Tuesday, August 13, 2002

City outlines police reforms

Status report also identifies points of contention

By Gregory Korte gkorte@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati's first status report on police reforms, sent Monday to the U.S. Justice Department, outlines new policies on the use of force by police officers, but also points to lingering differences of opinion between city and federal officials.

        Those differences are in policies dealing with police dogs, use-of-force reporting and the “matrix” used to discipline officers.

        City officials did not outline those disagreements in detail, identifying them only with a notation that they are “pending review” by the Justice Department.

        S. Gregory Baker, the executive manager of police relations, declined to comment on the report Monday, saying it had not yet been submitted to City Council. City Manager Valerie Lemmie could not be reached after the report was released at 6 p.m.

        The quarterly report is required under an April 12 agreement that ended the federal “patterns and practices” investigation into the Cincinnati Police Department, and by a sister agreement to settle a lawsuit alleging that Cincinnati officers use race as a factor in targeting citizens for arrest.

        Those reports are supposed to go to an independent monitor under the supervision of a federal judge. But because the parties have not yet agreed on that monitor, the city sent its report directly to the Justice Department.

        For the most part, the report released Monday simply documents the progress the city has made on the 120 provisions of the Justice Department agreement.

        William R. “Billy” Martin, the city's special counsel on police issues, told a City Council committee last week that there were “differences of opinion” with the Justice Department on several issues, particularly the disciplinary policy.

        The Justice Department agreement requires the city to revise its disciplinary matrix, a formula the city uses to determine the severity of discipline for police officers who break department rules.

        The Justice Department wants the matrix to “take into account an officer's violation of different rules, rather than just repeated violations of the same rule.” It also wants harsher punishments for excessive use of force, and limited discretion for the police chief to give warnings in cases that would otherwise require a suspension.

        Many of the new policies submitted to the Justice Department were specifically crafted to address previous incidents in which suspects have been killed or injured in confrontations with police. For example:

        A new policy on foot pursuits advises an officer to consider calling off a chase “if the suspect's identity is known and he is not an immediate threat to the safety of the public or other officers.”

        That policy could have saved the life of Timothy Thomas, the 19-year-old man shot by Officer Stephen Roach in Over-the-Rhine on April 7, 2001. Mr. Thomas had 14 open misdemeanor warrants, but was not suspected of any other crime until he began fleeing police. His shooting sparked last year's rioting.

        Crowd control devices - including pellet-filled “beanbag” shotguns, foam rounds and pepper ball launchers - should be used only against targets that pose an imminent threat to people or property. Officers should be “reasonably sure” that the weapons will not strike nonviolent people in the crowd.

        Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers and Cincinnati police officers shot beanbag rounds into a crowd of protesters at Mr. Thomas' funeral on April 14, 2001, injuring two children and sending a Louisville teacher to the hospital.

        The use of a chokehold is “prohibited unless a situation arises where the use of deadly force is permissible under existing law and department policy.” The previous policy said only that officers would keep in mind that courts “could consider a chokehold or other similar-type hold as deadly force.”

        Roger Owensby Jr., a 29-year-old College Hill man, died in the back of a police cruiser Nov. 7, 2000, after a scuffle with officers at a Roselawn gas station. Witnesses said officer Robert “Blaine” Jorg may have used a chokehold in trying to restrain Mr. Owensby while he was resisting arrest.

        The department has created a cadre of 90 police officers with special training in dealing with mentally ill suspects.

        Police shot and killed Lorenzo Collins, a 25-year-old escaped mental patient from Avondale, on Feb.23, 1997. Mr. Collins had threatened officers with a brick.


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