Thursday, October 10, 2002

Caton has faced slur complaints previously

Officer near top in citizen complaints

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Police Officer Patrick Caton admitted to investigators that he called a pedestrian a “stupid n----r” in the privacy of his patrol car last week in Over-the-Rhine.

But it isn't the first time he has been accused of using the racial slur or verbally abusing a suspect. Now all of it could be used against the officer in an upcoming discipline action.

“Ultimately, the police chief or the city manager could look at the spectrum of all the cases,” police spokesman Lt. Kurt Byrd said Wednesday.

City residents have accused Officer Caton of being verbally abusive and overly aggressive so many times that he has racked up more citizen complaints for excessive force than any other officer. He has the seventh-highest number of citizen complaints overall in the 1,020-member force.

All the complaints — including one in 1999 in which a woman claimed Officer Caton used the n-word on her 15-year-old son — were dismissed by the Office of Municipal Investigation or by his immediate supervisors.

An internal investigation report released Wednesday about Officer Caton's most recent incident sparked a firestorm of criticism at Cincinnati City Council, and reopened wounds from the 2000 police-custody death of Roger Owensby Jr.

Although Officer Caton was acquitted of misdemeanor assault in Mr. Owensby's death, he still faces possible internal police discipline. An internal report still has not been completed.

Officer Caton did not return calls Wednesday.

“It's disturbing to me. This particular officer seems to have a history of being in spots where serious trouble happens,” Councilman David Crowley said. “Our system seems to be incapable of weeding out officers who aren't fit for police work.”

Other council members also expressed outrage.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece introduced a motion Wednesday demanding that the city manager and the police department officials visit the city's 52 community councils, explaining why the investigation into Mr. Owensby's death is not complete.

Councilman Jim Tarbell complained that the city has been “held hostage” by the nearly two-year delay in explaining Officer Caton's conduct the night Mr. Owensby died in a Roselawn gas station parking lot.

City Manager Valerie Lemmie said those reviews — by the Police Department's Internal Investigations Section and the Office of Municipal Investigation — are near completion and would be released in two or three weeks.

For the second time in his five-year career, Officer Caton, 36, has been stripped of his police powers and will be assigned to the city's impound unit pending a discipline hearing. Only six months ago, he returned to patrol from the impound unit following his acquittal.

Investigators say Officer Caton was “venting” when he used the N-word after getting stuck in traffic on Oct. 1, and the object of the slur did not hear it.

“It was not his intention for anyone to hear the comment,” Internal Investigations Section Commander Stephen Gregoire wrote in the report. “Officer Caton is embarrassed by the situation.”

The officer was en-route to a fight call on Vine Street when, investigators said, a “black male appeared to intentionally step off the sidewalk and impede Officer Caton's movement into the intersection.” Officer Caton became frustrated and yelled, “You stupid (N-word).”

The report notes that the windows were up and the comment was not heard by anyone. But unknown to Officer Caton, the slur was recorded on the police mobile video recorder inside his cruiser.

“What it shows is that Cincinnati is beginning to hold officers much more accountable than they have in past,” said Cecil Thomas, executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission and retired 27-year veteran of the police department. “It is an indication that the department is getting better.”

Regardless of whether the slur was supposed to be heard by anyone, Mr. Thomas said, Officer Caton is a liability for the city.

“Officers are held to a much higher standard than the average citizen,” he said. “If you have any biases, you cannot allow that to become part of your work environment. It worries me to have someone with that kind of attitude out there patrolling our streets.”

Officer Caton was named in nine citizen complaints filed with the Office of Municipal Investigation — Cincinnati's only independent agency to investigate allegations of police misconduct — between 1997 and April 2002. Four of the complaints alleged Officer Caton used obscenities and in one case used the n-word.

Irene Smith-Byrd in 1999 said that Officer Caton called her son, Demitrius, an n-word after the boy had stopped his bike near Officer Caton's cruiser when he saw one of his friends in the back seat.

“Ms. Smith-Byrd said that Officer Caton said, "Get away from the car, (n-word),' ” the complaint states.

Officer Caton said that the 15-year-old boy leaned into the car and yelled an obscenity, then tried to ride away on his bicycle. He told investigators that he decided to arrest the boy for obstructing official business. He chased the boy down and a struggle ensued.

Ms. Smith-Byrd said Demitrius shouted the obscenity after being called the n-word. Investigators closed the case with no recommendations after the complainant refused to cooperate with investigators.

A 2002 Enquirer analysis of more than 1,000 citizen complaints about Cincinnati police showed the vast majority of them were dismissed by supervisors and investigators. The Department of Justice made citizen complaints one of its chief topics of investigation this year, and has demanded reforms.

In a 1998 complaint, Thomas Napier 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. Caton has been reprimanded for failing to make a report and for being in possession of a gun while being under the influence while off-duty. Neither discipline arose from a citizen complaint.

Lt. Byrd said Wednesday it is unknown what kind of discipline Officer Caton faces for using the n-word.

The n-word has caused problems for the department before, most notably in 2000, when Police Chief Tom Streicher used the word as an example of what not to say during a training exercise.

Chief Streicher apologized to approximately 20 supervisors who were attending the class. His discipline was a discussion with his boss, then-Safety Director Safety Director Kent Ryan, about what went wrong and how it is not to happen again.

Last year, Chief Streicher praised an officer involved in a police shooting as being one of the 10 best in the department. But in 1996, that same officer, Thomas Haas, was initially suspended for pulling a stocking cap over a suspect's head and calling him an n-word.

“His action is the cancer which can ruin an organization,” Capt. Kenneth Jones wrote about Officer Haas in a discipline hearing summary. “(This) was an act which cannot be tolerated.”

Officer Haas told investigators he “used the term in a friendly manner” and pulled the cap over the suspect's face to calm him. He was suspended for 80 hours and given a reprimand in January 1997, but an independent arbitrator ordered the city to expunge Officer Haas's record and compensate him for lost wages.

“People have pre-existing ideas they carry with them, and we can't erase that,” Councilwoman Minette Cooper said after introducing a motion Wednesday condemning the use of racial and ethnic slurs by city employees. “But we can set some standards of behavior.”

Enquirer reporter Gregory Korte contributed to this report.


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