Ohio police officer anonymously sues those who accused him of racist gesture

CINCINNATI – A Cincinnati police officer has sued at least four people who have accused him of racist behavior in the wake of the protests this summer, and he could sue as many as 24.

So far, he has successfully kept his name out of public court records for the case. The judge has ordered several of the defendants not to release any personal information about him.

According to the lawsuit, the officer says that his privacy was "tortiously violated," that people disseminated personal information about him online, and that he was defamed.

The officer said he was falsely accused of racism for making the "OK" gesture with his hand after a Cincinnati City Council committee meeting on June 24.

"People in the crowd made the juvenile, unfounded, incorrect and hysterical claim that (the officer's) innocuous 'okay' gesture was a 'white power' or 'white supremacist' hand signal intended to intimidate people," the suit states.

Some people have associated the hand symbol with white power movements because it resembles the letters "W" and "P."

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Jennifer Kinsley is a lawyer representing two women who filed formal complaints against the officer. She said the First Amendment protects people who accuse public officials of racism.

"It always has been and always will be," Kinsley said. "It's the same as calling someone ignorant or biased or a Nazi."

Complaints to the Cincinnati Police Department on the hand symbol were filed against police officer Ryan Olthaus. He has been on the police force for about 12 years and was most recently assigned to the gang enforcement squad.

In addition to the women, the officer is also suing freelance journalist and food writer Julie Niesen and another activist and up to 20 unnamed "John Does."

Friends of Bones, a local group that formed to push for police accountability and transparency in the wake of the fatal police shooting of David “Bones” Hebert, was initially part of the lawsuit. For the time being, people associated with that group have been dismissed from the case.

The Enquirer has filed motions in the case petitioning Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Megan Shanahan to unseal the records.

The Cincinnati Police Department is conducting an internal investigation because of the complaints it received.

What the complaint says happened

The encounter between the officer and Terhas White, 36, of Clifton, occurred just after two people were handcuffed and removed from council chambers at City Hall on June 24.

These meetings were held after weeks of protests prompted by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Dozens of people came to City Hall to advocate for reducing the budget of the Cincinnati Police Department. Seating was limited in the chambers, so people were lined up waiting for a chance to speak.

Some of the speakers became angry and began shouting at Mayor John Cranley, who asked the group to leave or spread out because they weren't observing social distancing guidelines. Half a dozen police officers surrounded them in council chambers.

White was among those waiting in line and watched a woman get led out of the building in handcuffs. She spoke to The Enquirer in the days following the incident before this lawsuit was filed.

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Those waiting in the lobby to enter chambers wanted answers, she said, and a security guard seemed panicked. More officers came to the scene to help as the guard left, she said.

In her formal complaint, White wrote: "He came in smug and smiling which only served to display his dismissal of those he is supposed to protect and serve, his dismissal of the seriousness of our reason for being there."

White told The Enquirer that he then said: "He's OK. He's fine. He's gone" referring to the security guard.

Then came the symbol. She said he made it right next to his belt buckle.

Because of the ambiguous nature of the gesture, White said she confronted the officer about it and told him what the symbol means.

"He just laughed it off. He tried to downplay it," White said. "He said, 'Is this better? Is this OK?' And he throws two thumbs up."

Any complaints involving race or bias are also sent to the Citizen's Complaint Authority, which is conducting a separate investigation alongside the department's internal investigation.

"This lawsuit is being filed not only to stop these people from speaking up, but also to make people afraid to say something when they see something that is wrong," Kinsley said.

She said the Supreme Court ruled in the late 1960s on the matter when a group placed an ad in The New York Times showing racist behavior in the Montgomery, Alabama, police force. The police commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, sued and eventually lost the case in the highest court of the land.

"There is no litmus test for what is racist and not racist. It's an opinion," Kinsley said. "People should be able to speak up about matters of public concern and dangerous behaviors from public officials without the fear of a lawsuit."

What the lawsuit says happened

According to the suit: "During that hearing, the hallway outside council's chambers was occupied by a loud, unruly crowd of people that were anti-police and urging City Council to defund the police."

The suit states the officer was asked about the status of another officer who had just left. The OK sign was given to show that the other officer was fine.

"(The officer) is not racist or a white supremacist and any suggestion to the contrary is false," the lawsuit states. "White's behavior was erratic, over-emotional and petulant."

The suit says that White's complaint harms the officer's professional reputation and can be used as evidence of improper motive or intent in the event the officer is involved in a use-of-force or critical incident.

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The lawsuit goes on to say White took to social media to call the officer a "white supremacist kkkop."

The suit says Niesen made a social media post that "portrayed" the officer as a white supremacist and the post "created a risk of harm" to the officer and his family.

While the other named defendants in the case all made statements on social media about the incident or the officer, defendant Allissa Gilley only filed a police complaint.

Olthaus, 40, joined the Cincinnati police force in 2008 when he was 28, according to his personnel file. He's been assigned to the gang enforcement unit since 2015. Before that he worked in District 3, which covers the West Side of Cincinnati.

He is also a member of the SWAT team. In his most recent annual performance review, his supervisor said he was assigned as a "plainclothes investigator" and was responsible for "significant arrests with seizures of drugs, guns and money."

In his past three reviews, he was given a rating of "exceeds standards." This is the second-highest rating that can be earned.

Chief Eliot Isaac has given Olthaus four commendations since 2015.

Lawyer was in a heated fight to represent the police union

The officer is being represented by Zachary Gottesman, who recently lost a bid at representing Cincinnati police union.

Union President Dan Hils was pushing the FOP to hire a new firm, led by Gottesman and a former city attorney, Peter Stackpole, which Hils said would be more aggressive.

Hils told The Enquirer at the time that he envisions a legal strategy that potentially involves suing the media and organizations if they libel or slander police.

"I believe the FOP must respond when its members are defamed or harassed or put in danger by those who wish to do us harm," Hils said.

Hils said police officers have been targeted for harassment, false accusations and doxxing by "antifa and other similar Marxist organizations assisted by left-wing media."

"Being critical of your government, including police, is a First Amendment right that we protect," Hils said. "But slandering our members deserves a response."

After an Enquirer reporter began gathering information for this story, Gottesman emailed the publication threatening to sue.

"I am writing to advise you that if you and/or the Enquirer run a story that perpetuates this false-light depiction of this officer, I will be taking legal action against you and the Enquirer," Gottesman said.

The union's attorney of over 30 years, Steve Lazarus, has a contract that lasts about another 18 months.

Lazarus kept his contract, but the union voted to put the choice of who should represent them to a vote when that contract is up. That decision is normally made by the executive board of the union.

While Gottesman faced opposition, it remains unclear if a majority of union members share Hils' vision for the future of the union legal strategy.

'This is a frontal attack on the First Amendment'

Lawyer Erik Laursen is representing Julie Niesen in the case. He called the entire thing a SLAPP lawsuit.

A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is designed to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with legal obligations and costs. Several states have laws protecting people from SLAPP suits, but Ohio is not one of them.

Laursen said his client was only attempting to have public discourse about a public figure, a police officer.

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"This is not discourse," Laursen said of the suit. "This is a frontal attack on the First Amendment."

Niesen said social media post was meant to start a conversation.

"White supremacy is something we cannot tolerate and if we can't agree on that that's a very big problem," she said. "In my opinion, in my thought process, it was exposing things that were already easily found on the City of Cincinnati's website and the media."

Niesen and Kinsley say this is an important lawsuit to fight.

"This is the type of lawsuit that needs to be nipped in the bud so that people know they can speak out about matters of public concern like racist police practices," Kinsley said. "This lawsuit should not be used as a tool for censorship and we intend to stop it."

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio cop anonymously sues those who accused him of racist gesture