NOBODY IS SAYING CINCINNATI POLICE OFFICER KEITH FANGMAN IS AN IDIOT — NOBODY, THAT IS, EXCEPT OFFICER KEITH FANGMAN.
IN AN ASTONISHING RESPONSE TO THE INDICTMENT OF TWO FELLOW CINCINNATI COPS ON CHARGES OF INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER AND ASSAULT, FANGMAN SEEMS TO SUGGEST IGNORANCE AS A DEFENSE.
"WE USED TO KNOW WHAT ASSAULT MEANS," SAID FANGMAN, PRESIDENT OF THE FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE (FOP) CHAPTER, IN A TELEVISION INTERVIEW LAST WEEK. "NOW WE'RE NOT SURE."
JUDGING BY THE DECISION OF A HAMILTON COUNTY GRAND JURY, ASSAULT MEANS HURTING A PERSON WITHOUT JUST CAUSE — AS IN THE CASE OF ROGER OWENSBY JR., THE MAN WHOSE SUFFOCATION IN POLICE CUSTODY LED TO THE INDICTMENT OF OFFICERS ROBERT JORG, FOR INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER, AND PATRICK CATON, FOR ASSAULT.
HAMILTON COUNTY PROSECUTOR MICHAEL ALLEN SCOFFS AT FANGMAN'S CLAIM THAT OFFICERS DON'T KNOW WHAT ASSAULT IS.
"IT'S IN THE CRIMINAL CODE," ALLEN SAYS. "I CAN RECITE IT FOR YOU: 'YOU CANNOT KNOWINGLY CAUSE PHYSICAL HARM TO ANOTHER.' IT'S A SIMPLE STATUTE. YOU CAN CAUSE PHYSICAL HARM DURING AN ARREST. BUT IF IT'S UNJUSTIFIABLY INITIATED, IT'S A PROBLEM.
"I UNDERSTAND OFFICERS HAVE TO MAKE SNAP DECISIONS. BUT THEY STILL HAVE TO ABIDE BY THE LAWS OF SOCIETY. OUR POSITION IS THIS WAS NOT AN ACCIDENT."
THE JAN. 3 INDICTMENT OF JORG AND OF CATON LAUNCHED A REMARKABLE THREE DAYS OF EVENTS FOR THE POLICE DEPARTMENT. THE INDICTMENTS MARK THE FIRST TIME CRIMINAL CHARGES HAVE RESULTED FROM A DEATH IN CUSTODY AT THE HANDS OF A CINCINNATI POLICE OFFICER. THAT PROBABLY MAKES FANGMAN'S PUBLIC-RELATIONS PLOY EQUALLY HISTORIC: IN STARTING A LEGAL-DEFENSE FUND FOR THE ACCUSED, FANGMAN IS THE FIRST CINCINNATI COP TO ASK THE PUBLIC FOR MONEY TO HELP AN ACCUSED KILLER.
THE DAY AFTER THOSE INDICTMENTS, A GRAND JURY CHARGED OFFICER MATTHEW J. MOMING WITH UNAUTHORIZED USE OF PROPERTY, FOR USING A POLICE COMPUTER TO DO A FAVOR FOR A FRIEND. THE SAME DAY, AN ARBITRATOR REINSTATED OFFICER ROBERT J. HILL III, WHO HAD BEEN FIRED FOR USING EXCESSIVE FORCE ON AN ALZHEIMER'S PATIENT. THE NEXT DAY, POLICE ANNOUNCED THE TWO OFFICERS INDICTED IN OWENSBY'S DEATH WILL CONTINUE TO BE PAID WHILE ON ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE.
WITH POLICE OFFICERS BEING INDICTED IN A HOMICIDE, REINSTATED AFTER ROUGHING UP A DISABLED CITIZEN AND CLAIMING IGNORANCE OF WHAT ASSAULT IS, ALLEN SAYS THE PUBLIC HAS NO REASON TO FEAR.
"ABSOLUTELY NOT," ALLEN SAYS. "I DON'T THINK PEOPLE HAVE ANYTHING TO FEAR IN THEIR POLICE DIVISION. IT'S ONE OF THE BEST RUN POLICE DEPARTMENTS IN THE COUNTRY."
REPORTERS HAVE FAILED TO PUT RECENT POLICE SCANDALS IN CONTEXT, ACCORDING TO ALLEN, WHO IS A FORMER CINCINNATI POLICE OFFICER.
"NONE OF THE MEDIA HAS SEEN FIT TO DO THE RESEARCH," HE SAYS. "IF YOU LOOK AT CITIES OF SIMILAR SIZE TO CINCINNATI, WHAT YOU'LL FIND IS WE'RE VERY FORTUNATE TO HAVE THE POLICE DIVISION WE HAVE, BECAUSE THESE INCIDENTS ARE VERY RARE."
ALLEN'S STAFF REFERRED CITYBEAT TO U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE STATISTICS PURPORTED TO SHOW FEWER CINCINNATI POLICE OFFICERS ARE CHARGED WITH CRIMINAL OFFENSES THAN OFFICERS ELSEWHERE. BUT AN OFFICIAL WITH THE BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS SAYS IT DOESN'T HAVE SUCH NUMBERS.
"BJS DOES NOT HAVE THE INFORMATION YOU REQUEST," SAYS STEVEN SMITH OF THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT. "IF AVAILABLE AT ALL, THIS INFORMATION WOULD HAVE TO BE GATHERED DIRECTLY FROM EACH JURISDICTION."
ALLEN DISMISSES CRITICISM BY SOME LOCAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN LEADERS WHO ARGUE MORE SERIOUS CHARGES SHOULD HAVE BEEN BROUGHT AGAINST JORG AND CATON.
"THOSE PEOPLE ARE NEVER GOING TO BE SATISFIED WITH ACTION TAKEN AGAINST POLICE OFFICERS," ALLEN SAYS. "THOSE PEOPLE HAVE NO PURPOSE OTHER THAN TO DIVIDE THE COMMUNITY, AND FRANKLY I DON'T CARE WHAT THEY SAY. THEY'RE IRRESPONSIBLE STATEMENTS. THEY DISRUPT MEETINGS, AND I REALLY DON'T CARE ABOUT THEIR OPINION."
ALLEN DECLINES TO SAY WHO "THOSE PEOPLE" ARE.
HE ALSO REFUSES TO ANSWER FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE EVENTS LEADING TO OWENSBY'S DEATH. JORG AND CATON, ALTHOUGH THE ONLY TWO FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES, WERE AMONG FIVE OFFICERS PLACED ON ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE AFTER THE SUSPECT DIED.
ALLEN REFUSES TO SAY WHAT JORG AND CATON DID TO OWENSBY. THE HAMILTON COUNTY CORONER, WHO RULED THE DEATH A HOMICIDE, HAS SUGGESTED OWENSBY DIED AFTER BEING PLACED IN A CHOKE HOLD OR AFTER OFFICERS PILED ATOP HIM.
"I CAN'T COMMENT," ALLEN SAYS. "I CAN ONLY SAY THE FACTS WILL COME OUT AT TRIAL."
NOR DO THE INDICTMENTS REVEAL WHY POLICE STOPPED OWENSBY IN ROSELAWN NOV. 7 IN THE FIRST PLACE. THE MAN ALLEGEDLY RAN FROM OFFICERS WHO HAD DETAINED HIM. ALLEN REFUSES TO SAY IF JORG AND CATON WERE THE OFFICERS OWENSBY RAN FROM BEFORE BEING KILLED.
Allen does, however, say Owensby wasn't sought for arrest on a warrant or capias.
"Not that this office is aware of," Allen says. "One of the officers recognized him from a previous confrontation. Mr. Owensby ran, and that's when he was arrested."
Allen says the grand jury met six days on the Owensby homicide, taking testimony from 14 officers, eight civilians and Coroner Dr. Carl Parrot Jr.
"The Cincinnati Police homicide squad did an outstanding job investigating it," Allen says. "They came into this with no preconceived notions. They handled it like any other homicide case. They interviewed every police officer who didn't invoke their Fifth Amendment rights."
Allen refuses to say if Jorg and Caton are the only officers who took the Fifth.
Attorney John Helbling, who represents Owensby's family, has had little to say about the indictments.
"The family wishes to see that justice prevails and the system works," Helbling says.
A former attorney in the office of the Judge Advocate General during his military service, Helbling began practicing law in Cincinnati in 1995. His military legal career overseas prepared him well for the Owensby case, Helbling says.
"I have had firsthand experience seeing what happens when civil rights are not respected," he says.
Fangman, meanwhile, failed to return repeated telephone calls from CityBeat. This, however, isn't entirely unexpected.
The FOP leader probably is still studying the definition of "assault." That task behind him, Fangman might advance to learning telephone etiquette. ©