I-Team investigation: Can officers still serve after they're caught being dishonest?

Over the last six months, the WCPO I-team has collected records from 40 different police departments and reviewed thousands of disciplinary cases involving officers. Our motives are simple: We want to make sure the people who protect us and enforce our laws are worthy of the high level of trust the public gives them. Read more about this project and why we are doing it here.

HAMILTON, Ohio -- Officer Ray Nichting drove his police vehicle into the oncoming lane, with no lights or sirens on, as he chased a Jeep down city streets.

It was shortly before 1 a.m. on Jan. 27. His dash camera video from that night shows speeds exceeding 70 mph, though he said on the radio the Jeep was only going 25 to 35 mph.

In fact, he said the pursuit never happened in the first place -- both on the radio that night and in a note to his supervisors a week later.

Nichting didn't admit to the pursuit until almost two weeks later, once he knew Lt. Michael Waldreck, a shift commander, knew about it.

The Hamilton Police Department disciplined Nichting for violating its policies on pursuits and truthfulness. In his disciplinary report, Waldreck said the dishonesty is what bothered him the most "because trust is very important in the law enforcement profession."

The I-Team wanted to know what consequences law enforcement officers face when they're dishonest, both in what they tell supervisors and what they write in official police reports.

We reviewed thousands of disciplinary records from 40 police departments serving the Tri-State, focusing on the agencies in seven metro area counties in Ohio and Kentucky. Reporters studied thousands of incidents involving police in large and small law enforcement agencies.

We weren't sure what we would find when we began collecting these records, but our goal was making sure the public was aware of how law enforcement agencies handle discipline.

We identified 37 incidents of dishonesty among law enforcement employees over the past four years. Penalties ranged from counseling, where a supervisor talks with the employee about the behavior, to termination.

 

In Hamilton County, the prosecutor's office keeps a list of three dozen officers whose credibility could be called into question at trial. Police departments have to tell the prosecutor when an officer is found to be dishonest, and the prosecutor has to share that information with defense attorneys.

The issue is so serious Prosecutor Joe Deters recommends police departments consider a strict policy to terminate officers who are untruthful, whether in their reports, testimony or interviews.

Despite that warning, many still are employed in law enforcement, often for the same department that disciplined them in the first place.

Nichting is still with the Hamilton Police Department. And its chief says he didn't even tell the Butler County prosecutor about Nichting's dishonesty.

'We would like them to never lie'

Our records show, during the last four years, at least four of the police departments we reviewed fired officers found to be dishonest. The list includes the Warren County Sheriff's Office, Sharonville police and state police in Ohio and Indiana. In Fairfield, a disciplinary report recommended termination; the officer resigned.

But our investigation reveals that most local officers found to be dishonest by their own departments, and those caught in situations raising serious questions about their integrity, rarely get fired.

In Middletown, an internal police investigation found Officer Andrew Minic at first denied using force on a suspect in June 2016, even though he later admitted intentionally kicking the man in the head. The department dropped its case against the suspect because he was arrested based on a false accusation, according to the internal report.

The man arrested, shown here after Minic kicked him in the head. (Photo from Middletown Police Dept.)

In a police report, Minic said he lied because he "supports his children and fears losing his job."

The Middletown Police Department disciplined Minic for violating policies on use of force and departmental reports, but not his lack of truthfulness. He was suspended for a day. Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw allowed him to use holiday pay to cover it.

Muterspaw and City Manager Doug Adkins initially agreed to talk with us; then later, they refused. We asked Muterspaw if he told the Butler County prosecutor about Minic's dishonesty; we haven't heard back.

WCPO found 37 cases in which investigators alleged dishonesty in disciplinary records, including officers who allegedly gave false statements to investigators or bosses. Here's what happened in each of those cases:

  • Six officers were terminated. A seventh was recommended for termination, but it's not clear from the records whether that actually happened.
  • One officer resigned.
  • Eighteen officers were suspended.
  • Five received counseling.
  • Three received reprimands.
  • On three of the 37 cases, no disciplinary action was described in the records.

"We want cops to be honest," said Lawrence Travis, professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati's School of Criminal Justice, who has studied the city of Cincinnati's approach to police discipline and edited an international journal on police management.

"There are jobs like sales people where you can't outright lie but you can at least bend the truth," Travis said. "Cops are in a job where we would like them to never lie."

 

'Irreparably damaged by his actions'

When Officer Adam Wong stopped a woman for running a red light, she told him she thought it was yellow. She told him she's a careful driver.

But Wong claimed he'd reviewed his cruiser's video footage when he was writing the ticket, and that it showed she broke the law. He even told the woman she could subpoena the video if she wanted, according to a letter from her husband.

Three weeks later, in mayor's court, Wong testified there was no video of the incident because his cruiser that day had no in-car video system. The woman challenged him, but he insisted she was wrong.

A magistrate convicted her of failing to obey a traffic signal.

"Is honesty important? Hell yeah it is." - Mike Allen, former Hamilton County prosecutor

Afterward, the husband's letter prompted Sharonville police to launch an internal investigation. It found, among other things, that Wong's cruiser did have a video system, that he didn't review the footage as he'd claimed -- and that the woman was innocent.

The magistrate overturned her conviction.

According to internal records, Sharonville's police chief at the time didn't think Wong was intentionally dishonest. Instead, he found Wong violated other department policies about competence, fostering a good public image and knowing department regulations. He recommended Wong be suspended two days. The case isn't included in our statistics, because it fell outside the time range we examined.

But years later, internal investigators thought Wong might have committed theft in office by falsifying a time slip for his pay. They said he repeatedly lied to them through the course of three interviews. The investigators, both lieutenants, thought "Wong's integrity and credibility as a Sharonville Police Officer has been irreparably damaged by his actions," Chief Aaron Blasky wrote.

A hearing officer, Sharonville Fire Chief Ralph Hammonds, sustained 29 counts of dishonesty and six counts of insubordination. He dropped the two most serious counts, that Wong might have broken the law.

The department fired Wong in January 2014, three months after placing him on administrative leave. In Blasky's report, he said Wong had several other disciplinary issues -- including serious questions about his competence and honesty -- leading up to the termination.

Chief Blasky wrote that he agreed with the investigators.

"Is honesty important?" former Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen said. "Hell yeah it is."

For example, falsification of a report can be a misdemeanor criminal offense. Allen thinks departments should have a prosecutor review such cases.

"So much of law enforcement, criminal justice these days, for better or worse, is all about CYA," Allen said, referring to the slang acronym for "cover your ass." "And if I were a police administrator, I think that I'd want that CYA of having the prosecutor at least look at it."

The four terminations came in some of the most serious cases of dishonesty. Allen said that's sometimes the best solution in lieu of prosecution. The officer might also be required to give up his or her law enforcement certificate.

"They're giving up their livelihood," he said. "They're giving up their ability to feed their families. It is a big punishment."

'This statement that you made was not true'

Hamilton Police Chief Craig Bucheit said he thinks it's unfair to raise questions about Nichting's actions and his statements in the weeks after. The officer admitted he was wrong and the department disciplined him, Bucheit argued.

"When you want to drag them through the mud and rake them over the coals, I think it's shameful," he told us.

We looked at Waldreck's disciplinary report to see what happened, and to see what Nichting's superiors said about his actions.

Video shows the pursuit, Nichting's speed, and when he turned on his lights and sirens:

 

That night in January, Nichting was trying to initiate a traffic stop on the Jeep near Shuler and Hensley avenues. It slowed down, and someone threw an object out the window.

According to the disciplinary report, Nichting stopped to let his partner out to get the object, then continued following to handle the traffic stop.

Here's how Waldreck explained what followed, all on city streets:

  • About 40 seconds after Nichting tried to stop the Jeep, he told dispatch it wasn't stopping. He said it was turning down another street, and he wasn't pursuing it -- but he did.
  • At one point, he went left of center with only his lights, not sirens, activated, to get around traffic.
  • His speed reached 82 mph.
  • Nichting went left of center to get around traffic again, using no overhead lights and sirens. And there was a car coming toward him.
  • About 2 minutes after he said he wasn't in a pursuit, a sergeant came on the radio and asked about the Jeep's speed; Nichting said it was going 25-35 mph. But just before that, he was going 71 mph, and seconds later, he was going 57 mph.

Nichting said he later found the Jeep abandoned and had it towed.

On Feb. 3, a sergeant asked Nichting to write an email about a complaint from a man arrested for disorderly conduct. The man, who eventually withdrew his complaint, showed up outside the police station with the Jeep's owner.

"When you want to drag them through the mud and rake them over the coals, I think it's shameful." - Craig Bucheit, Hamilton police chief

According to Nichting, the man screamed insults and profanities; Nichting's dash camera recorded those comments.

In his note about the complaint, Nichting said he thought the man was the driver, but he'd been unable to follow the Jeep on Jan. 27 because of its erratic driving.

"This statement that you made was not true," Waldreck wrote. "Your mobile video showed that you did continue to follow this vehicle and you also participated in the same unsafe driving that you described the suspect doing."

On Feb. 8, 2017, Nichting sent an email to supervisors, saying that he'd continued the pursuit and apologizing.

His discipline came Feb. 20.

"What concerns me is that I didn't get a true statement from you until 2-8-17 when you were requested to write an e-mail explaining why you continue (sic) to follow this vehicle," Waldreck wrote. "The true story did not come from you until you knew that I was aware of your pursuit."

For his dishonesty, the department gave Nichting a written reprimand. It was the only disciplinary violation we found in his personnel file.

He generally has high marks in his performance evaluations.

For officers with an overall good record, Allen said it might make sense to give some leeway.

Bucheit insists Nichting was held accountable.

"They learned from it," he said, "and we've moved on."

'Brady list'

The Hamilton County prosecutor's list of 36 officers is sometimes called a "Brady list." That name refers to a U.S. Supreme Court case that found prosecutors must disclose all evidence that could be favorable to a defendant -- including whether a police officer on a case has credibility issues.

According to a letter Deters wrote to police chiefs, that could include any:

"criminal convictions, pending criminal charges, disciplinary findings of dishonesty or disciplinary findings that necessarily involve dishonesty. Incidents demonstrating bias or improper use of force must also be disclosed."

The letter, which Deters sends out from time to time as a reminder, also has a warning: "Experience in other states has shown that civil lawsuits have often resulted from the failure to provide this information." In other words: Tell the prosecutor's office or a criminal defendant could sue you.

Of the 36 names on the list, updated in February:

  • The Cincinnati Police Department didn't fire its six officers disciplined for dishonesty. That includes an officer who was found to have made false statements to investigators about use of force, and another who submitted a false report designed to mislead.
  • Out of 12 total cases involving issues of honesty across five departments, Deters' records show only three officers were fired: Wong, an officer from Colerain Township and an officer from Springfield Township. Internal records from the Colerain Township Police Department show its officer's firing was overturned in arbitration; five months later, the township fired him anyway for another matter.
  • Another Colerain officer resigned after an internal investigation determined he inappropriately accessed a confidential police database. He went to work for another department, in Butler County, and has since resigned from there, too.
 

One big problem with police dishonesty is that it limits the usefulness of individual officers, said Travis, the UC expert in criminal justice. In some cases, a disciplinary record that includes violations for dishonesty might be easily explained to a jury, he said. But in others, it could be enough for a jury to acquit.

"If I'm a chief of police and I have somebody on the Brady list, what do I do with him? If I'm in a small town and I have one officer on patrol each shift, I'm going to put this guy on patrol but I'm going to hope he doesn't have to arrest somebody," Travis said. "If it gets to the point where they can't do the job, then I think you have justification for terminating them."

WCPO web editor Abby Anstead, as well as freelance journalists Laura Consolo, Kevin Eigelbach, Hannah Hagedorn and Roxanna Swift, contributed to this report.

Explore the data for yourself below: