CINCINNATI - Good guys and bad guys. In the Laurel Homes of Cincinnati's West End, a police uniform didn't necessarily help you make that distinction.
"The only time the police showed up in your community was when someone was going to jail," says Officer Scotty Johnson. An African-American police officer now assigned to the mayor's protection detail, Johnson spent most of his career patrolling the West End.
"Back then, I would say the relationship was very adversarial," according to Officer Johnson. "That was based solely on the fact there was no communication between the citizens in that community, and the police department."
A decade before the 2001 unrest in Cincinnati, Johnson was one of the first officers assigned to the COP Team, which stands for Community Oriented Policing (later called Community Problem Oriented Policing or CPOP). Johnson says it was about, "getting out of the car, walking and talking, and actually trying to understand and address the issues and the concerns of the community."
He had some back-up. Officer Pat Scott is an African-American woman who grew up in the Laurel Homes. "When I became a police officer, I really wanted to make a difference," she says. "When I was in the police academy, I had already decided I wanted to come back to where I grew up."
But both officers faced an identity crisis. They put on the white uniform seen as that of the enemy where they grew up.
"I was part of both teams," says Officer Johnson. "I couldn't escape my neighborhood. I went to church in the neighborhood, I grew up in the neighborhood, I lived and still live in the city of Cincinnati, so it was tough."
Officer Scott saw that dichotomy as an advantage. "Some saw me as Pat coming back to the neighborhood," she recalls. "Others saw me as a police officer, but not connected to the police department."
Because she knew many of the people she encountered in her old neighborhood, Officer Scott was able to break through barriers other officers could not. "They trusted us, " she says. "And you've got to have a trust in a community that you police."
Police officers are often measured by the number of arrests they make. Officer Scott measures her success by the number of lives she saved.
She remembers locking up a young woman for six months. Recently, the girl's mother approached her. "You know what she tells me? Thank you for saving my daughter. She's a hairstylist today. She owns her own business. Every time I see her mother, she says thank you for saving my daughter."
Officer Johnson agrees. "You really felt like you were making a difference as a neighborhood officer -- COP team officer -- in a totality approach, versus just getting out and making arrests. You were actually solving problems."
In 2001, Scotty Johnson was president of The Sentinels, a group representing black police officers in Cincinnati. With his experience in community-oriented policing, he had an opportunity to reshape the police department following the riots.
Johnson says the goal was to "really sit down and get a handle on why were where we were as a city -- we couldn't separate the community from the police because as a city we were in trouble."
He called a news conference and offered an apology to the people of Cincinnati "for not being open on why we do what we do," Johnson recalled. "I took some heat from both ends -- the community and within the police department."
The unrest of 2001 forced the city and its police department to look in the mirror.
Other cities had similar turning points, but were slower to react. A decade after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers involved, the LAPD was still dealing with major scandals and race-relations problems.
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Police Specialist Scotty Johnson says Cincinnati has risen to the challenge.
"Because of 2001, we as a police department have come a long way," insists the former Sentinels president. "I'm proud to say we're the best police department in the country right now."
Officer Pat Scott feels the same way.
"I think what we did here was, we took by the bull by the horn and said we have to do something," she says. "Contrary to what some of our coworkers might have thought, we made a difference."
Scott and Johnson graduated from the same academy class in 1986. They're in their 25th year with the department, and both are eligible for retirement in November.
In perhaps the best endorsement of the changes the police department has made, Officer Johnson says he isn't going anywhere.
"I'm so proud to be a Cincinnati police officer," Johnson says. "I think I'm going to stick around. I don't think I'm done with law enforcement yet."
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