OVER-THE-RHINE – Deborah Gross couldn’t get the image out of her head Tuesday – a police cruiser driving over a blanket on the Washington Park grass, the screams that followed and then seeing Joann Burton slide out from underneath.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” said Gross, 48, who has frequented the park for about three months. CINCINNATI, OHIO – “She tried to get up, but then fell back down. She curled up in a ball and just rocked back and forth, moaning.”
Gross looked back at Cincinnati Police Officer Marty Polk and saw a pained expression fall over his face.
Near tears, he took his police hat off, wiped his hand over his head and cried “Oh my God, what have I done? … Oh my God.”
Burton – identified as homeless – died at University Hospital. She was 48.
Her death is hitting others who call Washington Park home hard.
“Everybody you see is my family,” said Tyrone Ziegler, who has lived in Washington Park on and off throughout his 51 years. “We watch out for each other.”
Before today, Washington Park’s homeless already felt threatened, especially by the city’s $47 million plan to renovate the park that sits across Elm Street from Music Hall and is in the backyard of the new School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
“This is not good,” said Latricia Harrell, 21. “People here are not happy.”
Polk, nicknamed “Eagle Eye” by those who frequent the park, was interviewed Tuesday by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which has taken over the investigation along with the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office to avoid conflicts of interest.
A 25-year veteran of the department, Polk is assigned to the park unit, Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher said. Polk will be tested for drugs and alcohol, as required by department policy. It was unclear Tuesday if he would be placed on leave.
People at the park said he generally treats them with respect and is the type to ask people to pour out cans of beer instead of ticketing them, Gross said.
“He was so distraught. It was clearly an accident,” she said. “But I know people won’t see it that way. A lot of people are angry.”
Councilman Cecil Thomas, a retired Cincinnati police detective, said he knows Polk to be an excellent police officer.
Thomas also said he is aware of the controversy over plans to renovate the park.
“We hope that people will understand there is no connection between what happened here and plans to renovate the park,” he said.
Service roads run through the park, but Streicher wasn’t sure why Polk drove onto the grass, something people at the park said they have not witnessed before.
Burton frequented the park regularly with her husband of nine months, Thomas Oats, known in his Washington Park family as “Cornbread” because he came to Cincinnati from Montgomery, Ala.
The couple recently took in a small dog named Buttermilk and had been hanging out at the park with the dog when Oats went to get cigarettes.
“I just don’t understand it,” Oats said. “I am so sad I can’t get upset no more. Somebody has to pay the price. She wasn’t doing nothing but laying on the blanket and playing with the dog.”
When he walked back into the park Tuesday night for his wife’s vigil, people from all over the park grabbed hold of him tightly, saying how sorry they were. Oats’ eyes filled with tears.
“She was a strong, beautiful woman,” Oats said. “She loved me.”
Burton’s youngest child, 22-year-old Kenneth Burton, attended her vigil as well. He said he will remember his mother’s bubbly attitude and great sense of humor.
He said he and his mother didn’t talk much about her homelessness, that she always changed the subject to talk instead about Kenneth and his four siblings.
“I’m disappointed,” said Kenneth Burton, who works full time and attends Cincinnati State’s nursing program. “We’re going to fight for her.”
Josh Spring, director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, said this group will fight as well.
“(The officer) has been through this park before – how could he have made this mistake?” Spring said. “We should be outraged. The police protect all of us and now they have killed one of us.
“There are belongings there,” Spring said. “It is shocking that a park police officer could drive through the park and not see someone there.”
City Manager Milton Dohoney, Thomas and a team of street workers attended the vigil, where roughly 100 people circled around the spot where Burton was run over, singing hymns and reciting prayers.
After most people had gone, Oats stood near the vigil, a series of candles twisted into the ground around a photo of Burton.
“See that spot there,” he said, pointing to the spot next to her photo. “I’m sleeping right there tonight.”