Monday, April 22, 2002

Cops on front lines draw most complaints

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Lt. Donald Luck looks intently at the stack of 17 citizen complaints filed against him. His eyes flash with recognition in each case. He rattles off gritty details not included in reports.

        “Drug dealer,” he says about the first complaint.

        He flips to the next one: “This guy committed murder, then killed himself.”

        And the next: “We were lucky to get out of there alive. (An investigator) asked if I remembered the arrest. I told her, "Lady, I will remember (it) till the day I die.'”

        In the past five years, citizens have filed more complaints against Lt. Luck than any other officer in the Cincinnati Police Department.

        They say he improperly searched them, unlawfully detained them, intimidated them and used excessive force. They say he was rude.

        Yet there isn't one complaint that doesn't wither under Lt. Luck's scrutiny. Most of the complaints, he says, are the result of an organized effort by drug dealers to discredit officers and get them to curb arrests.

        “The reason I had so many complaints is because I busted my ass out there,” he says.

        For years citizen complaints have been handled on a case-by case basis, but a Cincinnati Enquirer analysis of 983 complaints filed since 1997 found a large disparity between blacks and whites.

When no shots are fired, no one keeps track of when or why Cincinnati police draw guns. The Enquirer looked at 39 cases that brought citizen complaints. Almost half the time, cases involved mistaken identity. All but one of these citizens were black.
        About 76 percent of the complaints filed with the Office of Municipal Investigation — the only independent agency to investigate allegations of police misconduct — were made by African-Americans. They make up 43 percent of the population.

        As the Cincinnati Police Department undergoes major changes required in a landmark settlement to end a federal racial profiling lawsuit and U.S. Department of Justice investigation, the conduct of officers will be more closely watched than ever.

        A new Citizen Complaint Authority will monitor trends in complaints and look for patterns of police behavior. A new computer system will better track potential problem officers. And a federal monitor will oversee training and use-of-force reforms.

Placing the blame

        Officers, however, don't see the complaints as a racial issue at all.

        Lt. Luck, like other officers leading the list of citizen complaints, blames most complaints on drug dealers trying to deter arrests.

        But court records and citizen complaint reports don't always bear that out. While some complainants do have felony convictions, others have none. More often, complainants with criminal records have strings of citations for petty offenses: running red lights, loud noise, obstruction, minor possession charges and offensive gestures, among others.

        “They try to screw with police officers,” says Lt. Luck, a 16-year-veteran who ran one of the most successful and aggressive criminal apprehension teams out of District 5.

        Five of the 10 most-complained-about officers served with him in District 5, which includes Northside, Winton Terrace and Findlater Gardens, a housing project in Winton Hills.

        Those officers were named 59 times in 40 complaints. Those 40 cases account for 5 percent of the 983 OMI complaints filed against officers.

        Officer Patrick Caton, who never worked on the District 5 team, is seventh on the list of complaints. He insists that he, too, was marked by drug dealers for complaints.

        And he contends the process for filing citizen complaints doesn't work. He says the Office of Municipal Investigation, which is charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct, is out to get officers.

        “OMI serves only as a vendetta against law enforcement officers in this community,” says Officer Caton, who has more complaints for excessive force than any of the nine other officers on the list. “All of the complaints filed against me are by drug dealers.”

One citizen's story

        In a 1998 complaint, Thomas Napier — who has no record of drug arrests — said that Officer Caton screamed obscenities at him and ordered him out of his car at gunpoint because officers thought his car was stolen.

        Officer Caton said Mr. Napier was belligerent and escalated the situation by refusing to obey commands and accusing officers of picking on black people.

        Mr. Napier was arrested for disorderly conduct, and in January 1999 pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of making an offensive gesture and loud noise. He has one other misdemeanor conviction for loud sound.

        OMI did not recommend action against Officer Caton in the Napier case, but investigators noted that it isn't the first time that officers drew weapons because they mistakenly thought a car was stolen.

        Officer Caton, charged with misdemeanor assault in the Nov. 7, 2000, death of Roger Owensby Jr., was cleared of any wrongdoing last year by a Hamilton County jury. He now works in District 1 as a patrol officer.

        Officer Kelli Finn, who has the third most complaints, served on the apprehension team under Lt. Luck. She said all of her complaints resulted from that work, which was mostly at night, serving warrants and conducting raids and searches.

        “One hundred percent of mine came from drug dealers,” she says. “What we were doing is putting them out of business.”

        Officer Jeffrey Shari, who also worked on the apprehension team and is now a neighborhood officer, says drug dealers are not stupid.

        “They know if they complain, officers are going to leave you alone,” he says. “A lot of people don't see the good we do.”

        Lt. Luck says there are simple reasons why cops get complaints: They care too much and work too hard.

        “Haven't we blamed the police for problems enough?” he says. “We are never going to solve any problems as long as they keep identifying police as the problem.”

Making a difference

        Under his command, Lt. Luck says crack arrests went up 1,000 percent. He cites arrest statistics and case clearance rates that allowed him to be honored as the robbery task force's most valuable player. He also talks passionately about efforts to help the community — from passing out yo-yos to talking with kids.

        “We were charged with taking areas of the district back. Especially Winton Terrace and Northside,” he says. “We absolutely made a difference.”

        But it takes a toll. At 39, he admits that he looks a lot closer to 45. And he still gets choked up talking about the murders of Officers Daniel Pope and Ronald Jeter, who were under his command when they were gunned down in 1997.

        In 2000, after six years at District 5, Lt. Luck said he asked for a transfer and took the lieutenant's exam.

        “I know the law very, very well,” he says, reflecting on something his supervisor once said to a complainant.

        “This guy said, "That Sgt. Luck, always goes right up to the line.' My (supervisor) said, "Isn't that what the line is for? To go up to and then stop?' ”

        Enquirer reporter John Byczkowski designed the database for this project.

Sunday's report:
Police draw guns on blacks
Complaints about police mostly come from blacks
Innocent kid got rough treatment
39 cases examined


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