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Hung jury in case of officers who used the "N-word" then sued chief for racial discrimination

Cincinnati Enquirer logo Cincinnati Enquirer 7/23/2022 Cameron Knight, Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac © Sam Greene Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac

The jury ended up deadlocked Friday in U.S. District Court. The case was unique. Two police officers, one white and one Black, sued their Black chief saying he racially discriminated against both of them.

Donte Hill, who is Black, and Dennis Barnette, who is white, said the racial discrimination occurred when former Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac disciplined them in different ways when they were both caught on video using a racial slur in separate incidents in 2018.

Both men used the same racial slur, so argued they should receive the same punishment. Eventually, they did receive the same punishment, but they say the damage was already done.

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Both officers and lawyers on both sides agreed the slur was used and the men were wrong to use it.

"This is not about the N-word," Zachary Gottesman said representing the officers. "We admit that that is not OK. What this is about is the city's reaction."

Lawyers representing Isaac and the city said the initial disparity in punishment was simply the oversight of a busy chief running a short-staffed department. They said any distress the officers suffered was not the fault of the city or the chief.

"These were Cincinnati police officers using the N-word," lawyer William Hicks said. "This was brought on by (their) own actions."

Mistrial declared, new trial scheduled

The 10 members of the all-white jury deliberated for the full day Friday. Lawyers on both sides said the case largely hinged on whether the jurors believed Chief Isaac's version of events.

Just after 4 p.m., the jury alerted Judge Susan Dlott that they were not in agreement and no member of the jury had changed their vote the entire day.

A unanimous decision was needed to decide the case.

Dlott told the jurors to give it one more try. After another hour, the jury said they were still deadlocked and Dlott declared a mistrial.

The lawyers were told to report back to court for another trial on Aug. 16.

What happened leading up to the lawsuit

Hill was caught using the slur first. Court documents state he was involved in an arrest in which a Taser was used in Sept. 2018. Due to this, all the body camera footage from the incident was reviewed.

Hill's supervisors determined that Hill should receive a written reprimand. Assistant Chief Lt. Col. Neudigate approved the disciplinary measure. His signature is on the memo about the decision.


Video: Case involving police officers' claims of racial discrimination unfolding in federal court in Cincinnati (WLWT Cincinnati)

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Neudigate then took the memo to Chief Isaac to sign. Both sides agree that it was unusual to seek the chief's approval for a written reprimand. The lawyers for the officers said Neudigate knew the serious nature of the slur and wanted to make doubly sure it was handled properly.

Here's where the account split, and the lawsuit hinged on how Isaac treated that memo.

The police officers and their lawyers argue Isaac never would have signed the memo without reading it. Isaac said he was overwhelmed at the time and signed it without fully reading or understanding it.

It was shown to the jury repeatedly during the trial. The jury could read the words of Hill on the screen in the memo, spelled out clearly: "That G**d*** alcohol got you n****** out here acting stupid.”

The lawyers for the police officers claimed Isaac signed the memo knowing exactly what was in it. Isaac said he signed it without really reading or understanding it.

For the jury, the question was whether they believe Chief Isaac who testified during the trial. He spoke of being short-staffed and extremely busy.

The second case with the white officer

The public controversy arose when Barnette was caught on film using the same slur in early 2018. Barnette is white and this caught the attention of the witnesses, city leaders and the media.

"Politicians at city hall were calling for Barnette's head," Gottesman said.

Isaac suspended Barnette's police powers, something that did not occur for Hill.

During the fallout, Isaac said Hill's case was brought to his attention. He said he did not remember the case or signing the reprimand. After that, Isaac decided to reopen Hill's case.

Eventually, he suspended the police powers of both officers and gave them both 56-hour, unpaid suspensions. He also issued a statement saying Hill's initial punishment was an oversight.

Lawyers for the officers said this was just an excuse. They said Isaac knowingly set the bar with Hill's discipline, but levied a harsher penalty against Barnette, in part, because he was white.

"Discipline is supposed to be uniform," Gottesman said.

In the lawsuit, Hill argues he was targeted unfairly due to his race when his punishment was increased. His lawyer said this was an effort by the chief to level the playing field.

Both sides acknowledged that much of the case hinged on whether the jury believed Isaac's version of events or not.

"Chief Isaac ... didn't do this because of their race, he did this because they were police officers," Hicks said. "He admits he messed up and overlooked it."

Both punishments overturned in arbitration

In April 2019, the officers filed their lawsuit. Their lawyers say that within hours the officer's police powers were restored. They say this demonstrates the city and the chief knew they were caught "flat-footed."

The punishments for both officers were overturned during labor arbitration. In the end, they both received written reprimands and never served their 56-hour suspensions. They were also compensated for their loss of income during the time their police powers were stripped. Officers cannot work extra off-duty details without their police powers.

Since the case was filed, Hill has left the Cincinnati Police Department. He is now an officer in Evendale. Barnette remains an officer in Cincinnati.

This is a civil case, so if Isaac and the city lose the lawsuit the punishment would be in form of monetary damages. The lawyers for the officers asked the jury to award the officers $15,000 each, but also said the jurors were welcome to award them as much as they felt was appropriate.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Hung jury in case of officers who used the "N-word" then sued chief for racial discrimination

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