I-Team investigation: Discipline isn't always uniform when police break the law

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.

CINCINNATI -- Corrections Officer Calvin McIntosh grabbed a man by the shirt, led him down a corridor and shoved him into a door at the Middletown City Jail.

The man, Michael Holloway, later told a police lieutenant McIntosh twisted his shirt so tightly it choked him. According to an internal investigation, he also told the lieutenant that McIntosh punched him after he was inside the cell.

"I'm thinking if I do anything at that time, my life is in danger," Holloway told the I-Team.

The internal investigation found McIntosh used excessive force. It was his 29th reported use of force in his three and a half years with the Middletown Police Department. That was more than double the incidents involving all other corrections officers -- combined.

McIntosh's performance evaluation, just a few weeks later, found he "needs improvement."

Two weeks after that, he got a raise.

Discipline for excessive force varies widely in the Tri-State, from a conversation to termination. Middletown's police chief suspended McIntosh for a day for his treatment of Holloway.

In Colerain Township, internal investigations found Officer Joseph Redmond inappropriately used a confidential police database to get personal information about two women. Prosecutors in Ohio and other states have charged officers with felonies under similar circumstances.

Instead, Redmond resigned and went to work for another local police department.

A monthslong investigation reveals huge differences in the way police departments discipline their officers for misconduct, both on and off the job.

The I-Team 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.

The records show long suspensions for some officers who were chronically overweight, but slaps on the wrist for others who used excessive force. Some were convicted of crimes; we found others engaged in behavior that could be considered criminal but were not charged or prosecuted.

"There is supposed to be something in line that polices the police," Holloway said, "but it's not working."

Criminal charges, but discipline varies

Some of the biggest differences in how departments handled disciplinary cases showed up in crimes involving alcohol. We determined 38 disciplinary cases were alcohol-related. Nearly three-quarters of those were in the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Hamilton County Deputy Bobby Colwell was drunk and causing a scene at a Monroe bar in 2016, records show. He told police he was disorderly and had two knives -- and they should arrest him. One officer told Colwell an arrest would hurt his law enforcement career.

According to a police report, Colwell replied: "It's Hamilton County. I won't get fired."

 

He was right. Colwell was arrested, booked into the Butler County Jail and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. But as he predicted, Sheriff Jim Neil did not fire him. In fact, Neil didn't even suspend the six-year veteran.

We first reported on the sheriff's discipline for alcohol-related cases in May. After that initial story, we wanted to know: How do other agencies handle similar incidents? We found a variety of approaches, but some other agencies hand out much more stringent punishment for officers who committed similar crimes.

As of last May, six Hamilton County sheriff's employees -- five deputies and one civilian -- had been charged with operating a vehicle under the influence since Neil took office in 2013. Two of those deputies were arrested for OVI twice; they pleaded down their first charge to reckless operation. The second time they were arrested, Neil didn't suspend either of them. Instead, they received written reprimands.

Neil issued written reprimands to two others, as well. And he suspended a corrections officer and a civilian employee for their OVI arrests.

No one was fired.

In the records we reviewed for the past four years, just one officer lost his job: That was Indiana State Trooper Justin Butler. In 2015, he was found to have operated a motorboat with a blood-alcohol content of .08. An internal report found Butler got belligerent with the officers who'd stopped him for going over the idle speed limit and said he'd never back up the arresting officer on calls.

 

Police discipline in general is a "mish-mash," former Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen said.

"It would be better if there was (more consistent discipline), but I don't know that it's practical to expect that," he said. "Every case is different, every police department is different."

Of the 37 other alcohol-related cases, departments issued 21 suspensions and 11 written reprimands, and provided counseling in three cases. For a case in Norwood and another in Hamilton County, the records didn't have enough information to determine the outcome.

While officers in all other cases kept their jobs, some agencies' discipline was more severe than others.

In Warren County, Sheriff Larry Sims fired Corrections Officer Andrew Ritter after the Ohio State Patrol arrested him on an OVI charge in 2015. Ritter pleaded guilty to reckless operation. During arbitration, Ritter's termination was lowered to a suspension.

"The thing about all of these police discipline situations, whether it involves criminal charges or administrative, there's no uniformity at all." - former prosecutor Mike Allen

The Florence Police Department suspended Officer Alexander White for 16 days after he got into an off-duty crash in Erlanger. It damaged his vehicle and some landscaping. Erlanger police listed alcohol as a contributing factor.

In Hamilton County, Neil and Chief Deputy Mark Schoonover said they're working within boundaries established by union rules, arbitrators and a sense of what's right based on the deputies' work history and the seriousness of their actions.

"Your reputation is everything in this work," Neil said.

But two law enforcement experts, one a civilian and the other a retired police chief, said the sheriff's discipline when it comes to drunken deputies doesn't go far enough.

If any officer is arrested for drunken driving or convicted of a misdemeanor, retired Woodlawn Police Chief Jeff Witte said he believes that officer should be suspended or fired.

Criminal justice expert Christine Cole agreed.

"It's really hard for the community to trust the police if the police can't even trust the system in which they work to be consistent and have integrity," Cole said. "It seems to me that there's a lack of that in this agency."

'He should have been charged with an assault'

Our review found 72 "use of force" violations among 18 agencies since 2013. Nearly all involved complaints of excessive force -- officers kicking or punching suspects, slamming inmates into floors or walls, or in one case, grabbing an inmate by his genitals.

Even when investigators determined an officer violated policy, using excessive force to hurt suspects or inmates, none was criminally charged or fired.

 
Video recorded Holloway through the booking process.

On Feb. 5, 2016, Holloway was in Middletown City Jail's booking room for 2 minutes, 26 seconds. He was there because he failed to appear in court over a petty theft.

McIntosh's search lasted 21 seconds.

According to an internal investigation, he claimed Holloway took his hands off the door and tried to turn around. Surveillance video proved that was a lie.

McIntosh then shoved Holloway into a cell door, the video showed, then into the cell itself. Video shows McIntosh went into the cell and stayed there with Holloway for 25 seconds.

In the internal investigation, Holloway claimed McIntosh punched him in the back before video showed McIntosh slam the cell's door so hard it didn't latch shut. Holloway has chronic pain in his shoulder and back. He told McIntosh about the problem, but both Holloway and another officer said McIntosh didn't care.

"It hurt bad enough that I was crying," Holloway said. "It literally put me in tears. It put me to my knee."

Lt. Leanne Hood, who investigated McIntosh's use of force, found him guilty of an "unreasonable and unnecessary use of force" for how he grabbed Holloway's shirt and for slamming him into the door. She couldn't verify Holloway's claim McIntosh had punched him.

 
Footage showed McIntosh push Holloway into a door and then into the cell.

Middletown police suspended McIntosh for a day without pay -- but allowed him to use holiday pay so he wouldn't lose any money. The department sent him to a psychologist to see if he was mentally fit for duty; the psychologist found he was.

Less than three months after the incident at the jail, McIntosh resigned.

The police department never referred the case for an independent investigation or possible prosecution. Chief Rodney Muterspaw and City Manager Doug Adkins initially agreed to talk with us about what happened. Then later, they refused.

But Monday morning, after this story published, Adkins posted a lengthy blog post responding to WCPO's requests for information:

"We definitely make mistakes," Adkins wrote. "But according to our citizens, we don't make too many of them. Using the 8 sustained complaints, we make an average of approximately 13,551 calls between sustained complaints. I'm not sure human beings in daily stressful situations can do much better. When it does happen, we use discipline where appropriate, to correct the behavior and to prevent recurrence of the improper conduct. Where appropriate, we also remove officers from duty.

"My understanding is that WCPO wants to focus on two complaints they believe were not handled appropriately. That takes us to two incidents, more than a year old, in 108,409 calls for service in which WCPO believes we acted inappropriately. Said differently, using WCPO standards, even when we made mistakes that required discipline, we correctly handled 108,407 out of 108,409 calls for service."

Holloway said the police department refused to give him a copy of its internal investigation into what McIntosh had done to him. He only saw the report after we showed it to him.

"It's an outrage," Holloway said. "What (McIntosh) did, he should have been charged with an assault with intent, because he did everything he could to make sure that I was in pain and that I was hurting."

Documents show McIntosh's rapid sequence of discipline, then a raise, and then his resignation.

The trouble in excessive force cases is that they're difficult to prove. Allen said Ray Tensing's trial -- though he thinks Tensing was "clearly over-indicted" -- illustrates the point.

"It's not to say you have a policy -- and I wouldn't think that any prosecutor's office would have a policy of just ignoring it -- but you have to factor in what are the chances of a conviction," he said.

We were able determine how officers were disciplined in 38 of the 72 cases that involved use of force:

  • 17 cases resulted in some form of verbal interaction, including reprimands and counseling.
  • Written reprimands were issued to 11 officers.
  • Nine were suspended -- eight of them for four days or less. One Hamilton County Corrections officer was permitted to use accumulated leave time to cover his 15-day suspension.
  • One corrections officer was headed for likely termination, but he resigned first.
  • Six officers were completely exonerated. Many of the officers who were disciplined were cleared of using excessive force, but departmental reviews found fault with their use of language during the incidents or how they followed procedures after.
  • In at least 28 of the 72 incidents, the public records obtained by WCPO are not complete enough to determine how departments evaluated allegations of excessive force.

Possible crimes, but no charges

In Covington, Florence Police Officer Samantha Riley was at a Waffle House early on the morning of April 18, 2013. She'd gone there with her wife and a group of friends after spending the night at two bars.

At about 2 a.m., her wife got into an argument outside the restaurant, where she'd gone to smoke a cigarette. Covington police arrested her wife on two charges: public intoxication and disorderly conduct.

"Both Covington officers stated that if she wasn't a police officer she too would have been arrested." - Florence Police disciplinary record

Riley cried and pleaded for the officer to be lenient with her wife, a friend later told her. Riley didn't remember doing that but admitted she was intoxicated.

The friend said one of the officers was rude, at which point Riley got angry: She called him a "fag" and an "idiot" several times. The officers told Riley to leave -- that if she didn't, she'd be arrested for her disruptive behavior -- but she didn't comply.

According to the Florence Police Department's disciplinary record, she told them several times she was a police officer. They even called a supervisor in case they had to arrest her.

Eventually, she left.

"Both Covington officers stated that if she wasn't a police officer she too would have been arrested," Riley's disciplinary record says. She signed that document a week after the incident, saying she was guilty of violating the Florence Police Department's rule for unfavorable conduct.

The department suspended her for four days without pay, but waived three of those if she didn't get into trouble for the next two years.

Two years ago, a Hamilton County internal investigation determined Deputy Donald Fore was drunk when he walked up to the sheriff's station in Anderson Township. At the time, he was on court-ordered probation for an OVI conviction. According to other deputies' statements and the internal investigation, Fore was belligerent, refused orders to go home, shoved a higher-ranking officer and punched a wall inside the building.

 
A surveillance camera recorded Donald Fore in the parking lot.

The internal investigation found Fore's action "could have supported a criminal charge." But he wasn't arrested. Instead, he was suspended for 10 days without pay.

"It may not seem fair to you or to others, but under the circumstances and everything I had to look at and take into consideration, that's how I came by the recommendation for discipline. I'll stick by it today," Schoonover said. "I think it was a fair recommendation."

At Kings Island two years ago, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office records show park police interviewed a couple while their friend, Hamilton County Cpl. Tim McCalla, was in the next room yelling at Kings Island officers. Park police had removed McCalla, his girlfriend and the couple for drinking alcohol in a line waiting for a ride and being disruptive.

In the Kings Island police office, McCalla's friends urged officers to let them calm him down. The Kings Island police report said McCalla could have been arrested for disorderly conduct, but he wasn't.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office records show McCalla wasn't suspended, either. The sheriff's office gave him a written reprimand.

In October 2015, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office suspended a data entry operator 15 days after he got into a fight with his neighbor -- his fourth alcohol-related disciplinary violation since August 2012. The sheriff's captain who responded to the call found both men had committed disorderly conduct, but they decided not to charge either of them.

When the prosecutor doesn't follow through

We also wanted to know what happens when a department refers a case for prosecution. Often, but not always, prosecutors declined to bring cases to trial.

In 2014, a Colerain Township police investigation concluded that ex-Sgt. Joseph Redmond used a confidential law enforcement database to get information related to his former fiancee. She accused him of stalking her, an allegation he denies.

Other Ohio officers have been charged with a felony or forced to resign -- and give up their ability to be a cop -- for database violations. But the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office declined to file charges against Redmond. The department suspended him without pay for a week.

A year later, a police investigation found he did it again -- this time the information was connected to a different woman who also accused Redmond of stalking her. He denied the stalking claim, but she took out a restraining order. The Hamilton County prosecutor declined to prosecute that case, too.

Redmond said in an interview Colerain Township forced him to resign. The New Miami Police Department hired him; its chief lobbied the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which manages access to the database, to let Redmond back in. Records show OSP agreed, but stipulated New Miami would be liable for any misuse.

Letter reinstating Joseph Redmond's LEADS access.

Allen said it's rare for someone banned from the database to get access again. "I'm a little bit surprised by that," he said. "I don't really understand that."

After eight months, Redmond resigned from New Miami. He continued to work as an adjunct instructor at the Butler Tech Police Academy until Wednesday, a day after we contacted him for comment. A Butler Tech spokesman said Redmond resigned.

In March, a Blue Ash police internal investigation determined that former officer Chris Zielinski used that same database 15 times to get information about his girlfriend and her estranged husband, even though he didn't need it for a law enforcement purpose.

Like the Colerain Township case, Zielinski could have faced criminal prosecution. He didn't: According to Blue Ash police records, the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office agreed to not file charges against Zielinski if he resigned, which he did. He declined to comment for this story.

It wouldn't be unheard of for someone to face prosecution for unauthorized access, Allen said: He had a few cases that resulted in indictments.

In another case, Mark Myers, 62, alleged he suffered cuts to his head and a broken hip when Jason Mize, a Hamilton County corrections officer, shoved him into a cell. Myers was being booked on a misdemeanor theft charge last August; he was later acquitted.

 
Footage shows Mize shove Myers into a cell.

According to Myers' federal lawsuit, Mize left him bleeding on the floor and slammed the door. His actions, the lawsuit states, lacked "even the most basic humanity."

When Myers cried out for help, a jail nurse called for a life squad. She recalled telling a co-worker, "I hope he's not dead."

Maj. Charmaine McGuffey, in charge of the jail at the time, called for Mize to be arrested and fired. It was his fourth use-of-force violation since the sheriff's office hired him in August 2007.

Myers' injuries were so serious the sheriff's office sent the case to the Criminal Investigation Section. Last December, the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office declined to present the case to a grand jury, even though Myers wanted Mize to be charged.

"The sheriff's office did everything they could possibly do and went through every phase of the process, and it was turned down by the prosecutor's office," Schoonover said. "I can't change that."

Mize resigned from the sheriff's office Feb. 25.

"He was facing termination," Neil said. "It never happened because he resigned."

Getting rid of bad cops

Allen handled cases involving police during his five years as prosecutor. Sometimes, he said the best outcome is for an officer facing prosecution to give up his law enforcement certificate. It means that officer can't be a cop anymore.

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

In both cases involving inappropriate use of the police database, neither officer had to give up his certificate.

Cole is vice president and executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute, which provides nonpartisan policy analysis, consulting and research on public safety. She is a national expert on best practices for police and she co-authored landmark studies of the Department of Justice Consent Agreement with the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as the police response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

"It's really hard for the community to trust the police if the police can't even trust the system in which they work to be consistent and have integrity." - Christine Cole

She reviewed hundreds of pages of Hamilton County Sheriff's Office personnel files, discipline records and sections of internal affairs investigations when we looked into excessive force in May.

In those cases, she said agencies need to hand out discipline in a predictable, consistent way.

Sometimes police agencies hurt themselves by not being more open, Allen said.

"I think police officers and administrators, by virtue of who they are and the job they have to do, maybe aren't as transparent at times as the community would like," he said.

Still, Allen said the public and media don't often appreciate that police work is a tough job, and "when you're going to judge a police officer, you have to put yourself in their shoes."

Even a written reprimand, which might seem like a slap on the wrist to the public, is taken seriously, he said. If an officer stays with a department for decades, a reprimand can harm his or her career advancement.

"I don't think it's anything they blow off at all," he said. "Come promotion time, it's important to them because that becomes part of their permanent personnel record, just as a letter of commendation would."

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

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