Promise, change in Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell's first four months

Early changes set stage for future progress

CINCINNATI – Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell arrived in Cincinnati about four months ago with a mandate to amplify the department’s outreach and to engage young people to drive down violent crime.

On the surface, Blackwell’s first changes as police chief appear diminutive, but the largely symbolic gestures helped him make an initial imprint on the police department, criminal justice experts said.

Blackwell’s changes provide a foundation for him to earn the trust of the community and the rank-and-file police officers in the trenches, experts said. He's gone to work with a quiet vengeance, undertaking the small stuff first in hopes of pursuing his broader agenda of addressing quality-of-life issues that affect a greater number of Cincinnati residents, he has argued.

He has repeatedly said he doesn't want to implement sweeping adjustments for the sake of change, but rather make calculated decisions, which, experts said, help him gain the support of homegrown officers through the department. Blackwell inherited a police department that’s working to combat a rise in homicides and aggravated assaults despite a dwindling number of cops. The department has not graduated a recruit class since 2008, pushing the limits of staffing levels across the city.

“If you don’t gain the legitimacy of your position among both the citizens and the rank and file immediately, it may not be a successful transition,” said Nicholas Corsaro, a University of Cincinnati assistant professor of criminal justice with expertise in policing and evidence-based practices. “You can lose people in the first few months, I’m not sure you can gain them in the first few months – that’s going to come with the first major news crisis and how you handle those really intense moments.”

To suggest Blackwell hasn’t thought of winning over the department is a lie.

“I think about it and you win with people,” Blackwell said. “Leadership is about having very qualified people willingly do the things that your vision finds necessary. I know what good leadership is because I’ve been through such bad leadership in the past.

“I value what people have to say, people have the ability to talk about whatever is they feel is important in their area – I’ve been told that didn’t happen in the past.”

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell and Capt. Gary Lee talk during the District 1 town forum Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

Early Changes

His early changes included keeping lit the red and blue lights on top of all marked cruisers, adding foot patrol beat cops in Over-the-Rhine and in Downtown, and requiring officers to wear their hats when working event and traffic assignments. Blackwell has also tasked district commanders to create quality-of-life teams to walk a beat.

Blackwell’s police district town hall meetings serve as message that the department’s willing to listen. The meetings are intended to gather information from citizens so police officials can craft strategic planning efforts this year, he said.

“I’ve listened,” Blackwell said. “I’ve spent a long time talking and listening to people; I’ve probably been to 500 meetings with people in the community just trying to get to know Cincinnati and getting to know the department.”

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell and the department command staff hosted a District 3 town hall forum Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, at Elder High School. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

Experts said it would also behoove Blackwell, the second external hire for police chief in Cincinnati’s history, to gradually execute changes with the input of department-produced commanders, such as Executive Assistant Chief Paul Humphries who was the only internal finalist for top cop position. Blackwell, who has never been a chief, should avoid making unilateral changes simply to put his stamp on the department that has been nationally recognized as being proactive, Corsaro said.

“Officers may say: ‘We had a structure in place and it wasn’t bad,’” Corsaro said. “But to go in and change for the sake of change, isn’t necessarily a good idea. It’s a really fine balance, as it would be in any administrative, organizational job.”

Blackwell said he will rely on the change-management team he’s forming – a group of officers of various ranks led by criminal investigations commander Capt. Elliot Isaac – to advise him on changes moving forward.

The reintroduction of beat cops patrolling city streets, and Blackwell’s other changes, are policing 101 tactics that serve two objectives, said Maki Haberfeld, professor and chair of the Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration department at the John Jay College of Criminal in New York.

Firstly, the changes present citizens a visual and tangible change, even though they are subtle. The manner in which officers present themselves is a reflection on the police department and an issue of integrity, she said.

Secondly, people simply like to see police officers on the street, affording them a notion of safety

and security.

Blackwell handpicked 10 officers from the city’s five districts to walk beats in Over-the-Rhine and Downtown during the holidays. He admitted some of his commanders were hesitant to give up officers.

“A police officer isn’t a better officer because he or she has a hat on or drives with their lights on,” Haberfeld said. “There is very little correlation between crime and police presence, other than quality-of-life crimes.”

'Not Just A Community Meeting And A Talk'

Both Corsaro and Haberfeld agreed that Blackwell’s changes are effective first steps, with Corsaro adding the Cincinnati Police Department “is a pretty proactive police department, and in fact, one of the most proactive I’ve ever seen.”

The adjustments also fall in line with Blackwell’s approach to tackling quality-of-life issue s in the city’s neighborhoods. People are far more affected by a number of other criminal activities aside from violence, such as loitering, graffiti, public urination, panhandling, littering and drug dealing in public spaces, he has argued. The likelihood of defacing a building or engaging in street-level crime is lower in front of a police officer on the street, Haberfeld said.

“But the crime of real concern to the public (crimes of violence) are not necessarily influenced by police presence, they are displaced by police presence to other areas,” Haberfeld said. “From the perspective of the perception of the public, these small changes enhance police-community relations.”

“The thing that I’m curious about regarding quality of life and outreach, is how Chief Blackwell is going to get people to want to comply with police and generate legitimacy in communities where people may not trust the police?” Corsaro said. “That is going to take extensive effort, not just a community meeting and talk.”

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell introduces himself to Jenny Arellano during the Get the Groceries program at the Hyde Park Kroger on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

Blackwell’s noticed a "no-snitch mentality" among some members of the community. That's something he hopes to change during his tenure. Beat cops, he believes, will foster a symbiotic relationship with people in Over-the-Rhine and Downtown.

"We need to hold ourselves accountable. There's been such a disconnect in the black community between law enforcement and the community that often times people will not report crime that they witness," Blackwell said in October. "My saying against the no-snitch mentality is, 'You bet I told,' because we need to get people in areas throughout Cincinnati to stand up and stop being afraid to talk about what's going on."

Fighting Violence

Nine people have been slain through Jan. 28, compared to six in all of January 2013.

Seventy-five people were homicide victims in Cincinnati in 2013 - a 42 percent jump from 2012, which gave the city the distinction of having the highest rate of homicide when compared to similar sized cities in the region. Cincinnati's rate of 25 slayings per 100,000 residents compared to Cleveland at 22, Indianapolis at 14.85, Columbus at 11.24 and Louisville at 8.43.

Police officials have said that a downturn in kilings in 2012 was a statistical anomaly. Even so, Blackwell said citizens can expect a reduction in violent crime and homicides in 2014 in part because he promoted two captains to critical command positions and he will start a wide variety of initiatives to engage teens.

Blackwell plans on expanding the existing Police Explorer program to become a formalized curriculum-based program. In its current form, the Explorer program supports police and city personnel on occasion.

The chief wants the program to prepare Explores to become police officers. After about one year, exemplary Explorers will be paid employees of the department, and after another year, they will be guaranteed a place in the next police academy recruit class, Blackwell said.

Some have questioned how police can get tougher on crime, or as Cincinnati City Council member Christopher Smitherman suggested during the Jan. 7 law and public safety committee meeting, adopting a “zero-tolerance” policy.

Many in the police department, including Blackwell, believe zero-tolerance policing is an archaic tactic that does more harm than good.

“We want to be aggressive, but we also want to be right,” Blackwell told members of the committee during that meeting. “We don’t want to be aggressive for the sake of aggression and violate people’s constitutional rights, while we try to get it right. We’re not going to go back to those days where we get somewhat reckless in our approach.

“We’re going to be targeted and focused and know who we’re going after,” he said.

The arrest-first policy associated with zero tolerance has filled the courts with first-time, minor offenders, police officials have said. Even when cases are dismissed, people can be shadowed for years by error-ridden criminal records, discouraging them from helping police in the future.

No

Hiring Since 2008

The lack of a police academy in five years has created stagnation in the ranks, argue police and politicians,  including Mayor John Cranley.

Blackwell and the department’s assistant chiefs have appeared before City Council’s law and public safety committee twice since the new council took office in December. At both hearings, officials testified for the need for a new recruit class.

On Monday, Dec. 9, Blackwell told Smitherman, chair of the law and public safety committee, the police department has put together figures on the cost of a new 40- to 60-member recruit class, but is waiting for council to appropriate funds.

“I’ve instructed our background investigations to get everyone ready and processed up until the point where we need a go-ahead from council to pay for the finalization of the class,” Blackwell said in council chambers. “We can’t proceed until we get the go-ahead.”

At the second meeting on Monday, Jan. 6, Blackwell said “we are desperately short of officers.”

While they wait, police department brass is turning some sworn officer jobs into civilian work, as well as looking for other cost-trimming approaches. In development is an online reporting system for the public to file police reports not requiring police response, such as lost property, certain theft reports and criminal damaging, for instance. The web-based reporting system, COPLOGIC, is expected to come online this month.

Streamlining operations will provide more trained officers to perform duties consistent with Blackwell's initiatives.

"I want to afford officers time to stop and interact," Blackwell said. "I want officers to be able to give a few minutes of their time, when they're not coming in to take a report, or chasing a robber."

For more crime and justice stories by Kareem Elgazzar, visit www.wcpo.com/elgazzar . Follow him on Twitter at @ElgazzarBLVD

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