Sunday, January 18, 2004

This 'N word' may not be the one some think

Peter Bronson

On the night I rode with Cincinnati Police Officer Jeff Butler, I watched him jump out and chase down a 14-year-old kid selling crack, then calmly walk through an angry crowd to arrest another guy who was shouting threats and waving his fists like a lunatic pro wrestler on angel dust.

The guy yelled, "C'mon," and Butler didn't hesitate for a heartbeat. He walked straight up to the guy, squirted him with pepper spray and it was all over - a one-round decision in a ring lit by helicopter spotlights and the blue-and-red flashbulbs on squad cars.

During the midnight hours we rode together in Over-the-Rhine in 1994, I never heard Butler use "the N word." Even if he were that kind of cop, he'd be crazy to say something like that in front of the press. That would be as stupid as spouting a racial slur on tape in front of internal investigations: instant career suicide.

I don't think he did that, either. But I'm as outnumbered as Butler was in the street that night. Councilman Chris Smitherman is absolutely, 100 percent sure Butler said "the N word" in an offhand comment caught on tape during an interview with two internal investigations cops and the police union president.

The tape is five years old. The critical word is so inaudible it has been sent to the Secret Service for "enhancement'' and study. Experts who have analyzed it say it's inconclusive. Some hear it, others don't.

I listened two dozen times, and I can see how people hear the worst. But I hear "native." According to friends and cops who have worked with him, "native" was Butler's cop slang for bad guys - white and black.

Councilman John Cranley said different versions of the tape may not be as clear. So he invited me to listen to the Smitherman tape, which came from the cop-bashing alternative weekly CityBeat. It sounded like the tape I got from the Cincinnati Police. I still heard "native.''

In fact, I've heard "the N word'' much more clearly in rap music that bellows from passing cars at a stoplight. I know what it sounds like because I've heard it from elderly whites and in casual conversation among blacks.

But it's not at all clear what Butler said, and he's not talking. I not only listened, I watched the tape. And nobody in the room flinched an eyelash when Butler said whatever he said. They didn't wince, blink or even pause a split-second.

Try saying that word in any room of people and see what happens. On second thought, don't try this at home.

"Those investigators are trained to look at that kind of thing," said former Cincinnati Police Officer Eric Hall. "But there wasn't any reaction. An eyebrow didn't even lift."

Hall knows what he's talking about. He was falsely accused of using "the N word'' during a violent struggle with teenager Pharon Crosby in 1995. "Do I believe everyone in that room was so callous they wouldn't react? No way," he said.

If the tape is so clear, it wouldn't take the Secret Service to figure out what was said five years ago. But Smitherman - who got elected by promising "racial reconciliation'' - has already jumped out to spritz Butler with racism.

"How many more good police officers are going to leave?" Hall asked, shaking his head at the insanity.

Apparently, only suspects, not cops, are entitled to a reasonable doubt. Cops are expected to walk into hell and come out like angels.


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