Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Cincinnati officers indicted

They're accused in abduction, assault

By Marie McCain,
and Jane Prendergast,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two Cincinnati police officers accused of grabbing a convicted drug dealer in the middle of the night, spraying him with chemical irritant and leaving him stranded in a city park were indicted on felony charges Tuesday.

        Spc. Michael Mercer and Officer Robert Litman have each been charged with felony abduction and misdemeanor counts of assault and unlawful restraint. If convicted they could each face more than 5 1/2 years in prison. They are the sixth and seventh city cops to face criminal allegations in the past 18 months.

   Officer Robert Litman: 38, a 10-year veteran of the Cincinnati Police Department, was a patrol officer in District 3 until the incident. He was reassigned to the police impound lot during the investigation. His personnel jacket shows a 240-hour suspension in 1995 for failure of good behavior, a 40-hour suspension in 1997 for neglect of duty and a written reprimand for missing court in 1996.
   Spc. Mike Mercer: 34, a Cincinnati officer for 13 years, was reassigned from patrolling District 3 to the police telephone crime-reporting unit after the incident. He was counseled in 1999 for flipping a coin to determine whether to arrest a suspect and in 2001 for entering a residence without a warrant; reprimanded in 2001 for running a stop sign during a pursuit, and in 2000 for playing a joke on new police recruits by sending them on fake runs.
   Courtney Evans: The 22-year-old, who lives part-time with his mother in North Fairmount, has had a lot of contact with Cincinnati police officers, including Spc. Mercer, who wrote him a ticket in November for a pedestrian violation on the same block of Borden Avenue from which he said the officers forcibly removed him in April.
    Mr. Evans was sent to prison in January 2001 for selling crack cocaine, and stayed there until October. He spent six months in prison in 1999 after police found crack in his car. His other run-ins with law enforcement included misdemeanor convictions for drug abuse, public gaming and obstructing official business. He was fined $160 in June for possession of an open flask and possession of drugs and paid $65 this month after pleading no contest to misdemeanor drug abuse. He faces trial in August for assault, for allegedly hitting a woman five days after he said the officers abducted him.
        “This is a complaint that was not and will not be taken lightly,” Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said Tuesday. “In our society, no one's freedom is to be unlawfully restrained and no one's movement is ever to be unlawfully controlled.”

        The charges stem from an April 13 incident in which Courtney Evans, 22, said he was abducted by the officers from a South Cumminsville street, driven to Mount Airy Forest, sprayed with irritant and left there. He was found about 2:30 a.m. by another Cincinnati police officer, who reported the allegations.

        Shortly after the accusations surfaced, the officers were taken off patrol and stripped of their badges and guns. Following Tuesday's indictments, warrants were issued for their arrest.

        Police policy requires that they have a pre-disciplinary hearing with Chief Tom Streicher within five days. Then, the chief will decide how their duty status should change. In previous cases, officers indicted on felonies have been suspended without pay.

        Fraternal Order of Police First Vice President Keith Fangman said the officers “deserve the benefit of the doubt.”

        “These officers are innocent until proven guilty ... and absent any finding of guilt we will continue to support our brother officers. People need to remember an indictment is simply an accusation. It is not a guilty verdict,” he added.

        The alleged abduction took place hours after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft visited Cincinnati to sign an agreement affecting sweeping policy and operational changes within the Cincinnati Police Department.

        That collaborative initiative came in the wake of a yearlong Justice Department investigation into police policy and practices following the April 2001 riots. The landmark agreement deals, in part, with treatment of suspects and when to use chemical irritant.

        Mr. Evans — who spent most of last year in prison for selling crack cocaine and is awaiting trial on a misdemeanor assault charge — has filed a federal lawsuit against the officers, accusing them of violating his civil rights.

        In 1999, he spent six months in prison after police found crack in his car. His other run-ins with law enforcement have included misdemeanor convictions for drug abuse, public gaming and obstruction of official business.

        Tuesday's indictments mean prosecutors must once again try to convince a Hamilton County jury to convict a police officer for on-the-job behavior. Three Cincinnati police officers have been acquitted in the past year of charges related to the deaths of suspects they were attempting to arrest.

        But experts said the Mercer-Litman case is different because the officers apparently were not attempting to make an arrest or defend themselves.

        “In a typical shooting or beating case, officers have some claim that they were somehow threatened and were justified in what they did,” said Sam Walker, a University of Nebraska criminal justice professor who writes and lectures about police reform. “It's hard to imagine a justification for this.”

        Ken Lawson, Mr. Evans' attorney, agrees.

        “There was absolutely no reason to even bother Courtney,” he said. “They did not communicate to dispatch or their fellow officers why they were putting this young man in their car and it was never recorded, which is different than trying to arrest somebody for an outstanding warrant.

        “It makes the case for the state of Ohio stronger. ...These officers were doing something that — in my opinion — was intentional and malicious,” Mr. Lawson added.

        Enquirer reporter Dan Horn contributed to this report.



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