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City officials are considering zero tolerance for racial slurs. A new policy could be ready next month

cincinnati city hall
Jason Whitman

The recent suspensions of two Cincinnati Police Officers for using racial slurs on duty could result in a change to city policy. Some elected officials are pushing for zero-tolerance, where workers are fired after one use of a racial slur.

City administration held a virtual meeting Monday night to get public feedback.

“The policy still isn't where it should be,” said Assistant City Manager Sheryl Long. “The great thing is, is that we're trying to do things differently; and different means, let's have a conversation with the community. Because just as you all are appalled when these things happen, we are the same way, because that is not a reflection of the majority of our public servants.”

Several Cincinnatians spoke at the public meeting in favor of zero tolerance, including retired CPD officer Donald Jordan.

“My main concern is that all citizens get treated with fair and unbiased and impartial police services,” Jordan said. “If an officer feels this way, clearly that's not going to happen. And I don't want my son running into an officer that feels that way.”

Matthew Korte says he also supports zero-tolerance, as long as that’s not the only change.

“I think we're here today because of some words that were used that got a lot of attention, but what we probably have is a bigger problem with racism in the police department, and not simply the way people are talking,” Korte said. “What we had in the Rose Valentino case is an explicit statement of hatred. And that wouldn't have been improved by her saying, ‘I hate black people,’ or ‘I hate African Americans.’”

Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney said ongoing diversity training could be considered.

Any changes to policy would still allow employees the right to appeal disciplinary action and get a decision from a third-party arbitrator. That can result in less severe discipline or none at all.

Council Member Scotty Johnson, chair of the Public Safety and Law Committee (and a retired CPD officer), says that’s a concern, but shouldn’t prevent city officials from doing what they can.

“I unfortunately have had to deal with the arbitrators as president of the Sentinels and representing officers over 33 years,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a bumpy road in making sure it sticks. But as a city, we’ve got to be the ones that take the initiative to start that.”

Interim City Manager John Curp can make changes to the policy any time, without getting approval from Cincinnati Council. Long says say they want public and employee input, but they don’t plan to delay changes until after a permanent City Manager is hired.

A proposed policy revision should be ready for council feedback by the first week of September.

Although the rule covers all city employees, nearly all the public conversation has been about the Cincinnati Police Department. Allegations of officers using racial slurs date back years:

  • Lt. Jeff Butler in 1999: allegedly said “Can you get my gun for me so I can go lock up some ______?” (Per CityBeat, Butler most likely said “n*****s” but then-City Manager Valerie Lemmie declined to discipline him because analysis of an audio recording was “inconclusive.”)
  • Lt. Patrick Caton in 2002: Caton admitted to investigators that he called a pedestrian a “stupid n****r” while in his patrol car. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Caton faced several accusations before this, including one in 1999 in which a woman claimed he directed the N-word at her 15-year-old son. (Separately, Caton was fired over an assault charge connected to the November 2000 death of Roger Owensby while in police custody. An independent arbitrator reinstated Caton and awarded him $200,000 in back pay.) According to Fox 19, Caton is married to Amanda Caton, a CPD captain who is currently in charge of the Internal Investigations Section that investigates officer misconduct.
  • A lawsuit brought by two CPD officers is currently at trial; the men (one Black, one white) are suing the department for employment discrimination related to disciplinary action after using the N-word on duty.

The current policy includes a few options for disciplinary action on a first violation: 40-hour suspension and mandatory training; or, if the infraction “was not severe or pervasive enough to constitute a Hostile Work Environment,” a written reprimand and training.

Even on a first violation, the policy says more severe discipline can be considered “depending on the circumstance, nature of the violation, and the employee’s disciplinary history.”

Police officials did not approve more severe discipline in the case of Officer Kelly Drach.

Drach admitted to shouting “sand n****s” at a telemarketer on the phone while working at the Real Time Crime Center. Another city employee confronted her about it and Drach apologized; but about a week later, she shouted the same phrase at another telemarketer.

The discipline approved by Interim Police Chief Teresa Theetge was a seven-day suspension.

Body camera video shows Officer Rose Valentino said, “F*****g n*****s, I f*****g hate them,” while driving near Western Hills University High School. Valentino admitted to using the slur.

Valentino’s police powers are suspended until an administrative hearing.

See below: The Cincinnati Black United Front’s proposed changes to Administrative Rule 25, with proposed additions appearing underlined. The proposed changes have not been reviewed or commented on by city officials. Pages five to 11 of the document contain the current administration rule in full.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.