'Help Me, God:' Newport Police body camera reveals new insight into use of force incident

Posted at 5:00 AM, Mar 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-22 09:17:17-04

NEWPORT, Ky. — Hugo Aguilar's right eye was swollen shut. Cuts and bruises marked his blood-soaked face. He leaned back against a Newport police car, dropped his head and sobbed.

It was 2:20 am on May 7, 2017, just a few minutes after two Newport officers repeatedly delivered blows to Aguilar's body and face while he was face down on a parking lot with one arm behind his back. A doctor would later diagnose Aguilar with a broken eye socket and two broken ribs.

Steve Linville, the Newport officer who struck Aguilar in the face, recently left the department.

Now, nearly two years after the incident, the WCPO I-Team has obtained Newport police body camera video showing exactly what happened for the first time. The Newport police department concluded the use of force against Aguilar was justified.

The body camera video reveals that Newport officers were unable to communicate effectively with Aguilar and two other passengers in a vehicle who couldn't speak English. The officers ordered the passengers to get out of the car and put their hands up, the video shows, but the men didn't do it.

Sgt. Brandon Haffey gave orders in English and Spanish. Several officers were visibly frustrated, including Sgt. Haffey, who made vulgar and demeaning comments to Aguilar, the video shows. Sgt. Haffey and a second officer discussed if paramedics could "clean him up" so the Campbell County jail would accept Aguilar. Later, Haffey acknowledged Aguilar's eye injury looked worse and the jail might reject him based on his condition.

"If you don't have accountability in a department that just means that people get to do what they want to do, and that's when we get incidents like the one you described," Dr. Lorie Fridelltold the WCPO I-Team. Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, has conducted research on police use of force and bias in policing for 20 years. Fridell said the failure to recognize officers' bias and how they respond when they're angry is a "grave risk in policing."

The Newport body camera video also highlights challenges facing police and suspects who can't communicate effectively with each other, and how the frustration resulting from it can cause an already tense situation to quickly deteriorate and become violent.

"Obviously there's grave harm for the people involved with the police, but it hurts the officers and -- even more important -- it hurts the agencies," Fridell told WCPO.

The WCPO I-Team learned about the incident last year. The Newport Police Department documented some of the details in a use of force report. WCPO requested and received use of force reports from 32 local police departments and sheriff's offices.

Our investigation, Forcing the Peace, examined roughly 2,500 use of force incidents. According to the records those local agencies provided, Newport officers delivered more blows to the head than any other local department since January 2016, including those that are much larger and respond to far more crime. The I-Team's investigation determined Newport officer Steve Linville has struck eight people with head shots, which is more than the number of head strikes that 30 police departments reported, according to the records provided by those departments.

Photo Gallery: Photos show details of Aguilar use of force incidentt

The Aguilar incident

The incident with Hugo Aguilar began with a brief vehicle pursuit from Newport to Covington.

The police body camera video shows Newport Officer Chris Gallichio followed a car using his flashing red and blue lights and siren for two minutes before the driver stopped in a parking lot. Other officers arrived quickly — lights flashing and sirens blaring — then parked their cruisers in a half-circle around the suspect's vehicle. Newport police repeatedly ordered the driver to get out. One minute after the car stopped, the driver, Daniel Rodriguez, finally opened his door and slowly backpedaled toward police. Aguilar and two other passengers remained inside the vehicle.

The body camera video shows officers had a difficult time seeing how many passengers were still in the car, much less what they were doing. But after a brief interaction with Rodriguez, who spoke little English, officers assumed that the passengers may not understand their commands.

"Anybody speak Spanish," Officer Gallichio repeatedly asked officers standing next to him. One officer responded "no." Immediately after that, Gallichio told other officers to prepare to approach Rodriguez's car.

"We'll take the front seat passenger. Unless somebody knows some Spanish," Gallichio said.

As three Newport officers — Steve Linville, Brian Waldorf and Chris Boyd — prepared to approach the car with shields and guns drawn, Sgt. Haffey spoke to the passengers in Spanish over a loudspeaker.

"Hombre, senor," Haffey told them. He sounded tentative. "Ven aqui, si tu" Translation: 'Man, sir. Come here. Yes, you.' Then, Sgt. Haffey admitted, "I don't really speak Spanish, either."

Sgt. Haffey put down the mic for his police radio and followed the three officers to the vehicle.

"Got three in the car," one officer barked. Once again, Sgt. Haffey spoke Spanish to the passengers. This time he was only a few feet away from them. Haffey ordered them three times to put up their hands. "I know that you know what that fucking means," Haffey told the men. Despite getting no response, Sgt. Haffey continued speaking to them in Spanish ordering them to raise their hands.

"Watch out," Officer Linville told the other officers on the body camera video. "Alright, go ahead," Sgt. Haffey responded.

Then, Linville smashed out a rear passenger window with his baton. Officers grabbed the two passengers in the backseat, Laynez Nehemias-Deovardo and Wveimar Vazquez-Perez, and took them into custody. Aguilar was still in the front seat. His door was locked and the window was all the way up. Sgt. Haffey continued ordering Aguilar to put up his hands.

"Stupid mother fucker," Haffey said as he looked inside the vehicle at Aguilar. "His seat belt is on. He's dumb as fuck." Haffey asked an officer to reach in and unlock Aguilar's door. Officers pulled him out and forced Aguilar to the ground.

Aguilar, 5'2" and 120 pounds, struggled under the much larger officers who had him face down on the pavement.

"Why do you gotta be so difficult?" Haffey told Aguilar as he stood above him. An unknown officer lying on top of Aguilar pushed him into the pavement. Haffey pressed his foot against the back of Aguilar's neck and assured the other officers, "I got him. I got him."

Seconds later, Officer Linville appeared to his lose his temper.

"Give me your fucking hand," he snapped at Aguilar. Almost immediately, Linville delivered a knee strike to Aguilar that landed with a thud and rocked the man's body. The body camera video shows Linville's body jerking sideways with force, the officer's face contorted in anger, as he repeatedly drove his knee into Aguilar's shoulder and face. At the same time, Newport Officer Chris Boyd punches Aguilar's side several times, according to the Newport police department's use of force report on the incident. The officers yelled in English for Aguilar to "stop resisting" even though they had already concluded he didn't speak or understand English.

"Oh God," Aguilar wailed in Spanish. "Oh, help me God."

Newport's use of force report indicates Linville "delivered five to six knee strikes to his right shoulder." The report also claims Linville "stated three to four of those strikes slipped and struck Aguilar on the right side of his face as he thrashed around and continue to resist." The body camera video appears to show Linville delivered all of those blows in less than 10 seconds. According to the Newport use of force report, Boyd and Linville claimed they used the force because they "were in fear" that Aguilar might "be going for a weapon" with the hand that he refused to surrender to them.

Newport use of force reports reviewed by WCPO typically mention that officers "may only use the amount of force reasonably necessary" for self-protection, to overcome resistance, prevent escape or to control a situation. Geoffrey Alpert, who taught at the FBI National Academy and conducts research on high-risk policing behaviors, told the I-Team last fall, "Head strikes are always a bad idea unless deadly use of force is justified."

The Newport Police Department's review of the incident concluded that the use of force was justified. Newport Police Chief Tom Collins and two supervisors signed off on the use of force report. The report mentioned that, “Once Aguilar was in custody, officers stopped.”

Aguilar in police custody

Officers cuffed Aguilar and easily lifted him to his feet. He moaned and mumbled as officers began to escort him to a nearby police car.

"Please," Aguilar said.

"Shut up," an officer responded.

Four minutes later, Sgt. Haffey's body camera video showed Officer Linville walking up to Haffey. "Are you off?" he asked Haffey. The two officers were silent until Haffey reached up and turned off his body camera.

Sgt. Haffey turned on his body camera again, so he could record himself taking photos of Aguilar's facial injuries. A firefighter asked Haffey and another officer if the Campbell County jail would take Aguilar in this condition. The second officer responded, "Yeah, we'll just have to clean him up." Haffey chimed in, "Yeah, if you guys can clean him up they'll generally take them."

"Just put some water on him, scrape him and be done," the second officer said as he chuckled. The firefighter looked closely at Aguilar's face.

"It looks like just minor cuts on him," he told the officers. "Do you want us to clean it up?"

"If you guys could clean it up real fast that would fantastic. Fantastico!" Sgt. Haffey said as he stood in front of Aguilar. Haffey moved around Aguilar to take more pictures.

"Let me see where that blood is coming from there," he said, holding his flashlight in one hand and his cellphone in the other. "It's just coming from his ear."

Aguilar hung his head and started to cry again.

"I don't know why it's so tough," Haffey told him. "I asked you like five times to open the door in English and Spanish." Haffey walked toward a different Newport officer and told him, "I'm still on here," referring to his body camera.

According to Newport's use of force report on the incident, someone told Newport Lt. Kevin Drohan that "Aguilar's eye appeared to be worse." Drohan contacted Newport paramedics, who transported Aguilar to St. Elizabeth Fort Thomas. It's unclear when the decision was made to take Aguilar to the hospital. Newport officers and paramedics are not heard discussing it on the police body camera videos.

Seconds before he turned off his body camera for the last time, Sgt. Haffey told another officer, "I don't know if they're (the jail) going to take him or not. He's got a hematoma."

Newport's response

Newport Police Chief Tom Collins has declined several requests to discuss the case. Collins told the WCPO I-Team that city of Newport attorneys insist he can't talk about it because one of Aguilar's co-defendants, Daniel Rodriguez, still has an active case. The case against Aguilar is over. He was convicted of disorderly conduct. WCPO has been unable to reach him for comment.

The city of Newport also refused to release police body camera video of the incident because Rodriguez's case isn't over. So, WCPO asked Rodriguez's attorney, Nick Summe, if he would release the video to us. After Rodriguez approved Summe giving us a copy of the body camera video, the attorney provided it to us. After WCPO watched the video, we asked Chief Collins again to sit down for an on-camera interview. He declined.

During our on-camera interview with Collins last fall, he expressed concerns about some use of force incidents, then contradicted himself and defended the officers, including Steve Linville.

"He's young and he's got to learn," Collins told WCPO. "But some people never learn."

After WCPO aired our stories about Newport's use of force last October, we requested interviews with Mayor Jerry Peluso and City Manager Thomas Fromme, but they did not respond. So, we approached them after a Newport City Commission meeting in November. Peluso referred us to Fromme, a former Newport Police Chief, who told WCPO "I have faith in the chief."

At the time, Fromme told the WCPO I-Team Chief Collins was reviewing use of force practices, but the city has declined to discuss it further.

Officer Linville is no longer with the Newport Police Department. Chief Collins has not responded to WCPO's emails and voice mail messages requesting information about Linville's departure. On Feb. 28, Shannon Clem, the Police Chief of Falmouth, Kentucky, announced on Facebook that he had hired Linville as a police officer. Chief Clem and Linville did not respond to requests for comment.

"Somebody's going to get killed"

"It's only a matter of time. They're going to get sued. Somebody's going to get killed," longtime police chief Chuck Gruber told WCPO last November after we shared our findings with him.

Nearly 20 years ago, Gruber was on the Department of Justice team that investigated civil rights violations by Cincinnati police officers. The DOJ team helped shape the 2002 Cincinnati Collaborative agreement credited with prompting reform in the CPD.

Gruber was concerned that the actions of a small group of officers account for most of the department's use of force incidents. In addition, our investigation revealed that even though Newport's use of force stood out among all local departments, Chief Collins had not disciplined any of his officers for their actions during use of force incidents.

"I think the problem is that you don't have a review system or an accountability system that's working," Gruber told WCPO. "Organizational accountability is probably non-existent for that agency."

During our interview last fall, Chief Collins emphasized the Newport Police Department is committed to making the community safer while holding officers accountable if they step over the line.

"We do a heck of a job keeping these guys accountable to this community," Collins said then.

"Accountability within an agency is critical," Fridell said. "Officers need to know if they misbehave or violate policy that they're going to be held accountable within the department."

The University of Cincinnati Police Department hired Fridell to lead training for command staff and officers after then-UC officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Sam DuBose in 2015. Fridell told WCPO the training focused on how to identify and control bias that make it more challenging for officers to be fair and impartial. Fridell said that kind of training is "critically important for police departments."

Fridell said if police departments don't respond swiftly and appropriately to officers who show insensitivity and anger during police responses, the inappropriate conduct will undermine law enforcement's mission of protecting and serving their communities.

"Police need legitimacy," Fridell said. "They need to have the trust and respect of their constituency or people won't call the police, they won't provide information, they will not support their budgets."

Ignoring these issues "will have grave consequences for police in general," Fridell said.

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