• Sun. Oct 25th, 2020

Do we want to elect a sheriff guilty of using excessive force to kill an unarmed Black man?

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

By Keith Borders and Paul DeMarco

The Enquirer article on Bruce Hoffbauer’s killing of Walter Brown in 1990 left out key facts and did not mention what’s most striking about Hoffbauer’s candidacy for Hamilton County Sheriff: he’s trying to become the first person in the United States in half a century to be elected sheriff after having been found guilty of using excessive force to kill an unarmed Black man.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were members of Cincinnati’s Citizens Police Review Panel (CPRP), which was the predecessor of today’s Citizen Complaint Authority. The CPRP reviewed police-involved shootings to determine if excessive force had been used. Although the CPRP’s jurisdiction did not allow it to review shootings that occurred earlier in the 1990s, we as panel members were nonetheless familiar with accounts of those earlier shootings, including two in which mentally ill Black men, Walter Brown and Lorenzo Collins, died. One could say Collins, unlike Brown, was not literally “unarmed:” he had a brick in his hand while surrounded by 15 police officers with guns drawn, before two of them shot him.

Although, as the shooting of Sam DuBose in 2015 shows, a police officer killing an unarmed Black man can lead to criminal charges in Cincinnati now, the state of “justice” here in the 1990s was such that it just didn’t happen then. Internal investigations within the police department routinely cleared such officers of wrongdoing, the county prosecutor’s office unquestioningly rubber-stamped their actions, and that was the end of it.

Instead of leading to criminal charges against the officers involved, the killings of Lorenzo Collins and Walter Brown led to the creation of the CPRP. We were appointed to the CPRP and began reviewing alleged police misconduct in 1999.

The CPRP was not the first instance of civilian oversight of police shootings in Cincinnati. The Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI) was. It was OMI that first found Hoffbauer guilty of using “excessive force” in killing Walter Brown, a finding adopted by City Manager Gerald Newfarmer, then the City’s highest official.

The Enquirer article mentions that the head of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) at the time accused Newfarmer of rendering a political judgment, but it got worse. The FOP head accused OMI of being “racist” because, he claimed, “It is not concerned with the community as a whole, but only … with the Black community.”   

The Enquirer article left out a key fact about Hoffbauer’s actions the night he killed Walter Brown. The article mentions that before encountering Brown in the hallway of his apartment building, Hoffbauer called for a supervisor with a Taser to come, but it fails to reveal that Assistant Police Chief Edward Ammann admitted a couple days later that the supervisor with the Taser was “less than a minute away” when Hoffbauer shot Brown and that Hoffbauer and his partner simply could have left the building before Brown emerged from his apartment and waited outside the building for their supervisor to arrive. Instead of de-escalating in this fashion, and despite knowing that Brown, mentally ill but unarmed, could be Tased, Hoffbauer drew his gun before Brown entered the hallway.

The Enquirer article also left out a key fact about Newfarmer’s conclusion that Hoffbauer used excessive force: the City Manager never backed away from it. When Newfarmer made that finding, he referred the case “back to the Safety Department for administrative action.” When no administrative action against Hoffbauer was recommended, the police pressured Newfarmer to take back his “excessive force” finding. He refused, stating, “Excessive force was used in this instance; factually, that happened. There is no question this individual should not have died.

Hoffbauer has been making the rounds on talk radio lately. He avoids bringing up that in 1991 the city’s highest official found he used “excessive force” in killing an unarmed Black man and that this finding stuck. Instead, Hoffbauer claims he was exonerated, a false claim he recently repeated in an Enquirer opinion piece, and says he wouldn’t change anything about how he dealt with Walter Brown if he had it to do over again. He touts it shamelessly as an experience that qualifies him to be county sheriff, as if killing someone in the way he did, under the circumstances he did, warrants a promotion.

If there’s any justice, it should disqualify Hoffbauer. The times clearly demand law enforcement officers who understand de-escalation and are capable of it. But Hoffbauer is Exhibit A for how not to de-escalate — a retired police officer who literally is the poster child for excessive force. He’s the exact opposite of what we need in a sheriff right now.

As best we can tell, the last law enforcement officer who sought election as a county sheriff in the U.S. after having shot and killed an unarmed Black man was Willis McCall. McCall was sheriff in Lake County, Florida. He shot the man while transporting him, claiming — like Hoffbauer — that he acted in self-defense. This incident, which happened in 1951, was featured in the book, The Devil in the Grove. McCall was elected sheriff five times after that killing.

But that was the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. This is Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2020. Do we really want to become the first county in the U.S. in at least 50 years to elect as sheriff someone guilty of using excessive force to kill an unarmed Black man?

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