NEWPORT, Ky -- With a busted lip and tears in his eyes, Marcus Godfrey was at a loss to explain why Newport Police Officer Steven Linville kept punching him in the early morning hours of May 12.
“I was just trying to make sure everybody was calm and cool,” Godfrey told Newport Sgt. Jeff Kohls on video after the 2:31 a.m. incident. “I didn’t do nothing to him. And he punched me in my mouth. I got blood on my face. Punched me in my nose.”
Linville had a different account of what happened in a report he filed that explained why he punched Godfrey as many as 10 times in the face and abdomen.
“I advised Godfrey to ‘get back’ several times,” but he “refused to comply,” Linville wrote. “Godfrey then approached me in a swift manner, placing me in fear of assault.”
The roughly four-minute incident is barely a drop in the ocean of interactions that local police officers will have with the communities they serve this year. And yet each chaotic minute is fraught with risk, and capable of sparking hours of debate on the behavior of all involved.
After reviewing the incident, Sgt. Kohls recommended “no corrective action” for Linville, saying the officer’s approach “limited the level of injury to only mild swelling and bleeding.”
But when a national expert on police use of force watched police body camera video of the incident, he found plenty of room for improvement.
“Totally unreasonable,” said Scott Roder, a Cleveland-based trial consultant who has testified in dozens of officer-involved shooting cases, often in favor of the police.
“There’s no reason for detention of Mr. Godfrey at this point,” Roder said. “The guy was totally compliant throughout the whole time.”
Measuring the impact of police use of force
WCPO’s I-Team spent the last six months collecting and analyzing use of force reports from more than 30 local police departments and sheriff’s offices. It’s part of a continuing focus on police accountability in our region that began last year with “Policing Their Own,” a series of reports on disciplinary actions against local officers. The goal of this ongoing coverage is to make sure the people who protect us and enforce our laws are worthy of the high level of trust the public gives them.
This much is clear from the 2,502 use of force incidents the I-Team analyzed this year:
- Cincinnati-area police officers do not use force often. In 2017, our analysis shows, use of force incidents amounted to less than 1 percent of all police runs.
- Officers are almost always deemed justified in their use of force. Since 2015, the records show only 13 cases in which supervisors deemed an officer behavior’s unjustified. That’s about half a percent of all incidents.
- Local police departments vary widely in how they monitor, measure and train for use of force. Some departments provided dozens of pages on individual incidents, including the officer’s account, witness statements and supervisors’ commentary on what officers did right and how they might improve. Other departments devote barely a page to incidents. About 20 percent of the records obtained by WCPO give no indication of whether supervisors approved of the use of force.
That’s par for the course for police departments nationally, said University of South Carolina Professor Geoffrey Alpert, who has studied police use of force and training for three decades.
“The better departments define it properly, assess what they define and then use that analysis in their training and policy decisions,” Alpert said. “The larger ones we work with for the most part do the right thing. They do a pretty good job. When you start getting into the small departments, it’s hit and miss.”
No matter how it’s measured, use of force incidents can have a lasting impact on those involved.
At least 20 times since 2014, local police officers have taken the lives of people who were armed, behaving erratically or otherwise caused officers to perceive a threat to themselves or others. And make no mistake: The threat is real.
Cincinnati Police Officer Sonny Kim was shot to death in a 2015 use of force incident. Warren County Deputy Katie Barnes was shot in the stomach and survived another incident in 2016. On Sept. 6, Cincinnati police risked their lives to confront an active shooter at Fifth Third Bank Downtown. The incident ended with four dead -- including the gunman -- and two injured.
The regional use of force data shows 341 officers were injured in 296 incidents since 2015. Another way of looking at it: About 12 percent of incidents resulted in at least one officer injury. Subjects were injured in 944 incidents, or 37 percent. The Middletown Police Department ranks first in the region with 74 percent of all use of force incidents resulting in the injury of subjects. Chief Rodney Muterspaw said that's because Middletown documents all injuries, no matter how minor.
The data shows stun guns are the weapon of choice in police use of force incidents, either deployed or threatened in 857 cases. Firearms were used, pointed or threatened in 424 cases, followed by chemical weapons like pepper spray in 118 incidents. When weapons were not used, the most common techniques police employed were balance displacement (324 incidents), manipulating the wrist joint to maintain physical control (173) and escort holds, which means controlling arm movement by grabbing a suspect’s wrist and elbow (179). Fist, knee and elbow strikes were used in 129 incidents since 2015.
Alpert said there are too many variables to know whether those numbers are reasonable. Each use of force incident must be judged on its own facts.
“You use force to meet resistance,” he said. “But the level of force and the type of force has to be reasonable. If you’re just throwing around punches and knees and what they call distraction blows, you’ve got to ask why?”
A 1989 Supreme Court case, Graham v. Connor, established that officers’ actions must be “objectively reasonable” and consider the “severity of the crime at issue,” whether the subject “poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others” and whether the subject is “actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”
Roder puts it this way: “Are you a guardian or are you a warrior? I think there's a big balance that has to be struck there. Sometimes, the officers have to be warriors, but I think most times they have to be guardians."
“I go to bed every night and pray for my staff, they will not have to use force and that nobody gets hurt,” said Michael Helmig, sheriff since 1997. “We’re preservers and protectors of life, not life takers.”
Boone County completely reshaped its use of force policies and training procedures after the 2014 shooting death of 19-year-old Samantha Ramsey. Deputy Tyler Brockman shot Ramsey as she attempted to drive away from a party. That led to a wrongful death lawsuit that the county settled for $3.5 million. Brockman is still a Boone County deputy. Helmig still believes he acted appropriately. But a lot has changed in how the agency handles use of force.
“We’ve invested in crisis intervention training, de-escalation training and scenario-based training,” Helmig said. Four certified instructors walk deputies through “different scenarios of making decisions, whether to use force or not use force or the appropriate force that should be used.”
Use of force incidents in Boone County declined from 38 in 2014 to 14 last year. The department also separately tracks “show of force” incidents, which includes weapons being pointed at subjects or threatened. Those incidents declined 32 percent since 2014 to 24 last year.
Forest Park more than doubled its number of incidents since 2015, but at least part of the increase is due to a change in policy that requires officers to file a report every time they draw their weapon. Chief Williams Arns said increased transparency was the reason for change.
Forest Park officers pointed guns at people 43 times since January of 2017, compared to 14 times in the two years before that. They used the technique to serve felony warrants, arrest fleeing suspects and gain compliance from people who were ignoring officer commands. In two incidents, Forest Park officers pointed weapons at people who were reported to be suicidal.
“Just because a person is threatening harm doesn’t preclude he’d be harming me,” Arns said. “If you believe that someone may be armed then you want to have access to your firearm as quickly as possible.”
Professor Alpert said it’s a good idea for police departments to keep track of incidents in which officers draw their weapons because it gives greater context to all other uses of force. It also opens the door for supervisors to discuss when best to draw their weapons.
“The problem with drawing a gun really is that you lock yourself into a situation where you may not have an option but to use your gun,” he said. “You don’t want to be in that position.”
On the other hand, Alpert said there are times when an officer should approach subjects with a weapon in hand.
“If it’s serving a warrant for a violent crime or they know the person has been violent I don’t blame them,” he said. “If it’s just a minor theft or something, that’s different. You can’t just look at pointing a gun. You’ve got to understand why.”
Forest Park is one of five local departments in which officers drew their firearms more frequently than stun guns, batons or chemical weapons. The others are Erlanger, Fairfield, Springdale and Sharonville.
Records show Forest Park officers fired their weapons only twice since 2015. One shot missed and a fleeing suspect escaped. In another incident on June 3, 2016, two officers fired several shots at Tyler Jones, 27, who led several departments on a high-speed chase and shot the Springfield Township police dog that apprehended him. Jones recovered from his injuries and was later convicted and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
“I felt that my life was in jeopardy,” Forest Park officer Darnell Nared told Springfield Township investigators after the incident.
“I remember seeing him take his gun, he turned and shot (police canine) Pako,” Officer Joe Haugh said in his police interview. “When he fired one round his gun was still right there. I mean he shot a police dog. I am not giving him the opportunity to shoot me or any other officer.”
Fighting the dog
Springfield Township had seven incidents since 2017 in which police dogs injured suspects, including three cases involving Pako, back on duty after his 2016 shooting.
“The suspect continued kicking K9 Pako while I gave him commands to stop fighting the dog,” wrote Springfield Township Officer Jim Scheeler in his report on the incident.
The report says an unidentified 15-year-old was driving a stolen van at 1:43 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2017, accelerating when he saw police. After wrecking in the 900 block of North Bend Road, the teenager fled on foot. After Scheeler shouted warnings, he released Pako, who bit the teen on his right arm, left ankle and right thigh.
Middletown had a K-9 incident on Feb. 28 that led a visiting judge to reject criminal charges against 43-year-old Marvin Davis. Officer Ryan Morgan wrote in his use of force report that he stopped Davis for a “turn signal violation” on 15th Avenue. He ordered Davis away from the car so his K-9 partner, Chase, could conduct “a free air sniff.” After the dog started scratching the car, Davis approached the vehicle to complain. Morgan took Davis to the ground and Chase bit him on the arm, left side and buttocks.
“We had not secured (the vehicle) and had no knowledge if there were weapons or contraband inside,” Morgan wrote.
Police found no drugs or weapons in the car. Davis was charged with resisting arrest and obstructing official business.
“I’m scarred for life,” Davis told the I-Team. “If I had attempted to do anything to that dog I would have gotten charged with assault on a cop, so I could only take it.”
Middletown Police Sgt. Raqib Ahmed deemed the use of force justified after watching cruiser cam video on the same day the incident happened.
“The subject was not complying,” he wrote.
But when the case came to Middletown Municipal Court, a retired Ohio Appellate Judge heard the case and rejected it.
“The fact that the search of the car produced no contraband undercuts an inference that Davis approached the car with a purpose to prevent, obstruct or delay the search,” wrote Judge William H. Wolff Jr. “Further, as Davis approached his car, the officers ordered him to stop, forcibly redirected him back to the cruiser, took him to the ground and subdued him. As such, Davis was in no position to hamper or impede Officer Morgan’s search of the vehicle.”
The city of Middletown has filed an appeal.
“Just because an acting judge found a defendant (not guilty) on a charge doesn’t mean (use of force) wasn’t necessary at the time,” Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw told WCPO via email.
Middletown had another K-9 incident that resulted in one of the region’s rare determinations that police use of force was not justified. It happened Sept. 25, 2017, when Joey Taylor, 32, fled from police on Moore Street near Howard Avenue. By the time a K-9 unit arrived, Taylor was on the ground, complying with orders.
“As I began to secure Taylor in handcuffs, my K9 partner Chase came running up behind me,” Officer Ryan Morgan wrote in his use of force report. “I did not raise my window and it appeared that the gate to his kennel inside my cruiser was also open.”
Sgt. Ed Sensel faulted Morgan for failing to secure the dog, adding that the suspect offered “to forget it if he wouldn’t be charged with resisting arrest.”
Middletown had two of the region’s 13 incidents that were deemed to violate departmental policy. The other involved a 20-year-old suspect who escaped his handcuffs and fled in April, 2016 when police brought him to the city jail to book him on charges of assault and criminal damaging.
Middletown Sgt. Steve Ream said Officer Jason Deaton was justified in firing a Taser at the suspect, Zachary Wells. But after he was on the ground, Sgt. Ream saw Deaton lift Wells by the shoulders and “slam him to the ground.” He ordered Deaton to stop and criticized the officer’s behavior in his supervisor review of the incident.
“The suspect and Officer Deaton ran a long distance,” Sgt. Ream wrote. “They were both visibly exhausted. I observed Officer Deaton to be visibly upset and emotional. I advised him that was unacceptable and we would discuss it.”
Muterspaw declined to be interviewed on camera, but defended his department’s record on use of force via email.
“We have over 50,000 citizen contacts a year and last year about 6,000 arrests with only 3 percent involving” use of force, he wrote. “We have received one complaint” involving use of force. “That would be Marvin Davis.”
Weapon of choice
Cincinnati leads the region with six incidents that supervisors deemed unjustified since 2015, including an Aug. 8 incident in which Officer Kevin Brown tased an 11-year-old girl accused of shoplifting.
The highly publicized case led to an internal review that concluded Brown violated the city policies in four ways:
- He failed to warn fifth-grader Donesha Gowdy that he would use the Taser if she didn’t stop walking away from him.
- He failed to activate his body camera until after the tasing incident happened.
- He violated a department policy against prejudicial statements by telling Gowdy her alleged theft “is why there are no grocery stores in the Black community.”
- He failed to consider policies requiring the “least coercive” means necessary to arrest juveniles and limiting the use of stun guns to self defense and immobilizing someone who is active resisting arrest.
During a city council hearing in September, Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac said the department might tweak its policy on the use of stun guns.
The I-Team’s investigation found stun guns are by far the weapon of choice in use of force incidents locally.
Cincinnati is one of eight local departments that used or threatened to use stun guns at least 20 times in the last four years. The four most active users of stun guns - Cincinnati, Middletown, Hamilton and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office – deployed them twice as often as all other weapons combined. Cincinnati and Hamilton County are the region’s largest police agencies, with a combined 1,800 officers.
Clayton Ballinger of Fairfield can testify about the use and effectiveness of stun guns to gain compliance.
“Yeah, they tased the shit out of me,” Ballinger told WCPO. “It pissed me off.”
Springdale police stunned Ballinger with a Taser four times on in April after officers were called to 504 Smiley Ave. to investigate a domestic disturbance, police reports and body cam video show.
“It was obvious on the video Mr. Ballinger was intoxicated and not cooperating,” wrote Springdale Lt. Rick Neuman in his report affirming the use of force. “Upon the first officers arriving, there were family members holding Mr. Ballinger down.”
The body cam video shows that Ballinger was calm and cooperating initially with police, but became non-compliant in a roughly four-minute stretch leading up to the tasing. He begins to struggle when officers try to handcuff him and continues to resist through three jolts from the “drive stun” feature of Officer Michael DiStefano’s Taser.
WCPO attempted to reach DiStefano and all other officers whose use-of-force incidents are described in this report.
“He was actively resisting absolutely but I think that it could have been prevented,” said Roder, the Cleveland-based crime reconstruction expert who frequently testifies in police use of force trials. “He was calming down. He was already out of breath. He was even crying and apologizing to his kids. I don’t think he was a threat to anybody. I think the officer was just young and impatient and just looking to bully him a little bit.”
‘A contagious fire’
Roder agreed to review video obtained in WCPO’s public records requests because he believes it’s an important topic worth scrutiny. Roder’s company, The Evidence Room, is best known for creating 3D trial exhibits based on forensic evidence. He’s testified for and against dozens of officers accused in shooting cases, including Ray Tensing. Roder testified in favor of the University of Cincinnati officer who was twice tried for murder in the 2015 shooting death of Sam Dubose. Both cases ended in mistrials.
While he doesn’t claim to be an expert on police policy and procedure, Roder said he’s studied enough officer-involved shootings to know that the wrong behavior by officers and suspects can lead to tragic outcomes.
“There’s a contagious fire, a thing that happens,” he said. “I’m working on a case involving a large group of police officers encountering a suspect. Most of the officers used restraint until one officer does not. It goes from no resistance to an assault and homicide. I’ve seen it time and time again. If one officer shoots, they all shoot. If one officer throws a punch they all do. But they can also de-escalate if one officer does that.”
And that brings us back to Marcus Godfrey in Newport.
Police Chief Tom Collins told WCPO it’s “never appropriate” for an officer to punch someone in the face, but he didn’t want to second guess Officer Linville’s decision to use that kind of force on Godfrey.
“It’s not something I would have done but when you take the measures of what the officer can use, he didn’t tase him,” Collins said. “Didn’t mace him. He could have used a baton. He didn’t do that. So, how was he going to get him in compliance?”
Linville was suspended for two weeks on Sept. 24 but the punishment had nothing to do with use of force. It was for getting into a profane argument with a White Castle patron who entered the 1 West Fifth St. restaurant to complain about his food.
“It is expected that P.O. Linville will maintain his composure with the public in even the most difficult situations,” wrote his supervisor, Sgt. Brandon Haffey. “Further violations will result in an additional suspension or possible termination.”
When WCPO played for Roder the police body cam video of the Godfrey incident, he called the punches totally unreasonable. But that wasn’t what bothered him most about the incident.
Instead, it was the running commentary of the incident by Sgt. Haffey, who was watching officers argue with Godfrey’s friend, Luther Hall.
“Big man thinks he’s big,” Haffey said. “One guy. One guy.”
When the argument escalates to arrest and resistance, Sgt. Haffey snickers.
“Oh, it’s about to be fun,” he said.
Chief Collins wasn't bothered by Haffey's comments.
"I know that officer. He's not an aggressive policeman," said the chief. "A lot of these guys use that as tools. They want to get themselves prepared to go into battle."
But that doesn't mean they're looking for a confrontation, he said. "If they are, I'm not going to have them work here. I'm not that guy, never have been."
Roder called Sgt. Haffey “a bad-intentioned individual” who should be re-trained and disciplined.
“Getting into a violent altercation should not be fun,” Roder said. “If you’re in a boxing ring and you’re having a sporting contest, that could be fun. But out on the street where people’s lives are on the line, it’s not fun. It shouldn’t be fun. And you shouldn’t be looking for a beat down on somebody.”
- WCPO contributors Kevin Eigelbach, Mikaela McGee and Roxanna Swift compiled the data for this analysis.