By Pat Clifford
The Cincinnati Police Internal Investigation Section released a report on April 21 regarding the death of Ottaway Washington. Mr. Washington was a homeless man who died in an alley next to Tender Mercies, on the night of November 30, 1996. The report sustained charges against Officer Stephen Fromhold for not summoning appropriate services for Mr., Washington. The following is a summary of the events of that night from the interview conducted by an internal investigation.
On November 30, 1996, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Victor Taylor was making his rounds as a security worker for Tender Mercies, an agency which provided housing for those with mental illness. He encountered a homeless man who was unresponsive and blocking a fire exit. Officer Fromhold was working the streets of District One that night. He was flagged down by Taylor as he traveled east on twelfth Street. Taylor was concerned about the person who was lying in a doorway off of Doerr Alley.
Officer Fromhold and Mr. Taylor responded to the doorway where Washington was lying. He was not wearing any shoes. The officer believed, from the condition of Washington’s socks, that he had been walking without shoes for a period of time. His personal papers were lying next to him. The officer noticed a “small nick” on his forehead. “My first indication was that there was an odor of alcohol about his person, and that he was intoxicated.” He would not respond to any of Officer Fromhold’s verbal requests. He used his flashlight to tap the bottoms of Mr. Washington’s feet. He “Didn’t come around.” The officer put his hand by Washington’s mouth and felt for any breath.
He was breathing. The officer returned to his vehicle to retrieve a pair of latex gloves. Officer Fromhold returned a pair of latex gloves. Officer Fromhold returned to Mr. Washington, took hold of the lapels of his coat and sat him up against the wall under a small overhang which would keep his upper torso from the rain. The officer began to shake Washington in an attempt to rouse him. “He opened his eyes momentarily and looked at me an moaned something to the effect of ‘get’ and raised his hand.” Washington did not say anything else but “his eyes remained open a brief period of time and he just stated at me.
“I interpreted that as he didn’t want any help so I rested him against the wall. He looked at me for three to five seconds then started nodding back out.” Washington closed his eyes and went to sleep. The officer believed that Mr. Washington knew that he was a police officer and that he didn’t want any help. Taylor, the security guard, claims that the officer then said that the “truck” would be by later and “get” Washington. Officer Fromhold denies any reference to a “truck”
The officer left the scene believing he had resolved the situation. Later, Fromhold heard the radio dispatch from another officer requesting a supervisor for a DOA. He went to the scene and assisted in placing Washington’s body in the scout car. He went to the Drop-Inn Center to determine if they were familiar with Washington and, if so, to locate the next of kin.
The worker at the desk told the officer that Washington should have been in bed #19. There was no one there. The investigation goes on to say that the temperature that night was 53 degrees and that there was a light rain with overcast skies. The Death Record from the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office lists the cause of death as acute bronchitis and peribronchitis.
The laboratory report indicates that Washington’s blood alcohol content was 38. In a letter to the Homeless Coalition, Safety Director Kent Ryan assured the staff that the Cincinnati Police Division strives to provide the highest level of consistent service and holds its officers accountable for their actions. Lt.. Demosi of Internal Investigation reported that Fromhold received an Administrative Insight which will go into his personnel file. The Report concludes, “It has always been the Police Division’s policy to ‘err on the side of mercy” “Officer Fromhold realized that he did not possess the skills necessary for a medical evaluation. He had the duty to summon appropriate services.”
In the wake of this tragedy and the investigation, the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless is convening a meeting with representatives of the Police Division, Fire Division, Hospital Emergency Room Staff and homeless agencies to ensure that an incident of this kind never happens again.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH, Issue 21, Cleveland Ohio June 1996