News: 'He Said, He Said'

Experts point to officer's racial slur, but city won't act

Mar 24, 2004 at 2:06 pm

"Niggers," "natives," "neighbors." "Pickers," "diggers," "dopers." In analyzing a tape of Cincinnati Police Lt. Jeff Butler's alleged racial slur, an expert consulted by the city considered all of those possible pronunciations.

At dispute is a sentence in an internal affairs interrogation, at the end of which Butler says, "Can you get my gun for me so I can go lock up some __?"

Butler most likely said "niggers," according to Suzanne Boyce, who teaches communications science and disorders at the University of Cincinnati.

The city released her report March 22.

"In summary, three strands of phonetic and linguistic evidence — expert listening, acoustical analysis and lip reading/ video analysis — suggests that the word 'niggers' is the most likely candidate for the disputed word," the report says. "Certainly, it appears to be considerably more likely than the words 'natives' or the word 'neighbors.' "

But Boyce says certainty isn't possible.

"The high degree of noise on the original audio track, and in particular the extra noise conditions operating during the disputed word, make definite identification of the word impossible," the report says.

In a report to city council, City Manager Valerie Lemmie said the police department's internal investigation found the analysis of the tape "inconclusive" and recommended a finding of "not sustained" for the allegation.

An independent expert scoffed at the finding.

"How in the world can that be ruled inconclusive?" says Darren R. Sebring, a forensic examiner with ISA Forensics, Inc. of Indianapolis.

His own analysis, conducted at the request of City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, confirmed that Butler used the word "niggers," Sebring says.

Sebring discussed his analysis during a March 10 talk show on WLW-AM. Keith Fangman, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, appeared on the same show.

Fangman was present when Butler's interrogation was recorded in 1999 (see Tale of the Tape, issue of Jan. 14-20). On WLW, Fangman asserted that he had made no visible reaction to Butler's statement, because there was no racial slur.

But Sebring disputes that claim, as well. He says his analysis shows Fangman clearly responded. In an interview after the show, Sebring says he restrained himself from debating Fangman. But Sebring told CityBeat his response: "Mr. Fangman, there was a response. You said, 'Oh, shit!' "

Meanwhile, another independent expert has also concluded that Butler used the same racial slur that Smitherman, Councilman John Cranley and Mayor Charlie Luken say they clearly hear on the tape.

Attorney Rick Morgan represents the family of the late Roger Owensby Jr. in a lawsuit over his death in police custody (see Piling On, issue of Oct. 3-9, 2002). Morgan sent the tape to Litigation Support Services (LSS) in Cincinnati, and Paul Jahn, technical director of LSS, concluded Butler used the word "niggers." Moreover, he says he didn't find the technical difficulties Boyce cited.

"Quite frankly, (it's) not that muddled," Jahn says.

Butler phoned the WLW talk show March 10 and said he remembered the word he used five years ago; he said it was "dopers," police lingo for drug offenders.

"I ask for my gun to be given back to me so I could go back out and lock up some dopers, which was my job," Butler said.

Sebring, however, refuted him.

"I'm hearing the N word," he said on the talk show. " 'Dopers' is definitely not what I'm hearing."

Fangman suggested that Sebring had analyzed a bad tape.

"So many people think this tape has been doctored," Fangman said.

Jahn's analysis used a tape provided CityBeat in November 2003 by Lt. Kurt Byrd, spokesman for the police department. Jahn said he found nothing unusual in the tape. Sebring's analysis was a copy given to Smitherman by the newspaper.

Curiously, Boyce raised the issue of possible doctoring of the tape — which she got directly from internal investigators. In a Jan. 13 e-mail to Capt. Daniel Gerard, she expressed concern about the quality of the tape they had given her.

"I have found there is something wrong with the copy of the full conversation that your acoustic engineer made," the letter says. "The waveform looks all right, and the speech sounds more or less OK, but some portions of the frequency spectrum are missing. I am not sure what he did. I should have made the copy myself with my own cable."

Boyce says she later did just that.

Sebring says the dispute can be cleared by having Butler give a voice exemplar — speaking the alleged words — for comparison and analysis to the original tape, a process known as a voice spectrograph.

Lemmie told city council that a provision in the city's contract with the FOP prohibits disciplinary action "after a three-year period from the date of the alleged misconduct."

But the internal investigation shows Lemmie misstated the rule. Quoting the contract, investigators said the three-year limit starts after the misconduct occurs or "three years from the date of ... department knowledge of such misconduct."

The police department allegedly learned about the racial slur three months ago — apparently well within the range of Lemmie's ability to take disciplinary action. ©