NEWPORT, Ky. - Newport Police Chief Tom Collins doesn’t like it when his officers punch suspects in the face.
“It’s never appropriate,” Collins told WCPO’s I-Team. “It’s a no strike zone.”
And yet records indicate Newport officers who delivered facial blows 11 times since 2016 were never criticized in supervisory reviews of the incidents.
It’s one of many ways Newport has strayed from federal standards in regulating police use of force. An I-Team investigation finds the Newport Police Department:
- Punched, kneed or used other unarmed force on the heads of subjects 18 times since 2016, more than any other local department.
- Escalated tensions by shouting insults and profanities during use of force incidents.
- Provided no records showing any officer was disciplined for use of force violations in the last three years.
- Failed to document the use of force in 22 incidents since January 2017 in which criminal complaints indicate force was used.
The I-Team made these troubling discoveries during a six-month investigation of how local police agencies document, review and train their officers on how to gain compliance from suspects who resist.
Collins defends his department, saying he has changed policy and shuffled management to encourage compliance with Supreme Court guidelines on reasonable use of force. Those 1989 standards say officers must take into account the severity of the crime, whether the subject is actively resisting or trying to flee and whether there are safety threats to officers and others.
“I’m out in the evening as much as I can be out to watch those things because it doesn’t seem to happen, obviously, when I’m there,” Collins said. “And when I find out about these things I deal with them. If you really look at numbers I think you’re going to find out that we do a heck of a job keeping these guys accountable to this community.”
Here’s a look at the numbers:
- Newport ranked 14th out of 28 local departments in the percentage of police runs that resulted in the filing of use of force reports in 2017. Newport officers filed 18 reports, compared to 28,424 calls for service, or 0.67 percent.
- Newport ranked 9th out of 32 departments in the percentage of incidents that led to a subject’s injury since 2015. WCPO’s analysis of more than 2,500 incidents shows 22 people were injured in 48 Newport incidents. Newport’s 46 percent injury rate was higher than the region’s average of 37 percent.
- When they hit somebody, Newport officers are three times more likely than officers from other departments to aim for the head. WCPO analyzed 176 incidents since 2016 that involved striking subjects with hands, knees, elbows or feet. Excluding Newport, officers targeted the head in 26 percent of incidents since 2016. In Newport it happened in 18 of 26 incidents, or 69 percent.
Head strikes are “always a bad idea unless deadly force is justified,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor who taught at the FBI National Academy and conducts research on high-risk police activities.
“If you go to a call for service and people are growling at each other and the fight hasn’t started, you want to see if you can deal with it verbally,” Alpert said. “And if you don’t, then that’s a problem. Verbal skills aren’t always going to work but they’re certainly a good way to start.”
A former police academy instructor from Virginia who now educates fiction writers on police procedure said most departments encourage the least amount of force necessary to bring a suspect under control.
"We taught that head strikes were not permitted except of course during life-threatening situations," said Lee Lofland, author of Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers. "Arrest and control techniques are designed to do exactly as the term suggests - arrest and control, not injure."
Mason Police Chief Todd Carter questioned Officer Aaron Shaffer’s use of force last summer when Shaffer documented that he punched an unruly person in the face at Great Wolf Lodge on Aug. 20, 2017.
“The situation was resolved without any noted injury to the subject as a result of our officer’s use of force,” Chief Carter wrote in a memo attached to a file about the incident. “While perhaps not the ideal method in this situation, it appears the use of force was within agency policy.”
But Newport’s use of force records offer no indication that supervisors have any qualms about blows to the head.
“No corrective action necessary,” Sgt. Jeff Kohls wrote in his review of an April 23 incident in which Officer Brian Waldorf punched a woman in the face after taking her to the ground.
Here’s what the use of force report states: Her girlfriend told police Sadarina Coleman threw a brick through a car window and threatened to kill her when officers responded to her call at 5:17 a.m. During Coleman’s arrest, she was taken to the ground and “swung upward with her fist toward” Waldorf. “Waldorf then struck Ms. Coleman in the right side of her face twice, causing pain to his left hand.”
No video of the incident exists, as two officers had dead batteries in their cameras and Waldorf’s body camera “shuts of during the resistance of arrest.”
Sgt. Kohls wrote: “Waldorf’s decision to use empty handed force … greatly decreased the possibility of serious physical injury to the victim, officers and ultimately Ms. Coleman as well.”
Sgt. Kohls used similar language in approving the half-dozen blows to the face that Officer Steven Linville delivered to Elsmere resident Marcus Godfrey in May. As WCPO reported earlier this week, Godfrey was arrested near Newport on the Levee after a disturbance at the Newport Beach Patio Bar.
Chief Collins told the I-Team he didn’t like Linville’s actions, but he didn’t object to Kohl’s assessment that the punches complied with department policy.
“He’s young,” Collins said of Linville. “And he’s got to learn.”
Linville was involved in seven other incidents since 2016 in which he delivered fist or knee strikes to suspects who resisted arrest. The actions resulted in two broken ribs, two facial fractures and a chipped tooth for the subjects and two injuries to Linville’s hand or arm.
In May 2016, Linville and Officer Chris Gallichio left Arnie’s Bar patron Matthew Kipling with injuries serious enough that the Campbell County Detention Center refused to admit him. St. Elizabeth Hospital in Fort Thomas later told police Kipling had “a small fracture” above his right eye, Newport’s use of force report states.
“Officer Linville observed Mr. Kipling spinning around and observed Mr. Kipling’s arm raise up in an aggressive manner,” the report says. “Officer Linville struck Mr. Kipling once on the face with a closed fist while Officer Gallichio took Mr. Kipling to the ground to gain control of him. Mr. Kipling landed on a metal sewage grate in the street.”
The report says Kipling was intoxicated and refused to obey several police commands. Once on the ground, the report says, Kipling continued to struggle through a stun gun strike from Gallichio and three to four more punches from Linville.
“The assailants determine the level of force police officers elect to use in a situation to maintain control of the situation,” a supervisor wrote in his review of the incident. “Police officers must stay one step ahead of the aggressor without using more force than is necessary.”
That boilerplate language appears in dozens of supervisory notes in Newport’s use of force reports, including a May 7, 2017 report about a Hispanic man who emerged from a Linville beating with “two right broken ribs and a fractured right orbital eye socket.”
The case involved a vehicle that was “traveling the wrong way in the 100 block of Southgate Alley” at 2:09 a.m. Gallichio gave chase, eventually stopping the 2005 Ford Freestyle with tinted windows at 6th and Scott streets in Covington.
As the driver emerged from the vehicle and was arrested, police couldn’t see clearly inside the car.
“Officers observed the rear passengers reaching around and would not follow orders to keep their hands up or to open the door,” the incident report says. “PO Linville deployed his ASP baton to break the rear passenger window for a clearer view and to unlock the door to remove them.”
The rear passengers were “placed into custody without further incident,” leaving Hugo Aguilar in the front passenger seat. Linville and Officer Chris Boyd removed Aguilar from the vehicle and brought him to the ground in an attempt to handcuff him. Aguilar pulled his right hand under his body.
“Officers were in fear that the subject was going for a weapon,” the report says. Boyd “delivered three closed first strikes to the right side of his body” while Linville “delivered five to six knee strikes to his right shoulder.”
Linville “stated three to four of those strikes slipped and struck Aquilar on the right side of his face as he thrashed around and continue to resist.”
Collins and two supervisors signed off on the Aguilar incident with this brief explanation beyond the boilerplate language: “Once Aguilar was in custody, officers stopped.”
WCPO requested disciplinary records for Officers Waldorf, Linville, Gallichio, and Boyd - along with three others named in use of force incidents. Newport police provided three records, but none of them involved disciplinary action for the use of force.
Officer Greg Roller received a written warning for continuing to drive his patrol car even though it had “engine knocking due to an insufficient amount of oil.” And Linville received a warning in March and a two-week suspension in September for using profanity and being discourteous in two incidents that took place in February and August.
Collins said Kentucky’s Police Officer Bill of Rights and the city’s contract with the Fraternal Order of Police limit his ability to punish officers for behavior he doesn’t like.
“These guys have rights too,” he said. “They get representation from an attorney right away who tells them not to talk to you. When you try to interview them they’re not going to do anything or say anything that can be used against them. They’re entitled to a full hearing. And it basically stops you from sitting down in a normal set of circumstances and having any kind of a relationship and a conversation with an employee.”
But Collins could not explain another problem uncovered by the I-Team: An apparent lack of reports on incidents that clearly involved the use of force.
At least 20 times in the last two years, Newport Police have issued citations that describe the use of force in incidents that result in criminal charges. But none of the incidents were documented in three years of Newport use of force records that WCPO obtained in public records requests.
“The defendant stopped fighting officers when the threat of a Taser was going to be used,” said one citation from July of 2017.
“Officer Brown deployed his Taser to assist on gaining control of the subject,” said another citation from November of 2017. “The subject was taken to the ground and continued to fight.”
And from Aug. 9, 2017: “The subject ran down the street and was taken to the ground on the sidewalk and the (subject) continued to wrestle with officer.”
Collins said it’s possible that use of force reports were filed on the incidents but city clerks failed to find those reports when responding to WCPO’s record requests. He said it's the department's policy to file reports when "any kind of force" is used.
“Are we trying to cover something up? Absolutely not,” Collins said. “We don’t have a full-time clerk that does this. And we get a lot of requests.”
- WCPO contributors Kevin Eigelbach, Mikaela McGee and Roxanna Swift compiled the data for this analysis.