The Iron Horsemen is a nationwide outlaw motorcycle gang that has been based in Cincinnati for about 40 years. The gang deals in drugs, weapons, and prostitution. In the 1980s, threats and tension between the Iron Horsemen and the Cincinnati police were prevalent. One of the members of the Iron Horsemen had created a 12-gauge shotgun within his motorcycle handlebar to threaten police officers. Other members had threatened an officer and his family with weapons at a remote site where he was building a home. Ultimately, the Iron Horsemen became less confrontational, but the Cincinnati police continued to monitor the gang’s activities.
Recently, a rival outlaw motorcycle gang, the Detroit Highwaymen, has tried to establish an operations base in Cincinnati, resulting in conflict between the two gangs. There have been “takeovers” of bars in which members of one of the gangs would enter, close the bar, detain everybody, and determine whether anyone was a rival gang member. They would then threaten and beat rival gang members who were there.
On September 18, 2010, an officer on his way to work observed motorcycles outside of JD’s Honky Tonk bar. He saw several Iron Horsemen wearing their colors and thought that a takeover of the bar was in progress. Approximately 14 police officers, including one or two uniformed officers, responded to his call, and a gunfight erupted. Two police officers were wounded, and one of the Iron Horsemen – the group’s national enforcer – was killed. One of the Iron Horsemen pleaded guilty to a weapons charge, but no other charges were filed.
In September and October 2010, reporters for the Cincinnati Enquirer requested that the Police Department provide the newspaper with certain records related to the September 18, 2010 shootout at JD’s Honky Tonk bar, including the names of the two police officers shot, their personnel files, and an unredacted copy of the incident report of the shootout. The City’s refusal to release the officers’ names and other personnel information led to a lawsuit that wound up in the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Court rejected the Enquirer’s request, finding that the requested identifying information of the wounded police officers was excepted from disclosure based on the constitutional right of privacy. Ohio’s public records law exempts from disclosure “records the release of which is prohibited by state or federal law.” The Court found that “officers have a fundamental constitutional interest in preventing the release of private information when disclosure would create a substantial risk of serious bodily harm, and possibly even death, from a perceived likely threat, so any such disclosure by the State should be measured under strict scrutiny.”
Citing a prior federal court decision involving the City of Columbus, the Court ruled that “the Enquirer’s reliance on a subsequent case to suggest otherwise is misplaced because there the corrections officers’ names and general whereabouts were already known to the prisoners requesting information. That is not the case here. Although in two prior cases defense attorneys rather than the criminal defendants had requested the information, neither case focused on the threat posed by the attorneys themselves. The mere fact that the requesting party did not pose a threat did not require disclosure of the personal information sought. Disclosure of personal information, even to a benevolent organization posing no apparent threat to the safety of the officers or their families, increases the risk that the information will fall into the wrong hands.
“The evidence here included credible evidence of a perceived likely threat that the Iron Horsemen motorcycle gang would retaliate against the wounded officers for killing the gang’s national enforcer. This was supported by the Police Chief’s historical knowledge of the circumstances, past instances of threats made by the Iron Horsemen against the Cincinnati police, and the confidential information confirming the threat against the officers. There is no evidence in the record here that the Police Chief and the City treated the Enquirer differently from other members of the public who could have requested the same information about the wounded officers.
“There is also no evidence to support the Enquirer’s contention that by redacting the officers’ names, the City has blocked any meaningful review of information relating to discipline and citizen complaints of the wounded officers. Rather, all the requested documents have been disclosed, except that the officers’ identities have been redacted. Therefore, the information contained in the wounded police officers’ requested personnel files relating to discipline and citizen complaints has already been made available to the Enquirer.
“Finally, the evidence established that the release of the identities of the wounded police officers would place them at risk of serious bodily harm and possibly even death from a perceived likely threat and that the disclosure of their identities was not narrowly tailored to achieve the public purpose of examining the performance of the police.”
State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Craig, 969 N.E.2d 243, 2012 (Ohio 2012).
The above article has appeared in a previous issue of Public Safety Labor News and has been reprinted courtesy of Labor Relations Information System. These articles are for informational purposes only.