News: Tale of the Tape

Alleged police racial slur stirs investigation

Police Chief Thomas Streicher reacts to a tape showing an alleged racial slur by a subordinate officer. Streicher saw the tape Dec. 22 during a deposition.

Sgt. Jeff Butler thought the tape recorder was off, and he was right. But he might have forgotten about the video camera, which was still recording his interrogation during an internal investigation of alleged misuse of Cincinnati Police overtime.

It's hard to know what's most shocking, or most revealing, in the tape. A single sentence at the very end contains language that has launched a flurry of angry memos in City Hall. After viewing the tape in connection with an unrelated lawsuit against the city, attorney Richard Morgan rendered Butler's words thus: "Go get my gun so I can lock up some niggers."

Butler, now a lieutenant, did not return calls seeking comment.

The statement itself is jarring, but so is the fact that Keith Fangman, then president of the Fraternal Order of Police, was sitting next to Butler when he made it. Fangman, present as Butler's union representative, has for several years denied accusations that the Cincinnati Police Department engages in racial profiling.

On the tape, neither Fangman nor Sgt. Russell Neville, the investigator questioning Butler, responds to the remark. In a sense, that might be the most useful thing about the tape: It shows police conduct in a police setting.

This wasn't a hypothetical training exercise, as when Police Chief Thomas Streicher called a black sergeant a "nigger" (see Should Any Word Be Off Limits?, issue of June 8-14, 2000); or an excited utterance, as when Officer Patrick Caton was caught on a cruiser tape calling a pedestrian by the same name.

Butler's remark came in what officers call "the sweat box," during an internal investigation — a setting in which police officers have every reason to show their best behavior.

There's a certain irony in the outrage now being voiced by city officials. The tape is, after all, nearly five years old, recorded in February 1999. Responding to complaints last week from city council, City Manager Valerie Lemmie directed Streicher to investigate the alleged racial slur and take disciplinary action.

Butler isn't the only person who might face discipline, according to Lemmie's Jan. 9 memo.

"It is my expectation that the CPD will thoroughly investigate this incident and, if true, Lt. Jeff Butler and the other members of the department who witnessed the alleged utterance will be disciplined to the fullest extent within your authority and consistent with the current contract between the city and the FOP," Lemmie wrote.

Streicher has known about the tape since at least Dec. 22, 2003. He apparently took no action after seeing it and didn't report the tape's existence to Lemmie. She learned about it last week from council members, who got it from CityBeat.

The videotape came to light during research for a CityBeat investigation into alleged misuse of funds by Cincinnati Police officers (see Protection Racket, issue of Dec. 10-16, 2003).

During sworn testimony Dec. 22, Streicher was questioned by Morgan, who played the tape for him. The testimony was part of a pretrial deposition in a lawsuit over the death of Roger Owensby Jr. in police custody (see Piling On, issue of Oct. 3-9, 2002).

But Streicher, Fangman and Neville can't be the only people who knew about the tape. The city solicitor's office provided the tape in 2000 as evidence in federal court in an employment lawsuit by two police officers. The case was settled with city payments of $240,000 to each of the officers, so the tape was never played in open court. It sat in a box for three years until CityBeat stumbled upon it.

But before turning over the tape, the city's attorneys presumably watched it first. Will Lemmie's call for an investigation extend to them?

After seeing the videotape last week, several council members were angry.

"It's an insult to all Cincinnatians," said Mayor Charlie Luken.

Councilman John Cranley called Butler's comments "shocking and outrageous." Councilman Christopher Smitherman — who has led the call for a council investigation of the allegations of fiscal impropriety — seemed saddened by the tape.

"I am disappointed as an African American after reviewing the tape and its contents," he said. "The tape is appalling."

Last week Councilman Jim Tarbell told CityBeat it would be "irresponsible" to publicize the tape, given the "climate" in the city. Tarbell also suggested the tape had been doctored. CityBeat obtained its copy of the tape through a public records request to Lt. Kurt Byrd, spokesman for the police department.

Civil rights attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein, part of the legal team that reached a collaborative agreement with the city on police reform, said the tape has serious ramifications.

"I would want everyone to be satisfied that the tape is authentic, meaning that the copies have been taken from the original with no alteration," Gerhardstein said. "If it is, Butler should resign or be fired. The city and the Citizens Complaint Authority should thoroughly investigate Butler's conduct over the last four years. Fangman should resign from FOP leadership. The FOP should publicly apologize for covering for officers who hold racist views. The FOP should commit to implementing the collaborative, including the provisions on bias-free policing."

Streicher, Neville and Fangman did not return calls seeking comment.

In his Dec. 22 deposition, Streicher said he couldn't quite make out what Butler says on the tape. Then Morgan spells it out: "Go get my gun so I can lock up some niggers."

"I didn't hear that," Streicher replied.

That's not just a denial; it might also be a metaphor for Streicher's leadership. ©

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