CINCINNATI - There’s been a very public and very determined change in policing within the City of Cincinnati the 10 years since Timothy Thomas was fatally shot.
At times the road has been filled with obstacles, but the trip is now paying significant dividends for the city’s quality-of-life.
That’s because a Collaborative Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2002 introduced Community Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP) to all 52 neighborhoods.
The effort grew from significant distrust between police and the community, but has evolved with both sides working together toward a common goal of crime reduction.
Crime is down.
Communication is up.
Cincinnati’s progress is a model being studied by other cities and police agencies from around the country and the world.
On a recent Monday, District 5 Sgt. Jason Volkerding stood before 50 members of the Northside Community Council to give them an update on a fatal shooting at Club 360 on Hamilton Avenue.
However, he also asked for the community’s support on an effort to challenge the club’s liquor license before the Ohio Department of Liquor Control.
Watching, listening and contributing from the rear of the room were Capt. David Bailey and Neighborhood Officer Melissa Cummins.
That type of two-way communication is now the rule, not the exception, within the city.
“They listen to us,” said Community Council member Lisa Auciello. “It’s an adult, grown-up relationship where we give each other feedback, provide information and ask questions. Everyone’s comfortable with each other and there are no egos or hidden agendas or anything. We’re all here for the same reason.”
That sort of give-and-take hasn’t always been the case.
Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher said the approach to policing in the city and across the country used to be arresting lots of bad guys. That was seen as the best way to resolve conflict, issues and problems in a community.
“Tradition in the police department said get out there and lock them up. Put a bunch of cops in and lock them up,” Streicher said. “If you’ve got to knock heads, you’ve got to knock heads. If you gotta kick some a**, kick some a**.”
However, the chief said that caused police to become a lightning rod for people or groups who had been discriminated against for a long time.
“Unfortunately, the use of police agencies in that fashion and, quite frankly, police agencies allowing them to be used in that fashion in many circumstances, created a real legacy of distrust,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it.”
Cecil Thomas is currently a member of Cincinnati City Council and the former Executive Director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. However, he was a Cincinnati Police officer during that era and recalls an us-versus-them mentality on both sides.
“Certain segments of the community felt that the police were just out there to lock people up,” Thomas said. “Officers felt that the citizens weren‘t being supportive – didn’t appreciate what they were doing. It was just a really, really bad equation when you talk about building relationships between citizens and police, especially in those neighborhoods that are most affected by crime and disorder.”
Civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein said police were “chasing their tails” in the 1980s and 1990s with little planning and organization. He said that often resulted in “over-policing” in black neighborhoods.
“There was a whole group of people who felt that they were being harassed and that they were being occupied rather than policed,” he said. “That created tensions.”
Gerhardstein said the perception was that the black community was approached in a different way than the white community in terms of traffic stops. That prompted him to file a lawsuit in March, 2001, accusing police of racial profiling.
Chief Streicher said most police bristle when they hear that term because they know it’s illegal.
“We don’t want to engage in that,” Streicher said. “But, perception on the other hand grows out of distrust of policing because of historical perspectives that are there.”
Use of force concerns were another aspect of the tension, according to Gerhardstein. He said there were 15 cases of police-involved fatal shootings of African-American males in the 10 years before Timothy Thomas died.
There were other well-publicized incidents.
Police use of force was called into question in April 1995, when Pharon Crosby, 18, was arrested on Sixth Street downtown. The incident was caught on videotape.
In February 1997, police fired four shots from close range at Lorenzo Collins, who was holding a brick in his hand. He’d been under psychological evaluation at University Hospital
at the time.
The increasing tension boiled over after what occurred in the early morning hours of April 7, 2001, That’s when Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed Timothy Thomas in the Over-the-Rhine.
“The explosion occurred,” said Council member Thomas. “It was inevitable that something was going to happen.”
“Timothy Thomas was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and then all hell broke loose,” said Rev. Damon Lynch, Jr., Pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage and former leader of the Baptist Ministers Conference.
Upset residents crowed the Council Chambers at Cincinnati City Hall two days later demanding answers from members of the Law Committee and city leaders. They didn’t get much information.
“The police were saying, ‘It’s under investigation. We’ll tell you once we find out what the investigation shows,’” Thomas said. “Citizens then became concerned that there were cover-ups – that the police department was not going to give them a straight answer and eventually left the chamber in anger.”
A week of unrest set the scene for radical change that produced the Collaborative Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding.
“It was our Egypt moment, our Yemen, our Tanzania, our Libya moment where people just got fed up with leadership and demanded change,” said Rev. Damon Lynch, III, Pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in The Over-the-Rhine and a leader of the Black United Front.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to Cincinnati in April 2002 to sign the historic documents on behalf of the Department of Justice.
“For us, it became a foundation of a much greater house that we wanted to build: a much better police department,” said Chief Streicher.
Gerhardstein said there had been police studies before: 13 Blue Ribbon panels that offered over 200 recommendations. He carried them in a series of three ring binders for years.
“Not one of them was implemented,” Gerhardstein said. “The black community would feel betrayed.”
That prompted a change in strategy.
“When we started the case that generated the Collaborative, we had one major goal,” Gerhardstein said. “Whatever we came up with was going to be court-supervised because we were tired of living on promises.”
Detroit attorney Saul Green was among several monitors appointed.
The Collaborative Agreement had five goals:
1) Police officers and community members will become proactive partners in community problem solving
2) Build relationships of respect, cooperation and trust within and between police and communities
3) Improve education, oversight, monitoring, hiring practices and accountability of the Cincinnati Police Department
4) Ensure fair, equitable and courteous treatment for all
5) Create methods to establish the public’s understanding of police policies and procedures and recognition of exceptional service in an effort to foster support for the police
The agreement created the Community Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP) and the Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA) in the city.
The Memorandum of Understanding involved review of police policies and recommended changes to over 100 of them including:
* General use of force policies and those involving chemical spray, canines, beanbag shotguns and forty millimeter foam rounds
* Incident documentation, investigation and review
* Citizen complaint process
* Management and supervision
* Use of video cameras
* Monitoring, reporting and implementation
Implementing those changes took several years.
Gerhardstein termed the process “very difficult.”
He cited tension between line police officers and management and between black police officers and management as one reason.
“There were all kinds of tensions that we were able to tap into,” Gerhardstein said. “When we filed the lawsuit we offered the opportunity to the city to negotiate rather than just litigate.”
The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) was even offered a seat at the table.
“That turned out to be a very, very helpful move because the FOP didn’t have to rely on their bosses to represent their interests,” said Gerhardstein. “I think that was a major aid in getting us off to a good start.”
Chief Streicher acknowledged some resentment, mainly because the department was portrayed as unwilling to change, when just the opposite was true. He said the police agency was a microcosm of society and willing to evolve as society changed.
“We’ll work with you on this, but if you’re going to continue to portray us as some downtrodden, evil, racist organization, then we’re not going to take that,” he recalled saying at the time.
There were fights and clashes, but a gradual realization that there was room to negotiate.
“We both want to get to the same place,” Chief Streicher said. “We’re starting out taking different paths, but we need to come together and work together to get there and that’s what ultimately happened.”
Community Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP) was seen as the lynchpin of the agreement.
“What we did was look to the community
and say we have a way that you can actually get involved with the police and make sure that the type of policing you receive is the type of policing you need,” Gerhardstein said.
Community council members regularly communicate with officers assigned to their neighborhood. If a problem or hot spot develops, both sides work together to solve it.
For example, District 4 Commander Eliot Isaac and Avondale Community Council leaders wanted to control violence and crime at certain points in the neighborhood. An investigation began that resulted in the indictment of 30 suspected criminals, many of whom were arrested in a sweep by dozens of officers.
“We’re all thinking together,” said Avondale Community Council President Fulton Jefferson. “They’re listening to us.”
Similar operations have been conducted in the West End to combat the Tot Lot Posse, in Northside to arrest members of the Taliband plus Price Hill and The Over-the-Rhine.
That points out another seismic shift in policing tactics. Investigations now are data-driven in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati Policing Institute.
Crime statistics are analyzed to see if patterns emerge. If they do, then enforcement can be laser-focused and targeted to the problem area. That produces effective use of limited resources to track the moves of suspected criminals.
In Walnut Hills, CPOP means more citizens feel comfortable interacting with police.
“Before, all the opportunities there to know how to more effectively communicate, information went one way and it seemed to be going into a black hole. We didn’t get feedback. We were not invited to the table in solutions,” said Community Council President Kathy Atkinson. “Now, we’re the first people called.”
Atkinson said crime in the neighborhood has been significantly reduced with that level of cooperation.
Those success stories indicate CPOP is working.
Gerhardstein points to another.
“We are definitely making progress,” he said. “One anecdotal measure of that is I don’t sue the Cincinnati police very often anymore. I always had two or three cases going against the Cincinnati police. I have more cases in Cleveland right now than I do down here.”
In a lesson learned from the Timothy Thomas case, police now regularly provide as much information to the public as quickly as possible and as soon as possible in major cases. The format includes a media briefing involving city, police and community leaders. Videos are shown. Weapons or drugs confiscated are displayed. Background on suspects or victims is provided. Questions are answered.
“I think the key difference here – a difference that you’re seeing in the evolution of policing here – is a real true willingness to open ourselves up and invite people in to take a look.”
The Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA) went into effect in April of 2003 and has received favorable reviews.
“Cincinnati is one of the very few communities in the country that has professional, independent investigators to look into any complaints against the police and to continually review police policies,” Gerhardstein said. “That sort of accountability is really helpful in building trust.
The CCA reviews cases in seven main areas, according to Chief Investigator Greg Pychewicz.
* Police-involve shootings
* A death in police custody
* Claims of excessive use of force
* Claims of improperly pointing a firearm
* Claims of improper search and seizure
* Claims of improper entry
* Claims of discrimination
Other citizen complaints such as discourteous treatment are referred to the police department. Pychewicz said courtesy issues are the number one complaint across the country. He pointed out that the CCA caseload has decreased by well over 50 percent in the past 10 years due to a combination of factors including the collaborative, policy changes and training.
Cincinnati Citizens Complaint Authority
Total CAA Cases Investigations
2003: 567/ 191
2004: 562/ 193
2005: 461/ 158
2006: 455/ 120
2007: 350/ 88
2008: 313 /108
2009: 340/ 111
2010: 323/ 83
Pychewicz said data for 2009 shows that 21 percent of the cases investigated were unfounded, officers were exonerated 31 percent of the time, 36 percent of the accusations were not sustained and 12 percent were sustained. He added those numbers have been fairly consistent through the years.
Thomas said additional courtesy training for traffic stops and other citizen contacts has helped police/community relations.
“You have to provide them with the reason why you stopped them and that has to be documented,” he said. “It began to create an environment where there were no longer random stops.”
Another tool cited as valuable for police and citizens is video cameras in all police cruisers. They provide key evidence when questions crop up regarding police-citizen contacts.
“The cameras don’t lie,” said Thomas. “We were able to determine that citizens were accusing officers of things that they did not say or did not do and cameras corrected that.”
The reverse was true as
“Officers were saying, ‘I didn’t say that.’ Well, wait a minute, the camera and the video say you did say that,” Thomas added. “It resolved a lot of those things.”
Following the police custody death of Nathaniel Jones in November, 2003, Cincinnati police were provided with tasers to help lessen the amount of physical contact needed to make an arrest.
“Tasers have brought down the number of injuries to officers,” Thomas said. “They have brought down the number of injuries to citizens.”
Cincinnati police officer injuries :
2000 – 311
2001 – 266
2002 – 237
2003 – 233
2004 – 184
2005 – 177
2006 – 160
2007 – 144
2008 – 132
2009 – 112
2010 - 122
Gerhardstein agreed with the value of tasers, to a point. He has a suit pending to change the police department’s policy on their use in minor crime situations.
“For the most part tasers have saved lives because police haven’t used deadly force,” he said. “If they just restrict the use of them to serious incidents and they don’t shoot people that are up on elevated surfaces, tasers have a place in the arsenal.”
As CPOP has taken hold, the number of serious crimes such as homicides, rape and burglaries has gone down, according to police department statistics.
Cincinnati Part I crime:
2000 – 23,529
2001 – 28,376
2002 – 29,223
2003 – 28,613
2004 – 27,568
2005 – 27,361
2006 – 26,850
2007 – 24,662
2008 – 24,620
2009 – 24,439
2010 – 25,230
However, the number of homicides has ranged from a low of 40 in 2000 to a high of 88 in 2006.
2000 – 40
2001 – 63
2002 – 66
2003 – 75
2004 – 68
2005 – 79
2006 – 88
2007 – 68
2008 - 75
2009 – 60
2010 - 73
Police say they believe the majority of those cases involve criminals shooting criminals. However, Rev. Damon Lynch, Jr., went a step further, calling it black on black crime. “It’s not so much police killing us. We’re killing ourselves by the droves and that’s got to stop,” he said. “We have to start treating it like we would treat any other epidemic – smallpox, measles, diphtheria – and we have to keep at it until we get it in check.”
So, what does the future hold for police/community relations?
There’s general agreement that progress has been made, but plenty of work remains.
“Cincinnati has a long way to go, but it has come from a mighty long way,” said Rev. Damon Lynch, Jr. “I know that sounds paradoxical, but it’s true. We’re not there yet.”
Honesty, accountability and transparency are things that Chief Streicher said must continue going forward.
“I think we need to work on a commitment from inside the organization to try to continuously improve the level of service that we’re providing along with a level of transparency,” he said. “I think the community needs to make a continuous commitment to holding their police agency accountable.”
Rev. Damon Lynch, III, added people need to remember that gains made since 2001 can easily be lost.
“I think the greatest strides were made in police/community relations,” he said. “Through the work of the collaborative and all the groups that fought to make that happen – the police, the FOP, Cincinnati Black United Front – that work has continued and we can’t afford to see that dismantled.”
Chief Streicher said he agreed with that sentiment.
“The first time that you’re dishonest with a society, the first time you’re less than candid with a community, the first time that you start to deny the obvious truth is the time when all these years of work break down and we go backward.”
Gerhardstein said continuing education is a key component of continued progress.
“We need to help people understand what problem-oriented policing is – how they could be part of a team that would engage in problem solving. We are making progress, but it’s slow”
Another major aspect is continuing an open, two-way dialogue, according to Thomas
“Make sure we community communicate with one another – police communicating with citizens on every incident and having a transparency type attitude,” he said. “As long as we stay focused there and continue to build on that, this city will be fine.”
The bottom line, according to Chief Streicher, is that the city’s future depends on progress.
“I hope people would say they’re better than they were, but not good enough as we need to be,” said the chief. “If you ever get to the point where you say, ‘We’ve made it. We’re here. We’ve got to where we need to be,’ it’s time for you to get out of the way and let someone else take over.”
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