I-Team: Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil insists deputies are held accountable

Investigation raises questions about discipline

CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil insists he has held deputies accountable for breaking laws and policies and that law enforcement officers are held to a higher standard.

Neil spoke about police discipline for the first time after the I-Team discovered six sheriff's employees -- five deputies and one civilian -- have been charged with operating a vehicle under the influence since Neil took office in 2013.

Four of the deputies were convicted in their drunken driving cases. Neil didn't suspend them. And no one was fired.

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.

"It's surprising that you found so many cases of employees that have violated the law, especially involving alcohol," said Jeff Witte. Witte is a retired Woodlawn police chief with 35 years in law enforcement. He volunteers for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

For the I-Team's initial reporting, Neil provided a statement saying his office decides how to discipline an officer "after vetting each situation and considering all factors." But he refused to grant an interview or answer any direct questions about discipline within his department.

 

Finally, late last month he sat down with the I-Team to discuss specific cases.

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 in many cases, the I-Team found he could have issued much tougher discipline. If any officer is arrested for drunken driving or convicted of a misdemeanor, 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."

RELATED: Is sheriff tough enough on drunken deputies?

One such instance involved Patrol Officer Donald Fore. In 2015, he was convicted of operating a vehicle while intoxicated -- the second time in five years he'd been charged with OVI.

He wasn't suspended for his criminal conviction.

"I looked at everything I have to look at, then I made what I thought was a fair recommendation to the sheriff," Schoonover said.

Later, sheriff's office records show Fore arrived intoxicated at the Anderson Township station. He damaged property outside and inside the building, cursed and chest-bumped a higher-ranking officer.

Watch surveillance footage from the parking lot:

 

Investigators found Fore's actions "could have supported a criminal charge."

Fore wasn't charged. Based on Schoonover's recommendation, Neil suspended him 10 days. He also received treatment for alcohol addiction.

"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."

Schoonover also recommended suspending former Corrections Officer Kenneth Payne last year after sheriff's office records show he reported to work intoxicated for the third time in two years.

Payne resigned in April after the I-Team attempted to contact him about his work history.

Neil said Fore and Payne weren't terminated because "there's employees throughout Hamilton County that have been arrested for driving under the influence, and they're probably not terminated."

Still, the sheriff reiterated deputies are held "to a higher standard."

"That's why after the criminal matter, they still face an administrative hearing and discipline as a deputy sheriff in this office," he said.

The I-Team also reviewed how the sheriff punishes employees for using excessive force. Last year, an internal affairs investigation determined Corrections Officer Jason Mize pushed a 61-year-old inmate head-first into concrete block half-wall. After the inmate fell, Mize slammed the cell door so hard it didn't close, then he left the inmate moaning on the floor of the cell.

Watch footage from the incident:

 

The inmate was bleeding profusely from his head and had a broken hip. He was treated by a nurse and taken to the hospital.

The sheriff's office considered that incident -- Mize's fourth use-of-force violation -- a crime. Sheriff's investigators referred it to the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office, which declined to present the case to a grand jury.

"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. I can't change that," Schoonover said.

RELATED: Man injured at jail sues sheriff, former deputy

Mize resigned Feb. 25, six months after this incident and just one week after the I-Team received his personnel file.

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

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