By Jane Prendergast
Enquirer staff writer
Cincinnati's independent police oversight agency believes three police officers used excessive force in the death last year of Nathaniel Jones and wants severe discipline for them.
The officers hit Jones for too long, the Citizen Complaint Authority said in recommendations released Monday night, and the obese man who'd ingested PCP and cocaine was no longer resisting when he was on his hands and knees.
Officers could have backed off and waited out the situation, the authority concluded.
"There came a time when Mr. Jones, in our opinion had been subdued ... and could not be considered a threat,'' said Wendell "Pete'' France, executive director of the complaint authority. "This incident is clearly the result of several tragic mistakes.''
In addition, the authority concluded that the three officers and four others failed to follow correct procedure in leaving Jones lying on his stomach too long and failing to recognize that he was in danger of asphyxiating. It recommended retraining for all seven officers.
Jones, 41, died in the parking lot of a White Castle restaurant in North Avondale in November after a struggle with officers.
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About the board
Cincinnati's Citizen Complaint Authority was established in 2002 as part of the Collaborative and U.S. Department of Justice agreements in one attempt to improve police-community relations. Its executive director is appointed by the city manager, while the seven board members are appointed by the mayor. The authority investigates major uses of force by officers; shots fired; all deaths in custody; and complaints of excessive force, unreasonable searches and seizures, discrimination, violations of police procedure and the improper pointing of guns.
Investigators' findings: Completed within 90 days, except in cases where the executive director allows more time. The executive director makes recommendations to the full board, which in turn makes recommendations to the city manager and police chief for possible action or changes to police procedures.
How to complain: By phone, mail, fax or in person, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., at Two Centennial Plaza, Suite 150, 805 Central Ave., downtown, 352-1600. Fax: 352-3158.
The struggle was captured on cruiser and surveillance cameras and broadcast repeatedly on television, thrusting Cincinnati and its police department back into the national spotlight with questions about officers' treatment of black suspects.
The case has been the most high-profile yet for the Citizen Complaint Authority, created in 2002 as part of the Collaborative and U.S. Department of Justice agreements that ended a yearlong investigation of the department prompted by the April 2001 riots.
The authority's board, after asking questions for more than a half hour, approved France's report. Two of the seven board members, John Eby and Justin Wolterman, voted against the excessive force allegation, but the recommendation of improper procedure was unanimous.
Some members of the audience clapped when France said he thought the force was excessive. The recommendations will go to City Manager Valerie Lemmie in the next couple of days, France said. It is up to Lemmie to decide whether to follow the recommendations and take disciplinary action.
France stressed that the authority's investigation found no malice in the officers' actions.
"I would like to think (Jones' death) was preventable,'' he said. "Hopefully, from these mistakes, we can all learn something and that this doesn't happen again.''
The Police Department will review the report and write a response, said Assistant Chief Richard Janke. The department's internal investigation is not finished, he said.
Members of the department's training and inspections staffs attended the meeting, as did both of Chief Tom Streicher's assistant chiefs. Streicher was not at the meeting.
Councilmen Christopher Smitherman and David Crowley attended the meeting, but said they wanted more time to review the report before commenting.
Sgt. Harry Roberts, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, continued to insist the officers involved did nothing wrong.
"I'm shocked and angry." he said. "These police officers did a very good job in this situation."
Late Monday, he was in the process of calling Officers James Pike, Baron Osterman and Guy Abrams, the three accused of excessive force, to "tell them and let them know that we are 100 percent behind them, and to let them know that this is one small part of the investigation.''
Those three officers also were accused of violating proper procedure, as were Officers Thomas Slade, Joehonny Reese and Jay Johnstone and Sgt. James Waites.
"It's time to stop blaming the police for the wrongdoings of everyone else,'' Roberts said. "Believe it or not, most of the time, the police do the right thing.''
The NAACP also has said officers should have backed up and let Jones continue swinging until he was tired. The group had called the incident another example of a police department out of control.
The authority's report said Jones remained on his stomach for 42 seconds after he was handcuffed. The officers told investigators part of that time was taken up by them just trying to catch their breath after the struggle. One of them realized Jones was not breathing and several then rolled him over.
Firefighters, who left the scene at one point, returned to start giving medical attention to Jones two minutes and 52 seconds after he was handcuffed.
Attorney Ken Lawson has discussed filing a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Jones' family, but has not yet done so.
The authority's report also included more recommendations for changes in policy and training, including:
Change the police training bulletin about positional asphyxia to say that a handcuffed person should be taken off his or her stomach immediately after the handcuffs go on. The policy now says "as soon as possible.''
Review the department's Mental Health Response Team, which is called when officers believe someone is exhibiting signs of a mental health condition. The authority called the policy too vague, and recommended adding more officers to the team, certifying all patrol supervisors and writing clear guidelines for officers to follow when a Mental Health Response Team colleague is unavailable.
Require homicide detectives investigating officer-involved deaths to interview the pathologist who performed the autopsy before presenting their findings to the prosecutor. Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, who performed Jones' autopsy, said that did not happen in this case, the report said.
Pfalzgraf ruled that Jones' heart gave out because of the stress of the struggle. Probable positional asphyxia was an underlying diagnosis. Morbid obesity, heart disease and ingestion of PCP and cocaine were contributing factors.
The incident began about 5:45 a.m. Nov. 30 when White Castle workers called for paramedics because they thought something was wrong with Jones, who was talking nonsense, dancing and marching around the parking lot.
When police arrived and approached him, Jones lunged at officers and the fight started. When it was over, he was handcuffed and left lying on his stomach.
Jones was a classic example, France said, of the type of suspect the officers should have seen was an candidate for positional asphyxia - involved in a protracted struggle, obese and on his stomach.
France, a retired Baltimore police officer, said he empathized with the officers involved.
"I've been there,'' he said, "many times.''
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