CINCINNATI, Ohio (FOX19) – Testimony is expected to continue Thursday in the federal trial of two veteran Cincinnati police officers who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city and police chief over their discipline for saying a racial slur.
The officers, Donte Hill, who is black, and Dennis Barnette, who is white, both used the “n-word” to refer to Black citizens during responses months apart in 2018, city records show.
“I see no circumstance where the use of that word is appropriate,’” former Police Chief Eliot Isaac testified Wednesday.
But the way the chief handled their cases was very different initially and that’s what brings this issue before a jury more than three years after the officers’ lawsuit was originally filed in April 2019.
The officers’ lawsuit claims the city and Isaac violated their constitutional rights by treating them differently for using the same racial slur.
The suit names the city of Cincinnati and Issac, who has retired and is now the chief of police and public safety director at the University of Cincinnati.
The lawsuit asks for judgments against the city and Isaac for general, compensatory, special and punitive damage in excess of $25,000 at trial, immediate and permanent equitable relief, reasonable attorneys fees and other relief as the court feels is just.
Isaac is being sued in his official and individual capacity as chief. He retired from CPD last year and is now the police chief and public safety director at the University of Cincinnati.
The city lost a request to have Isaac dismissed from this litigation based on qualified immunity, court records show.
The trial, which is being heard by an all-white jury with no alternates, is expected to last the rest of the week.
On Thursday, the police union president, retired Sgt. Dan Hils, responded “Yes” when a city attorney asked him during cross-examination if Police Chief Eliot Isaac is lying about when he knew Officer Hill received only a written reprimand for saying the n-word on duty during a response.
Her question came after Hils testified former Assistant Police Chief Paul Neudigate told him during a phone call that Neudigate discussed with Isaac, that Officer Hill was receiving a written reprimand in October 2018 for using the n-word on duty in September 2018.
This runs counter to Isaac’s testimony on the stand Wednesday when Issac said Neudigate did not.
The FOP leader sent a statement to FOX19 NOW after court ended later Wednesday. It states:
“Chief Isaac was a good police chief and was generally supportive of Cincinnati police officers. Back in (2019), Chief Isaac said during arbitration that he wasn’t really aware of the decision to discipline Officer Donte Hill. Today in federal court I was shown documents that largely contradicted what Chief Isaac had said and I testified truthfully about those two contradictory facts. I also declined to use some of the inflammatory words one of the city’s attorneys attempted to force me to.”
In January 2019, FOX19 NOW obtained a copy of and reported the chief signed an Oct. 11, 2018 memo that explained why Officer Hill was receiving a written reprimand for saying the n-word.
The chief also wrote “Approved” by his name when he signed in on Oct. 23, 2018, a copy of the document shows.
On the witness stand Wednesday, the former police chief testified he did sign it but said he didn’t recognize or understand at the time the ethnic slur alleged.
Hill, the black officer, was given a written reprimand that multiple police officials including Isaac signed and/or initialed in October 2018.
Officer Hill was allowed to keep working on active duty and off-duty details, police records show.
According to police records, Officer Hill said the n-word to another Black man as he intervened in a fight at a Westwood home in September 2018:
“This is f—in’ stupid. I told you to f—in’ walk home, didn’t I? That Godd— alcohol got you n—— out here acting stupid.”
Officer Barnette, who is white, used it to refer to an African-American woman he restrained during her arrest as she struggled and struck him in the face: (“N—– slapped me in the face”) outside the Brownstone nightclub in Roselawn in December 2018, police records show.
Officer Barnette was stripped of his police powers, gun and badge and put on desk duty with pay on Dec. 26, 2018. He was not permitted to work off-duty details.
The chief launched an internal investigation and alerted the city manager at the time to the situation in an email that was reported in the media shortly after.
“This type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated inside the department,” the chief wrote.
“I will keep you updated on the progress of the investigation and have a recommendation for discipline at the conclusion of the disciplinary process.”
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Two days after Officer Barnette’s suspension, after a member of police internal affairs pointed out to the chief the difference in Officer Hill’s discipline, the chief put Officer Hill on desk duty and suspended his police powers with pay, too.
The chief then sent the city manager another memo indicating the way Officer Hill’s discipline was handled was flawed, records show.
Isaac said the violation that should have been applied prohibits police from expressing, verbally or in writing, any prejudice or offensive comments concerning race, religion, national origin, lifestyle, gender or similar personal characteristics.
The city manager at the time, Patrick Duhaney, was concerned about the discrepancy between the handling of the two cases, according to an email he wrote at the time to then-Mayor John Cranley and members of the city council.
“The offending officer received only a reprimand because the matter was incorrectly categorized when presented to Chief Isaac. This error was only recently discovered. The matter is now being evaluated by the Internal Investigations Section, which is what should have occurred initially, per CPD policy,” his email stated.
Both Officers Hill and Barnette would remain on desk duty until April 2019, when their attorney, Zach Gottesman, filed suit.
Both officers also filed grievances, which were upheld in arbitration later that year. The city was ordered to repay their lost wages and remove the suspensions from their records. The discipline was reduced to written reprimands for both officers.
“Simply put, Chief Isaac erred in not reading the memo closely enough,” one of the arbitrators wrote. “That his error was later brought to his attention does not justify trying to correct it by disciplining (Hill) again. Rather, the City must live with the error.”
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A city spokesman, Rocky Merz, provided the following statement to FOX19 NOW on Tuesday when we called City Hall for comment:
“The lawsuits filed by Officers Hill and Barnette address an entirely different issue than what was decided at arbitration. The issue in the federal lawsuit, filed by the officers, is an allegation that the City racially discriminated against both Officer Barnette and Officer Hill when it gave them both the same discipline for saying the n-word on duty.
“These decisions were made because both Officers’ conduct was inappropriate and is inconsistent with the high standards of professionalism the City, and the citizens of Cincinnati, expect from their officers. The City will defend the Chief’s decisions to hold these officers accountable and rejects the idea that former Chief Eliot Isaac racially discriminated against anyone.”
In January 2019, Duhaney announced he had amended the city’s policy related to racial slurs back in October 2018.
Workers who violate it are suspended without pay for 40 hours and are required to undergo sensitivity training.
They face termination for a second offense.
City Council also passed an emergency ordinance requiring all city employees to undergo implicit and explicit bias training.
READ MORE | Wrong, racist, and we will not stand for it’: Mayor addresses use of ‘n-word,’ announces bias training
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