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I-Team: Elmwood Place police have history of hiring troubled officers

Posted: 7:47 AM, Dec 13, 2017
Updated: 2018-12-12 18:52:13Z

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.

ELMWOOD PLACE, Ohio -- The Taser "felt like fire running through your body," Amber Key said.

 

Elmwood Place Police Officer Robert McConnell had stopped Key on May 28, saying he smelled marijuana coming from Key's car. Her husband, a passenger in her car, admitted to smoking a joint and still had the roach, according to court records. McConnell took him into custody.

McConnell went back to the car and told Key he was going to search her car. He wrote in an affidavit that she refused to get out. 

"He was screaming at me," Key said. "'Get out. I'm going to tase you.' It was like, as soon as I heard the word, I was being tased."

Key said McConnell fired the Taser while she was still in the car, behind the wheel with her seatbelt buckled. McConnell wrote that she was resisting. After he fired the Taser, she said he kicked her as he was pulling her out and dragging her from the car.

The scene was so dramatic that a passerby shot video of McConnell dragging Key and attempting to pull the Taser barbs from her.

Stills from the video showing Key's arrest

Authorities charged Key with resisting arrest and obstructing official business.

"I don't understand it," Key said.

Police Sgt. Eric Crossty didn't understand it, either. In a memo Crossty wrote to McConnell three days after the incident, Crossty asked how Key resisted arrest, other than allegedly trying to pull her door closed after McConnell opened it.

McConnell claimed that, since the car engine was running, Key could have tried to drive away and drag him.

As the court case went on, Key's public defender, Alexandria Thurner, asked multiple times for the Elmwood Place Police Department's use of force policy, and even subpoenaed Police Chief Eric Bartlett to appear in court and bring it with him.

Elmwood Place is a village in Hamilton County, located north of St. Bernard and west of Interstate 75. According to the 2010 Census, it has a population of just over 2,000. 

Thurner wrote that the policy "is critical to her defense and may be exculpatory." 

Exculpatory evidence is evidence that is favorable to the defendant and could exonerate the defendant of guilt. 

A few weeks later, the court dismissed the charges against Key.

"I can still feel everything, all the emotions that I felt that day," Key said. "They never left."

Standing alone, the incident could seem like an outlier. But when Elmwood Place hired McConnell a year ago, it was the fifth police department he'd worked for in less than five years. In every community where he worked, police records show residents complained he was too aggressive and wrote too many tickets.

The 9 On Your Side I-Team previously reported on two former Elmwood Place officers who were examples of what one expert called "the officer shuffle," officers who moved to other departments after being fired or forced to resign.

One of those ex-officers is now facing charges in connection to a string of robberies. Another drew more complaints than all the department's other officers combined, according to the former mayor.

Now, additional reporting has turned up more examples of police officers who were fired from a department and then hired by Elmwood Place police, as well as reprimands against the chief that he failed to provide in response to a public records request.

As an officer in central Ohio village Mechanicsburg last year, before McConnell came to Elmwood Place, the police chief disciplined McConnell for repeatedly failing to follow orders and for making a false arrest. McConnell resigned. In nearby St. Paris, residents signed a petition asking officials to fire him. He did not respond to requests for comment. McConnell still works for Elmwood Place, and the village promoted him to sergeant in September.

Elmwood Place Mayor William Wilson said he saw another video which showed Key close the door on McConnell's leg. 

"I found that he's a very good officer," Wilson said. "He's thorough, but some people think he's a little stern and a little harsh."

Wilson said he hadn't been aware of McConnell's history with the other departments.

"It does concern me," he said.

The village used to have minimal police protection, according to Wilson.

"We had auxiliary shifts. If you wanted to work, you worked," he said. "There were times when we didn't have any officers on actual duty."

The department is not fully staffed between two 12-hour shifts, WIlson said.

Officer hired despite accusations of violence

The I-Team's investigation found Elmwood Place has hired other officers who have been repeatedly disciplined by police departments, including former Lincoln Heights officer David Smack.

He's another example of what Phil Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, called the "officer shuffle."

Stinson previously told the I-Team the officer shuffle is prevalent, partly because many smaller police departments can't afford to pay for a recruit to attend a police academy, so they need to hire people who already have their peace officer certification. That certification is required for anyone who wants to be a police officer in Ohio.

"As a result, you do provide opportunities for people who have washed out from one agency to be hired in other places," Stinson said.

While Smack worked as an officer in Lincoln Heights, several people complained that he was violent with them.

The 2014 I-Team report

One of those people, Michael Glover, filed a lawsuit against Smack and other officers. The I-Team previously covered Glover's story in 2014.

Glover said another officer stopped him and called for backup. Smack used a Taser on him and "stomped" on his back right after he told the officers about his bad back and surgically repaired spine, Glover said.

"Right after I said that, Officer Smack stomped me viciously in the back," he said.

In a deposition, Smack claimed that Glover "was being disorderly" by "being loud and incoherent." Smack said he thought Glover was trying to hit him in the face with his elbow.

Smack didn't say anything about stomping on Glover’s back in the deposition. He claimed he fired the Taser and then "helped [Glover] down to the ground to get his hands behind his back."

Glover denied that he resisted. He said he just kept asking why they were detaining him.

"I'm 60 years old," Glover said. "I'm not fighting anybody."

An MRI showed that Glover had a "busted" spinal disc, he said. He also said he suffered a ruptured prostate gland and internal bleeding from the incident.

"I told them about the situation," Glover said. "He exploited it."

Smack and other Lincoln Heights officers were still the focus of a federal lawsuit over one of those cases in 2014, when the department disbanded. That didn't stop the Elmwood Place Police Department from hiring Smack.

"I can't believe they would hire such a person," Glover said.

In February this year, Mayor Wilson wrote a letter to Smack about violations of department procedures for an incident at a local UDF that involved drawing his Taser. Wilson wrote up Smack for controversial conduct or behavior, for deploying a Taser with no intent to use it and not in response to a credible threat and for providing intentionally misleading information to superiors and village officials.

The village allowed Smack to continue working after that incident, but made him sign a "last chance agreement" for "committing unsafe acts and dishonesty."

Then, in June, Smack responded to a call from a woman who said she'd been sexually assaulted two days earlier, according to police records.

Smack did not recommend the woman seek medical treatment. He also didn't complete a report or follow up with her later, his superiors wrote.

The Elmwood Place Police Department policy and procedure manual states it is mandatory to report to the police chief "any reported rape case, when apparently factual."

Smack's sergeant found he violated department policy for failing to notify a supervisor of a critical incident, failing to report a critical incident into the police records computer program and failing to offer or suggest medical treatment to a victim of a potential sex crime.

The department fired Smack.

"He needs counseling, as his superiors should have done when they recognized (his behavior)," Glover said. "What he does not need to do is have a badge or a gun."

However, state records show Smack still holds his peace officer certification, which means he can still work as a police officer.

Officer continued working after indictment

In April of 2011, Officer Clay Maher was due for a grand jury hearing in a case of a man who Maher had said threatened him. Maher never showed up. He was suspended from the department for 30 days. It was the ninth time in less than two years that he was disciplined for missing court or work.

Just days after Maher returned to work, he missed court again. He was scheduled to appear for three different trials. Officials fired Maher.

But Maher "shuffled" from Elmwood Place right back to Elmwood Place. The department hired him again three years after he was fired.

Clay Maher's mugshot

And Maher was still working for the department in April 2015, when a Hamilton County grand jury indicted him on charges of aggravated assault, rape, two counts of sexual battery and aggravated possession of drugs.

A woman accused Maher of giving her marijuana and raping her after she was impaired by the drug, according to court records. Detectives from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office found marijuana and related paraphernalia in his home.

Jurors were unable to agree on a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial. Maher agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated assault and the other charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to a year of community control and told to stay away from the woman.

Village officials wrote on employment benefits paperwork that they didn't learn Maher had been charged with a crime until Nov. 6, 2015, nearly seven months after Maher was indicted. He was placed on paid leave and then fired a few weeks later.

Disciplinary records withheld

The longer the I-Team investigated these cases, the more questions came up about how the village operates its police department.

The I-Team also asked Elmwood Place for copies of all disciplinary records for the department since 2014. The village initially provided just 18 pages. An attorney for the village called the request "overbroad." But additional public record requests turned up more disciplinary actions for the officers, even including three additional reprimands for Chief Eric Bartlett. 

Here's a look at how the I-Team obtained these records

As a corporal in 2014, Bartlett's superiors wrote him up for missing a shift, for four incidents involving problems with records and for bringing the department cellphone home after his shift and then leaving it unattended on a desk when he brought it back the next morning. Bartlett's superiors investigated a complaint about how he conducted himself at a tow yard after he left his car in a bank parking lot overnight and it was towed. 

Later that year, an officer -- Justin Habig -- wrote a letter to the chief complaining about treatment from Bartlett, saying in the letter that the corporal made him feel "demeaned and harassed.”

"The constant ridicule, and berating that I receive on a daily basis has become too strong of a load for me to handle," Habig wrote.

In 2015, the mayor warned Bartlett about how he managed his subordinates.

Related: Read the I-Team's investigation into police discipline

Despite the complaints, Elmwood Place promoted Bartlett to police chief last year. Mayor Wilson said he was unaware of three of the reprimands Bartlett had received prior to his promotion. He said they had not been in the police chief's file.

"Yeah," Wilson said, "we should have known about that."

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