Cincinnati Police Officers' Racial Slurs Draw Ire, Calls for 'Systemic Change'

Some Cincinnati City Council members want answers after CPD officers used an inflammatory racial epithet in two separate incidents late last year

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Cincinnati Police headquarters - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati Police headquarters

After two Cincinnati police officers were caught using the same racial epithet in two different incidents, some are calling for their dismissals — and for a review of the culture within the Cincinnati Police Department.

Body camera footage released Jan. 1 by the Cincinnati Police Department shows officer Dennis Barnette struggling with a woman outside the Brownstone Café in Roselawn Dec. 23 and remarking, “N***** slapped me in the face.” Barnette is white, and the woman is black. Barnette says the woman pushed him. She was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer.

Footage from an unrelated, Sept. 26 call responding to a domestic situation shows officer Donte Hill and another officer attempting to break up a verbal altercation. The confrontation between a man and a woman becomes physical, and Hill steps in, using his Taser on the man and arresting him. As he does, Hill remarks, “That goddamned alcohol got you n****** acting crazy.” Hill and those he was addressing are black.

The Cincinnati NAACP, however, says it would like to see both men dismissed from the force. And some Cincinnati City Council members say the city needs to take a hard look at the culture within CPD.

“I am deeply concerned about the actions of both Cincinnati Police officers using racially charged language,” Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard wrote Dec. 30. “However, as you all know for me, it’s about systems change. I am asking the CPD and the City Administration to come before my committee to discuss how they teach/train officers to go into different communities equipped with the cultural competencies required to protect and serve this entire city. An officer’s ability to be fair is the most important part of their job. If we don’t have the confidence they can do that, what is the point?”

The incidents came during a rough year for CPD, during which the department saw controversy around its use of Tasers on minors, questions about the culture inside the department and an independent audit suggesting that the department has walked back from key parts of the city’s Collaborative Agreement. That court-ordered set of reforms sprang up in the aftermath of the 2001 civil unrest sparked by the police shooting of black, unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas.

A group led by Saul Green, the attorney who monitored the original court-ordered Collaborative, looked at the progress the city has made since the initial reforms. The group's assessment: The city is moving backward when it comes to some race-related police reforms.

The panel found that evidence provided by the city "strongly signals that the City of Cincinnati has abandoned the principles of the Collaborative Agreement,” Green’s team wrote in their final of three reports. “…Taken literally, it states that the City of Cincinnati has unilaterally withdrawn from the Collaborative Agreement.”

Both officers involved in the recent controversies around racial slurs were placed on desk duty following the incidents. CPD Chief Eliot Isaac later said that degree of punishment wasn’t enough and promised a further investigation into both incidents after they became public.

"This type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated inside the department," Isaac wrote to City Manager Patrick Duhaney last month.

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