On one of Cincinnati’s darkest days, four police officers proved that they’re still with usPeter Bronson HELP WANTED:
Long hours, mediocre pay, high risk of injury or death, and frequent abuse by politicians, citizens, media and celebrities. Must be willing to disregard own safety and lay down life for strangers without thanks. Benefits include hospitalization, daily opportunities to meet unusual people and regular doses of adrenalin without a prescription. Firearms provided.
Apply at Cincinnati Police.
The job description is “Run to danger.”
Cincinnati heard that a lot after the Sept. 6 shootings at Fifth Third Bank on Fountain Square.
Mayor John Cranley told the press that harrowing bodycam video showed four police officers “literally running into a gunfight.”
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said, “The takeaway from the whole thing is that the police showed incredible bravery and courage. When you hear gunshots, your gut instinct is to turn and run. They ran toward the gunfire. It’s just amazing to me.”
Police Chief Elliot Isaac commended the officers—Antonio Etter, Eric Kaminsky, Jennifer Chilton and Greg Toyeas—for “running toward the gunfire” to stop the shooter, Omar Santa-Perez, 29.
As Perez turned to shoot at the police, they fired through plate glass windows and killed him, saving dozens if not hundreds of lives. Perez had more than 200 rounds of ammunition and seemed determined to kill as many as possible.
As he strolled through the bank lobby like a businessman making a deposit on his coffee break, he casually killed three people and wounded two, shooting some of his victims seven or a dozen times. He fired 35 times.
The names of the victims should be remembered. Richard Newcomer, 64, was a construction superintendent; Luis Felipe Calderon, 48, was a bank employee; Pruthvi Raj Kandepi, 25, was a programmer at Fifth Third.
Whitney Austin, a Fifth Third executive, was shot 12 times and somehow survived. Brian Sarver, a real estate and investment executive, was wounded.
They all had families—moms and dads, children, brothers and sisters, friends. Those who were killed leave empty pages that should be filled instead with “happily ever after.” Those who survived will never be the same.
After the shock, after dropping the shredded illusion that it can’t happen here, after grieving for the families, the first reaction is the same in every city shaken by random, mindless murder: Look for answers.
There may never be an answer about the motive, but it’s clear that the shooter was mentally ill, possibly paranoid schizophrenic. His own family repeatedly implored authorities in Florida to commit him for treatment because he was violent, talked to himself and refused medication.
His neighbors in North Bend described him as reclusive, bitter and angry.
In 2014, he was fired by his boss at a retailer in South Carolina. When he refused to leave, the boss told police he was “afraid of what he might do.” The police reported that Perez was “upset and disoriented” and gave “strange answers.”
He moved to Cincinnati the following year.
One possible motive: The shooter may have been seeking revenge for dismissal of his lawsuit in federal court, across the street from Fifth Third Center. His lawsuit against CNBC and TD Ameritrade claimed that he was being spied on and talked about on television. He said he was the “target of malicious commentary” as MSNBC “expanded into dark events” of his own past, including “ownership of pornography with slanderous onslaught.” He believed his TV was watching him, and discussing him daily. He demanded $3.3 million.
On June 25, citing an earlier lawsuit that was dismissed with prejudice, a federal magistrate wrote: “An action has no arguable factual basis when the allegations are delusional or rise to the level of irrational or ‘wholly incredible.’”
“Our working theory is that he actually was going to the federal courthouse,” says Deters. When he saw the armed U.S. marshals who guard the doors with metal detectors, “He realized very quickly that you can’t get through carrying a gun, and turned to walk across the street to the Fifth Third building.”
“The cavalry is coming”
Some questions are not so difficult.
If anyone still wonders if female cops can answer the call in extreme danger, Jennifer Chilton, daughter of former Milford Police Chief Danny Chilton, replied “affirmative” with 9 mm verbs. Her shout of “I’m with you” as she ran into battle could be etched in bronze on a Fountain Square monument to honor the cops and the victims.
The aftermath of the shooting also answered some questions about Cincinnati’s leadership. Police Chief Elliot Isaac, who was harshly criticized a few days earlier in a column saying CPD needed a new chief, answered by being calm, forthright, commanding and graceful under pressure. His narration of the dramatic bodycam video—“the cavalry is coming’’—raised goosebumps. Mayor John Cranley also represented the city well, commending the police officers and offering sincere sympathy to the victims.
The most obvious answer: Cincinnati’s Finest are also America’s best.
“Cincinnati’s training is known throughout the country,” says Mike Gardner, who taught police recruits and sergeants at the Cincinnati Police Academy for many of his 28 years with CPD. “After the Columbine school shooting (1999) we were among the first to train for this.”
He taught two of the officers who responded, Kaminsky and Toyeas, and knew Chilton as well. “It doesn’t surprise me that they did a fantastic job. I did all the physical training with them and got to know what they are made of, and how they would respond. This job is not a benefits package for them. It’s a calling.”
Former Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher now travels the country as a police oversight and accountability consultant. He says the excellence of Cincinnati Police is widely known.
“I’ve been getting calls from police chiefs all over the country who are very, very impressed with our agency and our officers. They comment about how well trained they are, how they didn’t hesitate. Those cops had no idea if he was alone, or if there were four or five others in there as part of a holdup. All they knew was ‘active shooter,’ and they threw their own personal safety to the wind. Hats off to all of them.”
Gardner says, “There’s an ID marker in our DNA called a ‘warrior gene.’ People say, ‘Why are all these cops warriors? That’s bad.’ No, it’s not. Every day they go out as peacekeepers and guardians, but they are also warriors. They have the courage and willingness to be a hero.”
And that’s another answer.
In 1957, Life Magazine called Cincinnati Police Division “the best police department in America,” as part of a cover story about Chief Stan Schrotel and his efforts to make law enforcement more professional and effective.
But Cincinnati’s more recent past is not so flattering. An online search for “Cincinnati shooting” brings up the controversial University of Cincinnati Police shooting of Sam DuBose.
And Cincinnati’s Finest were trashed as America’s worst in 2001, during riots over a police shooting of an unarmed black man.
Those cases and others across the nation have contributed to what Gardner calls “occupational bigotry.”
“I have testified against police officers,” Gardner says. “I know there are a few bad ones, and I tried to get rid of them. But to target 800,000 police is so unfair. It worries me that this kind of thing might keep someone like these Cincinnati cops from applying for a job in the future. We need outstanding officers more than ever.”
He quotes a Navy Seal veteran of multiple tours in Iraq: “He said, ‘Before we go to battle, we know our mission and we have a plan. But you guys never know when game day is coming.’ He was in awe of the courage of these officers.”
Streicher, who shot and killed a man in a gunfight when he was an undercover officer, says, “The first thing I would tell these cops is ‘Thank you. I know you are going through an extremely difficult time, but I want you to have confidence in yourselves and confidence that you did the right thing. You should be proud of your actions. You represented the city well and your department well and made everybody proud.’
“If I was still there, they would definitely get some kind of medal. They are damn good cops and damn good people. Most cops are damn good people. Lots of them would have done the same thing.”
Echoes from the past
There’s no simple answer to mental illness. There will always be people like the Fifth Third shooter among us. There will always be acts of mindless violence in a free society. “They used to be called spree killings,” says Deters. “Before this there was Gerald Clemons,” who killed three people in Evendale in 1995.
Before that, it was the killing of three customers and a teller during a bank robbery at the Cabinet-Supreme Savings & Loan in Delhi in 1970.
There is no easy way to protect Second Amendment rights, yet deny guns to someone who may be dangerously mentally ill. There are laws in place, but they failed. Perez bought a gun legally.
The final answer rang like a distant bell, just five days after the shooting on Fountain Square. It was the sound of names being read at the World Trade Center Memorial on the 17th anniversary of 9/11.
In 2001, when the smoke was still hovering over the mass grave where thousands died, America saw one thing clearly: The police and other first responders are the good guys. They are incredibly courageous. They will lay down their lives for us.
When help is desperately wanted, they run to danger.