Monday, August 05, 2002

Police discipline unequal

Records show blacks get more punishment

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For years, Cincinnati's African-American police officers have been subjected to more discipline and harsher penalties than white officers.

        Even though African-Americans make up 29 percent of the department, a Cincinnati Enquirer analysis of police records between 1997 and 2001 shows that blacks got more than half of all serious disciplines.

        Records show that black officers were more likely to be terminated than whites during that period and their suspensions accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total hours in punishment handed down by supervisors. Records also show that some white officers received less punishment than blacks for similar violations.

        Police officials don't dispute the numbers - and even acknowledge the disparity - but they contend the breakdowns of discipline don't indicate any racial bias.

        This doesn't surprise African-American police officers and activists, who say the numbers show a pattern of discrimination that police administrators for more than three decades have dismissed merely as anecdotal.

        Nor does it surprise police union officials. They say their attempts to raise concerns about racial disparity in the department have been ignored, resulting in an unfair discipline process that allows some officers to be treated differently than others.

        “No, I'm not surprised by it. It upsets me. It has upset me for years,” says Fraternal Order of Police lawyer Don Hardin. “I know there is a disparity problem in the department, and just one of those disparities is race.”

        Until last month, the department's internal race problems were topics for station house discussions. The issues were mostly kept private while officers put on a uniform response to overcome public accusations of racial profiling that sparked the April 2001 riots and led to a federal lawsuit, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, an economic boycott of downtown and two landmark legal settlements.

        That changed when the department's highest-ranking African-American, Lt. Col. Ron Twitty, was put on paid administrative leave.

        One of four assistant chiefs and a 29-year veteran of the department, Col. Twitty lost his police powers on July 12 amid allegations that he lied about a wreck that did about $3,300 in damage to the city-owned Ford Taurus he drives.

        Black officers protest that Col. Twitty was treated unfairly and with disrespect because of his race. They say that he is not getting the same breaks as white officers who have recently faced discipline, including those involved in the deaths of two African-Americans in the past two years.

        Police Spec. Scotty Johnson, president of the Sentinel Police Association of black officers, says the discipline numbers underscore what happened to Col. Twitty and help to explain why so many African-American officers are upset.

        “(The disparity) continues to create a divide within the police department,” he says. “We're going to continue to be behind the 8-ball as black officers.”

Truth or smokescreen?

        Police administrators contend the Enquirer's research doesn't go deep enough.

        They say the racial breakdown doesn't mean anything because it doesn't take into account factors such as the age of the officers, where they are assigned, what shift they work and how long they have been on the force.

        They also say each discipline case has its own set of facts.

        “Without knowing the underlying factors in each case, you can't make a judgment about the reason for the disparity,” Assistant Police Chief Rick Biehl says. “Often the most simple explanation is not the right one.”

        Officer Johnson's response is curt: “That's a smokescreen.” He says the numbers speak for themselves.

        “If you take into account the other factors, it still comes out clear as day. It's been going on for years,” he says. “The police department has never, ever dealt with race honestly, and that goes for the city of Cincinnati as well. Until everyone sits down and talks, we will continue to have this smokescreen.”

        Of the 1,015 officers on the police force, 297 are African-American. Records show:

        • 166 officers were suspended or terminated between 1997 and May 2001. Of those, 90 were black, 73 were white and three were of other races.

        • Black officers received 64 percent of the total hours of suspension. Out of 5,396 suspension hours, blacks got 3,492 hours and whites got 1,904 hours.

        • Black officers made up 60 percent of the terminations before going through the appeal process.

        • Whites received the most lenient form of suspension - taking away vacation hours - seven times more than blacks.

        “Your findings support the knowledge that there is serious bias in the police department,” says local NAACP president Norma Holt Davis. “There is institutional racism.”

        She says discrimination is not necessarily overt, but built into the system.

        One example of that, she says, is the imbalance of black supervisors in the department. In 2001, 23 percent of police sergeants, 15 percent of lieutenants and 6 percent of captains were African-American, according to police statistics.

        “I believe there is a correlation. It has always been Caucasians who are doing the discipline,” Ms. Holt Davis says. “There has to be a point where there is an increase in the number of African-Americans who are promoted.”

        A 20-year-old federal court order requires a third of all police recruits be minorities. While the percentage of black officers is relatively high compared with other big cities in the region, it falls short of matching Cincinnati's African-American population of 43 percent.

The discipline matrix

        Asst. Chief Biehl acknowledges that the department has struggled with consistency in discipline, but says this doesn't necessarily show a racial bias. He says the city created a system two years ago to ensure that officers are punished fairly. Under this so-called matrix, specific punishments are handed down for each violation of rules.

        “There is a tendency to presume some form of bias,” he says. “Not everything in life is universal.”

        That is true for two white officers and one black officer who received suspensions in 1997 for traffic accidents. A comparison of those cases shows that the black officer received the highest suspension.

        Officer Orlando Smith was pursuing a vehicle through the West End when he ran a red light and hit another car. He was cited on three procedural violations: Conduct unbecoming; the emergency operation of police vehicle policy; and failure to operate a vehicle in a safe manner. His record showed no previous accidents, but he had been disciplined for excessive absences and missing a court date. Officer Smith was suspended for 40 hours.

        Officer Keith Fangman got into a similar accident when he ran a red light while attempting to assist officers chasing a suspect who fled on foot in Over-the-Rhine. A supervisor wrote that this was “Officer Fangman's third negligent auto accident during the past three years.” He was cited on two procedural violations: The emergency operation of a police vehicle policy; and failure to operate a vehicle in a safe manner. Officer Fangman, who later became one of the most high-profile presidents of the police union, was suspended for 24 hours.

        When Officer Kathleen Ferenczy struck a pedestrian walking in a cross walk, it was her fourth negligent accident. She was cited on one procedural violation: Failure to operate a vehicle in a safe manner. She was suspended for eight hours.

        “You can bring it to their attention and point out the disparity, but it takes two to tango,” says Mr. Hardin, the FOP lawyer. “We're aware of disparity across the board.”

        He dismisses the matrix as ineffective and says it has not prevented uneven discipline from occurring, even among white officers. Mr. Hardin points out that the matrix hasn't helped the city win a single discipline case that has gone to arbitration. Time after time, arbitrators have pointed to inconsistent discipline among all officers as reasons for overturning suspensions and terminations against officers.

        The latest case was just last month, when an arbitrator ordered the city to rehire Officer Terrance Dobbins, an African-American officer who had been fired for allegedly punching someone in the face.

        Numbers show that when officers appeal punishments and fight to have disciplines reduced, the racial breakdowns become nearly equal, with blacks winning reductions in 54 percent of the cases and whites winning reductions in 59 percent.

A double-edged sword

               Numerous individual officers would not talk about discipline cases or disparity in the department for this story, saying the issue was too sensitive and could cause them problems. One officer described it as a double-edged sword: If he talked about the disparity, he might anger supervisors; if he didn't say enough, then he could upset other officers.

        Despite recent criticism of the police union by the Sentinels - with members taking a no-confidence vote in the FOP, saying it had failed to vigorously defend Col. Twitty - the two groups agree on the department's failure to treat all officers equal and share disdain over the matrix.

        “The smokescreen they are using now is the matrix,” Officer Johnson says. “The real question is who gets to enter the discipline system.”

        The Sentinel group was formed in 1968 by a group of black officers in response to unequal treatment within the department. It has successfully challenged hiring practices and over the years has won a number of social and legal victories for its members.

        In 1995, the Sentinels issued an “indictment” of the police department that alleged discrimination. It prompted a five-month investigation of the department by a commission that recommended, among other things, an audit of the division's “archaic disciplinary system” to assure fairness.

        “They never really got it improved,” Sentinel lawyer Al Gerhardstein says. “Your findings confirm long-standing problems. It's been a problem for 20 years, now let's solve it.”

        He says many solutions have been discussed over the years, but instead of being acted upon they were debated. And it wasn't long before good ideas became points of negotiation during contract talks, and neither the police union nor the city would budge.

        City Manager Valerie Lemmie says the discipline numbers are a concern.

        She says the Sentinel members came to her after she took over the position in April. After hearing their complaints about disparities, she told them: “Tell me where I can help. If there are specific issues that you're aware of, let us know before we have a disciplinary case.”

        She cautions that she needs more information before concluding that disparities are caused by racial discrimination. She wants to know the rank, tenure and assignment of officers who receive more frequent discipline.

        Also of interest: who's doling out the discipline. Because the chief acts only on recommendations from an officer's commander, different discipline could simply mean that some commanders are more lenient than others.

        Many of these questions can't be immediately answered, but Ms. Lemmie and police supervisors say they soon will be under the city's landmark lawsuit settlement and its agreement with the Department of Justice. Those settlements call for sweeping police reforms, including developing a system to analyze and track officer behavior, disciplines, citizen complaints, attendance and use of force.

        Ms. Lemmie says she is particularly interested in discipline cases since 1999, because it's unfair to ask Police Chief Tom Streicher to account for personnel decisions made before his tenure.

        “If we find this to be true, then we have an opportunity to look at the system and change it. If we do this right, we can break open some credibility issues within the system,” she says. “"This kind of information gives us a real opportunity to change the culture.”

        But Officer Johnson is skeptical.

        “We'll keep plugging away, but it is discouraging,” he says. “It is 2002 and we are still dealing with the same issues we were 34 years ago. What does that tell you?”


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