I-Team: Law enforcement agencies hold their own accountable

Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-29 07:10:15-05

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.

DELHI TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- When Delhi Township police officers fire their weapons at the range, Chief Jim Howarth requires them to wear a bulletproof vest.

"Accidents do happen on the range," he said.

Three years ago, Howarth forgot to wear his own vest. He insisted on being disciplined for violating his own policy and received a written reprimand he knew would remain in his file.

"That policy is there for a reason," Howarth said. "I just felt like it was the right thing to do."

Howarth also disciplined himself for not reviewing two training videos before the department's deadline.

"I hold them accountable," he said. "I'm no different."

But Howarth is different.

The 9 On Your Side I-Team investigated how 40 local law enforcement agencies police their own officers. The reporting focused on problems and attempted to find solutions. The investigation found Howarth is the only current local police chief who disciplined himself during the years we reviewed.

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 discipline their officers for wrongdoing.

Much of the reporting from our investigation so far has focused on areas where law enforcement agencies didn’t discipline officers for violating policies or the law.

We also uncovered many examples of police departments holding their own accountable.

Our goal with this story is to show some of those examples where agencies enacted stiff penalties for infractions and, in some cases, took significant measures to investigate those violations.

"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."

Charges against deputy

In 2015, Butler County sheriff's detectives questioned Mike Baker about his contact with a teenage girl. At the time, Baker was a Butler County deputy.

Michael Baker

"I have nothing to hide, so I'm good," Baker told detectives early in an interview.

His accuser was in a different room. The detectives gained Baker's confidence, then convinced him that a female detective accused the victim of lying.

However, that never happened during the videotaped interview with the victim. The only lie was the one the detective told Baker in order to reel him in and hold him accountable.

Although it was a criminal investigation, not an internal disciplinary matter, the interrogation showed the detectives did what they felt was necessary to hold one of their own accountable. Baker was fired, convicted of sexual imposition and had his peace officer certification -- which is required for law enforcement officers in Ohio, such as police and deputies -- revoked.

Officers played 'prank' on new recruit

In April 2015, Florence, Kentucky, police responded to a fatal drug overdose. The group included a corporal, a recruit he was training and another officer. The corporal and officer told the recruit to lie down next to the body to provide scale for evidence, according to department records. However, they were playing a prank on the new recruit.

When higher-ups learned what happened, they investigated the incident. The chief didn't think it was funny. The department demoted the corporal down to an officer and made him take an $8,000 pay cut. The department suspended the other officer without pay for four 10-hour shifts and suspended him from SWAT duty for three months.

That wasn't all. Investigators also found a sergeant knew the prank would happen and didn't stop it, and that he failed to tell his superiors after it happened. The department suspended him without pay for eight shifts. The department also suspended without pay for three shifts a lieutenant who failed to investigate the incident or tell his superiors.

Sergeant sexted on the job

In Erlanger, a forensic expert produced a 377-page report after examining a sergeant's city-issued cellphone. He found the sergeant had repeatedly sent sexual text messages and called an officer from a different department while they were both on duty.

The internal investigation found "the volume of on duty calls/texts were above and beyond professional contact" between the sergeant and the other officer in late 2015 and early 2016, according to department records.

The sergeant had been using his department-issued cellphone -- "which is subject to open records," investigators noted -- to contact the other officer. Records showed he spent about 248 minutes on the phone with the other officer and they exchanged 623 text messages, including some pornographic photos, while on duty during those three months.

"This was conducted by a supervisor who should be setting an example of behavior for the officers who follow him," investigators wrote.

The sergeant's work seemed to suffer during that time. His superiors noted that the sergeant failed to conduct follow-up or to notify an investigator about a child abuse case. But on the same day, he spoke to the other officer eight times on the phone and exchanged 38 texts during his shift. He also failed to conduct video reviews and enter performance notes in the patrol database, despite a meeting with his superiors and an order to do the work, according to department records.

After the investigation, city officials demoted the sergeant to patrolman, removed him from all special assignments for a year and suspended him for 30 days.

Rights 'may have been violated'

When a Villa Hills officer responded to a call of an emotional crisis in 2016, he handcuffed the man whose sister reported he was in an unstable state.

The officer's body camera video shows the man didn't want to go to the hospital, but the officer said he had to go and put him in an ambulance.

They didn't get far before the ambulance driver stopped, questioning whether they could force the man to go to the hospital against his will. Investigators later wrote that the man "did not appear to be irritable or a threat to himself or others" on the body cam video.

After the ambulance driver questioned what they were doing, the officer took the man and drove him home, then released him from the handcuffs.

The man's rights "may have been violated," investigators wrote after the incident. They found that the officer should not have placed the man in handcuffs or forced him in the ambulance.

And that officer had other performance issues, according to department records. There were cases of him failing to answer dispatch calls and failing to secure evidence in sealed evidence bags. In another incident, he displayed "inefficiency and conduct unbecoming" an officer when responding to a bomb scare at a school, superiors wrote.

The department fired that officer on July 18, 2016, for violating four department policies.

Agencies have responsibility

The law enforcement agencies involved released all the records from these cases to the I-Team.

Christine Cole, a national expert on police practices, said these agencies have a high responsibility to behave in a way that has integrity and is transparent.

"Police and sheriff's deputies and corrections officers are invested with an enormous amount of power, and the people are telling us that they want to know they're using that power judiciously, safely and appropriately," Cole said.

That can be as simple as holding oneself to the same standard as everyone else.

"We're all human beings, we're all going to make mistakes," Howarth said. "Nobody's perfect."

Digital reporter Dan Monk, multimedia producer Brian Niesz, web editor Joe Rosemeyer, as well as freelance journalists Laura Consolo, Kevin Eigelbach, Hannah Hagedorn and Roxanna Swift, contributed to this report.