News: Leading the Heat

FOP President Keith Fangman vows to defend police loudly -- even if it means hot times and more enemies

Despite rumors, FOP President Keith Fangman says he would "no more run for ... sheriff than the man in the moon."

Hot. Heated. Flustered. All describe Keith Fangman or the reactions he's been getting in what many see as his fight against injustices, inaccurate perceptions and efforts — deliberate and incidental — to divide Cincinnati police along the lines of race.

Call Fangman, president of Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Queen City Lodge No. 69, a little warm under the collar. Call him outspoken. Or call him names behind his back as some have started to do in response to the FOP's recent declaration that enough is enough.

But no matter what the adjective, those who know him say Fangman, 34, is in his element, standing on the front lines, fighting for what he believes in and, sometimes, sticking his neck out.

Fangman was much the same in college, when he worked a brief stint for a used-car dealership, recalls Hamilton County Clerk James Cissell, who as a former Cincinnati City Council member employed Fangman as an aide.

"He simply got fed up with the tactics that used-car dealers used to get you to buy their cars," Cissell said.

True to form, Fangman told everyone he could about the dirty wheeling and dealing and even made his own video designed to warn consumers, Cissell said.

"(Fangman) is someone you can trust that he believes in what he is saying," Cissell said. "If he believes in something, he will do something about it."

But, like his homemade video that didn't pan out to be a moneymaker, it's hard to gauge whether he's gaining anything from his fight for fair treatment of police. Some at City Hall are responding publicly — and privately — with allegations that he is disrespectful and self-serving. And in response to Fangman's most recent criticisms over Councilwoman Minette Cooper having met with the safety director to discuss criminal charges that had been brought against her son, Hamilton County's Democratic Party now has joined the anti-Fangman attack.

It's been a while, Fangman said, since things have been so hot.

When he worked for the car dealership, Fangman was making his way through the University of Cincinnati, getting a degree in personnel and industrial relations.

Fangman, who today lives in Westwood with his wife, Sharon, and their three children, said he eventually was inspired to become a police officer by his father, a Cincinnati police officer for 23 years. His older and younger brothers also followed in their father's "big city cop" footsteps.

But Fangman said he had two goals to accomplish before heading off to the police academy in 1993.

First, he wanted to get a college degree for his own "personal satisfaction."

Second, he wanted to work in government for the "challenge."

He worked as Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen's campaign manager when Allen was running for city council in 1989.

"We were both novices to the political process," said Allen, also a former police officer, who did not win the council election.

But the experience helped teach the ropes to both men, he said.

"Fangman knows how to play the game," Allen said. "He's outspoken for one reason and one reason only, he takes his job very seriously and wants to represent his men in an aggressive manner."

And even though "some are put off by his style," Allen thinks it's the best for the FOP.

"He truly believes in what he's doing," Allen said. "They need that voice and a strong leader that's going to go to bat for them."

After working with Allen, Fangman was offered a position with Cissell, who had been re-elected to council.

But it was only after Fangman became a police officer patrolling an Avondale beat in 1994 that he felt "comfortable" and "satisfied."

"I really always felt that was what I was meant to be doing," he said.

In 1997, another opportunity opened up for Fangman.

"It was during the horrible treatment by the city administration of Officer (Doug) Depodesta," Fangman said. "We were furious at what we perceived as a lack of support from council and a lack of respect from the city manager."

Depodesta was involved in the 1997 shooting death of Lorenzo Collins — the escaped mental patient who wielded a brick at police. Though cleared by seven separate investigations, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice, Depodesta still was kept off street duty by the city manager for about a year.

Fangman decided to run for president of the FOP in 1997 to stop "the bull crap being thrown in our face."

"When I was elected, police officers were screaming for a strong vocal advocate, and I think I gave that to them," he said. "But now they need consistency. I mean to be a FOP president that's very firm and direct, but maintains a sense of professionalism. I mean to be someone who is able to realize that just because we're cops, we're not perfect. I think it's important to have a leader admit that we are capable of making mistakes."

Since being elected FOP president, Fangman has challenged the city manager for showing a lack of support for the police division and using a "micro-management" style.

"I'm not going after him, we are just reacting to him," he said. "We just want to be left alone to do our job."

In April, the FOP voted "no confidence" in City Manager John Shirey for his decision to put Officers Brent McCurley and Michael Miller on desk duty. The officers were involved in a shooting death that still is under investigation by the division's internal investigations section. A county prosecutor's investigation has found no criminal wrongdoing while a city Office of Municipal Investigation report has faulted McCurley.

Citing inconsistencies with past practices of returning officers to the street, the FOP protested Shirey's keeping the officers on desk duty, saying it was a form of punishment being rendered before investigations were complete.

In opposition to the city manager's decision and to show support for the officers under investigation, Fangman scheduled a march to City Hall.

During the council meeting, Fangman said Shirey was dishonest in claiming that desk duty for McCurley and Miller was not punishment. Fangman pointed out that during the investigation of Depodesta's actions and after Depodesta was cleared, Shirey had said Depodesta had been put on desk duty as punishment.

"He said then (in 1997) that his decision was to punish Depodesta, and he said 'this officer knows it's punishment,' " Fangman said.

The bottom line is that the lack of a working relationship between the police and Shirey hurts the community, and the officers trying to protect it, Fangman said.

While Fangman now is being criticized by the Democratic Party for dividing people over the issue of race, the declaration of racism that erupts among protesters almost every time a police shooting occurs was among the factors that first spurred Fangman and the FOP to act.

Fangman also has been loudly vocal with criticism over a Cincinnati Police Academy decision to allow four African-American recruits, who failed to meet the minimum academy standards required to graduate, to re-take the test for graduation.

And he has criticized Sentinel Police Association President Cecil Thomas for promoting division instead of unity between black and white officers by sending black officers a threatening letter designed to keep them away from the FOP march on City Hall.

Thomas did not return three messages from CityBeat to comment for this story. City Manager Shirey did not return four messages.

"The overwhelming majority of black police officers that I have spoken to do not support the divisiveness that has been espoused by Cecil Thomas," Fangman said. "He has done nothing but make an attempt to divide our union on racial lines."

When Fangman became president, he said he was determined to include the members of the Sentinels, an organization for black officers, in the FOP — the union that represents all officers in collective bargaining. He put Sentinel board members on powerful FOP committees and had a willingness to work together on issues.

"We are all FOP — white, black, young and old," he said. "But there seems to be a personality problem with me and Cecil."

Before the City Hall march, Thomas sent a two-page letter to black FOP members telling them not to support the march, Fangman said. Twenty-five black FOP members participated in the march anyway.

"As we were walking out of City Hall as a group, a group of black protesters ran over to the black officers yelling 'Uncle Tom' and chanting 'Go back to the 'hood,' " he said. "I will never forget the look of hurt on those officers' faces. Cecil just abandoned them."

Fangman said he could never abandon the officers, though some at City Hall have cast aspersions on his motives. One theory, shared with CityBeat by Shirey's communications officer though she later denied it, is that Fangman's protests are a way of getting publicity because he wants to run for Hamilton County sheriff.

Perhaps, Fangman said, such comments are designed only to deflect the heat.

"I'm flattered so many people seem to think I'm enough on the ball to be elected," he said. "But I would no more run for city council or sheriff than the man in the moon. I'm perfectly content with what I am doing. I have a job that allows me to mix police work and politics. When this ends, I will be perfectly content to go back to being a beat cop."

In the meantime, Fangman said, he will continue to speak up for the officers he represents — even if it means hot times, less friends and more enemies.

"I don't want to look back on my life when I am a 85-year-old man in my rocking chair and say to myself, 'You didn't stand up for what was right because you were afraid of the consequences," Fangman said. "That's just not me." ©