Saturday, October 12, 2002

Speak no evil

Word shows lack of control

Patrick Caton's language is a symptom of his mindset.

The problem for Cincinnati is that many people believe his mindset is typical for the Cincinnati police.

I don't believe it is and the proof is in the fact that Officer Caton is now in trouble because another member of the police department, rather than a member of the public overheard what he said.

Mr. Caton, known as one of the participants in the death of Roger Owensby Jr., two years ago, has been stripped of his police powers and assigned to the auto impound lot because an internal taping system in his patrol car caught him uttering the “N” word at a pedestrian. Police said another officer who was reviewing the tape for another matter reported him.

Fraternal Order of Police President Roger Webster said Mr. Caton said the word out of frustration — frustration that the pedestrian crossed in front of his car and frustration that the internal investigation in the Owensby case has dragged on for two years.

The impound lot is where the police department sends officers it is too embarrassed to have out on the street. There Mr. Caton can take out his frustrations on inanimate automobiles rather than the citizens of Cincinnati.

Investigators said that the person at whom it was directed did not hear Mr. Caton's expletive. Had the officer not hit the cruiser's klaxon, the automatic recorder would not have gone on and nobody would have ever known he said the word.

That has prompted a lot of people, including a few whose letters appear on the next page, to say Mr. Caton is being persecuted. They argue that disciplining Mr. Caton for what he essentially said to himself is an Orwellian invasion of privacy or the action of “thought police.” Others simply dismiss the incident with a shrug and an “Oh, everybody does that.”

These folks are wrong. Speaking an insult is not the same as just thinking it. Whatever thoughts go through your mind are private. But as soon as you let those thoughts out, in words or actions, they become public. Words are like bullets — once you've fired them you can't take them back. A cop, of all people, ought to understand that analogy.

Nor is it true that “everybody does that.” Most people, when stuck in traffic or confronted with any one of a million other daily frustrations, may occasionally let fly with an expletive. But when the first word that comes out of your mouth is a racial slur, its time to examine what's going on inside of your head. When your only excuse is frustration with the job, it's time for you to get a new job.

This isn't Patrick Caton's first assignment to the impound lot. An Enquirer review found that between 1997 and last April he had more citizen complaints for excessive force than any officer on the department and was seventh in complaints overall. He was charged with assault in the Owensby death, but was acquitted in a jury trial. That means he didn't break the law, but the department has not yet decided if he violated the internal code of conduct. He was sent to the impound lot after he was charged in the Owensby case and was just reassigned to the street six months ago.

In 1999 he was investigated for using the “N” word against a 15-year-old boy he arrested for obstruction of justice. Police said that investigation was dropped because the boy's mother didn't cooperate with investigators.

There are plenty of words police officers shouldn't use when addressing members of the public. None is worse than the “N” word — two syllables so loaded with venom and prejudice that we can't even bring ourselves to spell it out in relating this story. This town, and particularly this police department, has had a lot of trouble because so many black citizens believe it is the first word that pops into a white cop's mind when he sees a black person.

As I said at the beginning of this column, I don't think that's true. Some good cop obviously found the word offensive. What Officer Caton said shows a lack of self-control. Cops who lack self-control are bad cops. I share his frustration at the slow pace of the internal investigation. Somebody should have decided a long time ago that he needed to go.

Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: keyword: Wells.

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