Sunday, November 17, 2002

Ex-cop tells other side
of beanbag shootings

After 19 months of twisting slowly in the wind, former Cincinnati Police Officer Eric Hall has lost his career, his kids' college fund and his faith in City Hall. But he has not lost hope that the city will still do the right thing.

Next week, the city will finally issue its internal report on what happened when six Cincinnati cops and two Ohio state troopers fired beanbags at protesters to clear an intersection on April 14, 2001. And it will be good news for the cops, said City Manager Valerie Lemmie.

"It is my understanding that they met the standards and guidelines at the time,'' she said. "I am certainly sympathetic to the concerns of the officers that this has been out there a very long time.''

Eric Hall retired from the Cincinnati Police last January with post-trumatic stree disability.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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Ms. Lemmie said the cops are likely to be reimbursed for legal fees from the incident. "We will follow past practices and the contract,'' she said.

That's welcome news for Mr. Hall. But it's a bit late. "The city would rather bury you and call you a hero than support you in a controversial situation,'' said the former SWAT team sergeant.

He should know.

Since April 14, 2001, he has heard protesters and the press accuse the cops of a "drive-by'' shooting into a crowd of peaceful protesters. He has waited patiently while promises by the city and police union were broken. He's been threatened with prison and $100,000 in legal fees, and warned that speaking up could be dangerous. But he's had enough. "How much can you take?'' he asks.

By any measure, he has taken more than his share.

He was the cop who was injured in 1995 when he wrestled with Aiken High School student Pharon Crosby, on "Rodney King'' videotape. Officer Hall still has a scar from torn ligaments in his shoulder.

That was his first look in the race mirror that distorts reality. Mr. Crosby was found guilty and had to pay an undisclosed settlement for Mr. Hall's injuries. But Mr. Hall, who is half Japanese and has dealt with bigotry all his life, was labeled the "racist white cop.''

It was just a warm-up.

Three days of violence

When the race riots erupted in April 2001, he worked 16-hour days, dodging rocks and a cinder block through the back window of his cruiser. Like other cops, he used non-lethal beanbag shotguns on rioters and looters. He describes it as "three days of getting shot at, having (stuff) thrown at you, Molotov cocktails, putting out fires between fighting with people, helicopters, looters. I saw elderly white people who were pulled from their cars and beaten, young white kids who came down Vine all bloody and beaten.''

Then on April 14, before the broken glass was swept away, Sgt. Hall was assigned to lead a Swat "field force,'' to protect the governor and other VIPs at the funeral of the young black man whose shooting by a cop triggered the riots.

They were ordered to clear a blocked intersection near the church, he said. "Our unit was specifically designed for that kind of situation, to respond rapidly, take care of it and get the heck outta there so you're not a target.''

They ordered the crowd to disperse. But some protesters advanced, yelling obscenities, he said. One man stooped as if to pick up a rock, and the cops opened fire with 12-gauge shotguns that were loaded with inaccurate but non-lethal beanbags.

A woman from Louisville and two local girls were hit and injured. Mr. Hall said he would have called an ambulance if he had seen them. "I didn't see any women or any children. I scanned the area. There was nobody on the ground that needed attention. The intersection was cleared, so we left. I didn't think anything of it.''

The "peaceful crowd'' was not peaceful. The "drive-by'' was a tactic approved by his supervisors, Mr. Hall said. "We were doing stuff like this all week. Why was this any different?''

The state troopers were quickly cleared. But the local cops were put on the rack of race politics. U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors threatened them with 23 years in prison unless they changed their testimony, Mr. Hall said.

"You almost have to entertain it to protect your family,'' he said. "But no, I decided I would not. I didn't do anything wrong. If I re-testified, then I would be lying.''

None of the cops folded.

Unsettling conduct

William Gustavson, a former Cincinnati safety director who represented another cop in the case, said the feds "wanted to convict some cops in Cincinnati to appease the community.''

"I found their conduct very unsettling.''

Mr. Hall ran up legal bills of $17,600. Then the feds dropped it. In December, the Halls finally received a letter from Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd, saying that "no federal prosecution should be initiated in this matter.''

Publicly, the feds made excuses. But Mr. Gustavson says they had no case. The drive-by shooting by rogue cops was an exaggeration.

Mr. Hall retired last January with a post-traumatic stress disability. He says he just didn't care about his job anymore. He had severe chest pains and constant worries about losing his house and going to prison.

He is coaching, spending time with his kids and trying to start a new career at age 42. But he can't close the book on his last one.

"I am emotionally, financially and professionally fried,'' he said. "I deal with it every day.''

The city paid $236,000, plus attorneys' fees, to the victims hit by beanbags. The cops are still waiting.

"I was just doing my job,'' Mr. Hall said. "Don't ask me to deal with the violence of your riots and not support me.''

He may be the only one with the courage to talk. But he speaks for many cops.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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