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 - Cincinnati Police Officer Michael Roetting played a practical joke on a co-worker in December 2014, leading to a 13-page report in April from the department’s internal affairs unit.
Investigators interviewed eight officers to determine that Roetting violated the department’s courtesy standards when he entered Officer Dawn Smalls’ unlocked cruiser and changed her mobile data computer status to: “Call 911 help I’m lost and don’t know where I am and where did the sun go?”
If that level of documentation seems a bit much to you, try this one for size: “LATENSS.”
That one word is how the Hamilton County’s Sheriff’s Office documented a tardiness infraction against Corrections Officer Matthew Rodgers on April 15, 2015. It led to counseling, or “COUNS LV1.”
That gives you some idea of the broad spectrum of responses WCPO received when our I-team asked local police departments to share their records on employee disciplinary actions since 2013.
Of the 52 departments contacted, 39 delivered records that were responsive enough that they could be added to a searchable database. That allows users to see – for the first time – how the region’s police agencies compare to each other when it comes to enforcing departmental standards.
More than 2,600 bad examples
The database our journalists built from those records includes 2,644 summaries of disciplinary actions involving 1,273 police officers in the last four years.
The 39 departments in our database employ a combined 3,260 law enforcement professionals, based on numbers pulled from government annual reports and the law enforcement directory at policeone.com, a website that aggregates news, training opportunities and job listings for law enforcement professionals.
Those numbers imply about 39 percent of local police and correction officers have faced some kind of disciplinary action from their departments in the last four years. Collectively, the departments in WCPO’s database reported about one case of discipline per officer since January 2013. Many of these incidents were minor infractions such as arriving to work late.
“Overall, I thought there were relatively few incidents of misbehavior,” said Lawrence Travis, a criminal justice researcher and professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati who reviewed the data at WCPO’s request. “I was struck by the fact that the sort of less serious, mostly non-criminal cases tended to result in lower level penalties with more serious offenses like substance abuse allegations were more likely to result in terminations of employment.”
Travis has written extensively on police-community relations. He’s also studied the discipline process Cincinnati established as part of a court-approved Collaborative Agreement after the 2001 riots.
Travis said the best practices in police discipline include public transparency and a system of rules that focus on professional development – not just punishing bad behavior.
“You need to help people improve,” he said. “The industry standard at this point is to try to develop early warning systems to keep track of officers who look like they need intervention. I think (the city of) Cincinnati has developed such a system under the collaborative.”
When it comes to transparency, Travis said departments should take a layered approach to public disclosure. The first layer would disclose “generalized summaries” of disciplinary actions to let the community know how many complaints were investigated, how they were resolved and what are the trends for police discipline over time.
“That’s OK to have these generalized summaries,” he said. “But if you’re the complainant, somebody somewhere ought to keep you in the loop even if it means telling you in the end, you know, we don’t believe you. We’ve done an investigation and the facts don’t support your position.”
How do local departments measure up to that standard?
WCPO hasn’t received any records from nine of the 52 departments we contacted.
Cold Spring and Highland Heights never responded. Others expressed concerns about our request. Boone County, for example, said it would take 75 weeks to supply the records. Fort Thomas said the release of disciplinary files “would result in an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of a police officer,” although it did provide records dealing with vehicle pursuits.
Addyston said it had no police discipline cases since 2013. The Kenton County Sheriff said it had none that resulted in suspension, demotion, dismissal or relief of duty.
Travis said those responses are typical, based on his past attempts to get police departments to respond to his research inquiries. Smaller departments especially view research requests as an administrative burden they lack the manpower to handle.
“You wouldn’t believe how many requests they get,” he said. “Bigger departments have the information digitized. They have somebody on staff to handle these requests.”
What’s in the database?
I-Team Lead Investigator Craig Cheatham used a combination of persistence and persuasion to obtain the records in the last 12 months, convincing some departments to provide a master list with brief explanations while others handed over entire personnel files.
Cheatham then followed up with local departments to request additional records on dozens of specific cases. That led some departments to provide internal affairs reports, personnel files, audio files of witness interviews and video from police body cams, cruiser cams and the cell phones of private citizens.
Florence police, for example, provided WCPO with two video accounts of the same event on May 25, 2016. One video is from a Florence officer’s body camera.
The other comes from a distraught mother’s cell phone.
Officer Matt Day received a one-day suspension and was pulled off plain-clothes duty for a month because his comments while helping another officer handcuff a 12-year-old “further aggravated an emotional situation,” according to a disciplinary finding accepted 13 days after the incident.
A team of WCPO journalists pored through those records to compile a searchable dataset that could be classified into various categories.
Some of Cincinnati’s biggest law enforcement agencies – sheriff departments in Warren, Butler and Hamilton counties – account for 59 percent of the disciplinary actions in WCPO’s database. For example:
- Hamilton County delivered spreadsheets with more than 8,500 personnel actions dating back to 2001. From that list, WCPO pulled 408 infractions since 2013. WCPO supplemented that bare bones data with additional requests of personnel files and internal affairs investigative reports.
- Butler County’s 746 files included 15 employees who received counseling after the department learned of filings related to bankruptcy, foreclosure and garnishment of wages. It’s the only department that reported disciplinary action for employees who failed to pay bills.
- Warren County’s records point to an attendance problem, with 43 percent of its 429 of its discipline cases involving employees that showed up late for work, training and overtime assignments.
- Cincinnati’s files were so voluminous that WCPO excluded from its analysis relatively minor infractions such as attendance, sick time abuse and fitness standards. WCPO pulled 156 Cincinnati records from investigative reports on citizen and supervisor complaints against officers, each of those complaints generating reports of 10 to 30 pages.
- Middletown delivered 96 records after WCPO modified its original request to exclude disciplinary actions less serious than written reprimands. WCPO supplemented Middletown’s records with files from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, where seven Middletown officers pursued sexual harassment claims against Lt. James Cunningham.
The sheer variety of records that local departments maintain and the differing levels of disclosure that those agencies made means it is difficult to do a true apples-to-apples comparison of one department to another.
But collectively, the data is useful in targeting problem areas, including alcohol use, sexual misconduct, auto accidents and dishonesty.
In Sharonville, for example, the database shows former Officer Adam Wong was terminated after allegedly falsifying a request for comp time in September, 2013. Sharonville provided WCPO with a 63-page internal investigation in support of its allegation and an audio file in which Wong first denies lying then apologizes for it.
These underlying records show how local departments are actively policing their own in ways that aren’t obvious to the public. How complete are the records obtained by WCPO? Here’s one objective measure: Our database includes most of the bad behavior that Hamilton County prosecutors have documented in the last three years on a “Brady list.” That’s a public record that tracks convictions or disciplinary actions that could impair the credibility of a police officer as a trial witness. Hamilton County maintains the list because of Brady vs. Maryland, a U.S. Supreme Court case that requires disclosure of this kind of evidence. Ten of the 36 officers on Hamilton County’s Brady list are there for behaviors that happened before 2013. Of the remaining 26, disciplinary records of 20 officers are in WCPO’s searchable database.
But you won’t find their names if you search through the data.
WCPO decided not to include officer names for a couple of reasons. Because the records vary in their detail, it’s not always possible to tell whether charges against officers were sustained. Because the records go back only three years, it’s not always possible to evaluate the fairness of an individual penalty. A 15-day suspension for being 50 pounds overweight might seem unreasonable if you don’t know the officer had 10 additional infractions in the past.
Which brings us back to the practical joke that opened this story.
Captain Maris Herold filed a complaint against Roetting because his fellow officer was “embarrassed and offended” by the stunt and because he initially told a sergeant that he thought Officer Jeremy Howard was driving the unlocked car and he changed its status as a playful way of reminding him to lock his car in the future.
But investigators found messages between Howard and Roetting, joking about the prank.
“I always lock my car,” said Howard’s message to Roetting, who responded: “LOL now she knows to keep her car locked.”
Former Cincinnati Police Captain Maris Herold, now an assistant chief at the University of CIncinnati, said she referred the matter to internal affairs because the victim of the prank was more upset than amused by it.
In sustaining the charge, investigators said it violated rules about “proper radio discipline” and being “courteous in dealing with the public, subordinates, superiors and associates.”
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac said accountability for officers is one of many ways a police department earns the trust of the community it serves.
“When our officers fall down and make a mistake we own up to it and we take responsibility for it,” he said. “I really believe that’s what this agency is trying to do.”
WCPO Web Editors Joe Rosemeyer and Abby Anstead, as well as freelance journalists Laura Consolo, Kevin Eigelbach, Hannah Hagedorn and Roxanna Swift, contributed to this report.