervisor's involvement and the face-to-face meetings help resolve complaints that usually are nothing more than simple misunderstandings.

        “The goal is to make the process user friendly, citizen friendly,” says Lt. Col. Rick Biehl, an assistant chief. “Some citizens just want some feedback. They want to make us aware of behavior they didn't feel was appropriate.”

        In almost every case, supervisors decide the outcome of the complaint before the meeting takes place, says District 1 Capt. Greg Snider, who once headed internal investigations.

        He says most complainants “want more discipline or punishment of the officer than I believe is warranted.”

        Police officials say between 30 and 40 percent of complaints result in meetings. With or without a meeting, the cases usually end with the officer's exoneration. Exoneration means the incident might have occurred, but the officer's actions did not violate police procedures.

        “I feel with minor complaints, we have the ability to investigate ourselves,” Capt. Snider says.

        Neither the police chief nor division bureau commanders regularly see the complaints, and it is rare for higher-ranking supervisors to reject a report or request further action.

        “I think it works,” police Col. Richard Janke says of the system. “It was designed for continuous improvement” of officers.

        Kimberlee Gray, the former director of Cincinnati's Office of Municipal Investigations, disagrees. She urged city administrators in April to overhaul the system.

        Most troubling, she said, are the face-to-face meetings at the police station.

        “The citizens feel that the process is unfair,” Ms. Gray wrote in an April 16 memo to City Manager John Shirey. “They are not happy with the process and results. ... The citizens feel the supervisor is not an impartial person.”

        Other major cities have revamped complaint systems to avoid the kinds of problems Ms. Gray outlined in her memo. Those cities now require outside review of complaints and do not allow police supervisors to have the final word.

        Many of those changes came after U.S. Department of Justice investigations, similar to the federal probe now under way in Cincinnati.

        U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the Cincinnati investigation after the April 7 police shooting death of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American in Over-the-Rhine.

        Mr. Shirey confirms that federal investigators in two meetings since the riots have raised questions about minor complaints and the resolution process.

        “That is one of the questions the DOJ is pursuing,” he says.

        Mr. Shirey acknowledges the lack of outside review in the process. But he says police commanders have resisted because they believe sergeants or other first-line supervisors should be the ones making the call in discipline cases.

        More oversight might boost the public's confidence, he says. “The downside is that it could be more costly, cause delays and lessen the role of the supervisor.”

Citizens panel outraged

        The seven members of the Citizens Police Review Panel are supposed to review all citizen complaints against police and all investigations of police misconduct.

        But members say they had no idea police supervisors were conducting investigations or that 90 percent of officers had been cleared in the resolution process.

        “The police are derelict in not supplying us with this information,” Mr. DeMarco says. “We were not even aware of them.”

        “It seems to me they have constructed a device for minimizing complaints,” panel Chairman Keith Borders says. “They have been shoveling over complaints to this so-called resolution process that is not designed for resolution. It is designed to have the citizens capitulate.”

        Mr. Borders says police officials have described the complaint system as a “mediation process” that involves no paperwork, no investigation and no final report. He says the system really has nothing in common with mediation.

        “If a report was issued, it falls under our jurisdiction,” Mr. Borders says, adding that the police should also be turning over every citizen complaint.

        The citizens panel was formed in an agreement with federal mediators after the 1997 death of Lorenzo Collins, an escaped mental patient who confronted officers with a brick and was shot dead. Almost since its beginning, the panel has complained about resistance from the police division and a lack of support from the city manager.

        Mr. Shirey says there is no need for the panel to get involved with minor citizen complaints.

        “I hope the (panel) is reserving its time for the most important cases, those matters that gain community notoriety,” he says.

Repeated complaints

        Riverside resident Tom Gilday says he didn't bother with a meeting after complaining about an officer's behavior in 1999.

        “The guy was just rude as hell,” says Mr. Gilday, who is a certified public accountant and professor at Thomas More College. “He was rude and unprofessional. The tone of his voice was condescending. And we have been subjected to this before.”

        He says the officer was called to help with traffic while he and his brother carried a sick uncle across Hillside Avenue. Because of where his uncle lived, Mr. Gilday said ambulances had to stop on Hillside and family members had to carry his uncle across the busy street.

        Mr. Gilday says the officer made it clear he didn't want to be there.

        In a letter to then-acting police chief Theodore Schoch, Mr. Gilday questioned the way officers treat anyone they perceive to be poor.

        “In almost every instance, the police officer that responded acted rudely, almost to the point of attempting to intimidate me, the citizen requesting service,” he said in his letter.

        Mr. Gilday says the officer's supervisor was willing to talk to him about the Hillside incident, but not about the larger issue.

        He says the supervisor thanked him for the letter, and that was where it ended.

        “I want to be clear that I consider a number of Cincinnati police officers as friends,” he says. “My uncle and father-in-law were Cincinnati police officers.”

More oversight needed

        Mr. Ginger, the police consultant, says outside oversight makes people feel better about the process, even if the officer is cleared of wrongdoing.

        Kimberly Khamisi filed a complaint in 1998 against two officers who came to her Avondale home to investigate a neighbor who exposed himself to her two teen-aged daughters.

        Ms. Khamisi says one of the officers remarked that the flasher might have been making a “booty call,” a slang term for casual sex.

        Angry about the comment, Ms. Khamisi called the officers' supervisor and went to the District 4 station for a meeting.

        Both officers received one of the least serious kinds of disciplines: A notation in their personnel file.

        Ms. Khamisi says she was glad something was done but she did not like the way it was done. She describes the face-to-face meeting as uncomfortable.

        “That was the awkward part. I could see why other people might not go through with it,” Ms. Khamisi says. “It was just the supervisor and him and no one else, and I knew it wasn't going to go any further than they wanted it to go.”

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