Retiring Cincinnati police captain, Gary Lee, reflects on 33 years of policing, career

CINCINNATI – Running into the city’s former mayor, chatting with a homeless man and providing directions to a tourist all within a few minutes is what Gary Lee will miss the most.

He’ll miss the array of people he’s come into contact with spanning his 33-year career with Cincinnati police. Lee, the department’s longest-tenured captain, closed the chapter on what he said was "never a job, always a career,” in mid- August, retiring from the only agency he’s ever worked for.

“I can remember my feelings when I first got the acceptance letter (in 1981), and I thought what an honor it was to be a member of the department, but after a few years and after getting to know the community, it became less of an honor.

“It became a privilege,” Lee said.

Lee, 66, said people often use the words “honor” and “privilege” interchangeably, but for him, describing his service as an honor was about him.

“Try to use the word ‘honor’ without talking in the first person,” Lee said. “When you look at things as a honor, you tend to focus on self, but as a I grew older, it was more of a privilege to serve.

“When you look at it as a privilege that is more of being entrusted with something,” said the Delhi Township native. “When I started looking at it the way, the focus shifted from me to the people I was serving – it wasn’t about me or the organization.”

On his last day on the force, Lee strolled through Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park, visited Findlay Market and perused Vine Street, shaking hands and making small talk people on the street.

He bumped into former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls after providing some words of wisdom to a homeless man and pointed a tourist in the right direction.

“In what other job can you talk to the former mayor, a homeless man and help a person who has lost their way?” Lee asked rhetorically.

On Friday, he lost the platform to sustain those relationships he's worked so hard to maintain.

"That's hard, that's what I'm going to miss the most -- the relationships in and outside the department," Lee said.

Cincinnati police Capt. Gary Lee, right, bumps into former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls on Vine Street as walks through his favorite spots in Over-the-Rhine, including Washington Park and Findlay Market on his last day on the force, Friday, Aug. 14, 2014.
"I love Over-the-Rhine -- I would live here if my wife would let me," Lee said.
Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

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How Policing Has Changed

Policing has dramatically changed, he said, and in light of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, he reflected on how Cincinnati police overhauled its policies through the years to WCPO.

“Arrest is not always the preferred method of dealing with a problem now,” Lee said. “Although, arrests when appropriate are made, but it used to be that arrest was our first response, and now it’s not always the preferred remedy.

“The fact that we just drove around and waited for the radio to tell us where to go is not where policing is at all today.”

Lee considers the period before he joined Cincinnati police, from about the mid 1960s through the early 1980s, as “probably the most difficult time to be a police officer.” He describes it as “a very violent time.”

There were many political protests and other social demonstrations on college campuses and in other heavily populated areas back then, so police training focused on riot control and reactionary measures, Lee said.

“Society then demanded that police be more responsive” to everyday issues in neighborhoods," he said.

“When I started in 1981, we were still pretty much following a responsive model – something happens, people call the police, we do what we do and we move on,” Lee said. “I think that most people who had spent a long period of time in law enforcement recognized that it was the job of police to be a 24-hour response network.”

By the mid 1980s, the community-oriented policing philosophy began to be implemented at Cincinnati police and throughout the country in specialized units at first before spreading throughout the agency, he said. The U.S. Department of Justice defines community-oriented policing as a philosophy whereby police not only respond to crimes but focus their resources on building relationships with community as a means to gain “mutual understanding of one another, or a transparency to allow people to look in.”

That was met with a lot of resistance early on because people misunderstood the concept and they thought community policing was about public relations, “not about relationships,” Lee said.

Cincinnati police Capt. Gary Lee, right, talks to Walter Carter, a member of the Over-the-Rhine community council in Findlay Market on his last day on the force, Friday, Aug. 14, 2014. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO


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“That was a big change because it forced us to recognize that we weren’t the ultimate authority in crime problems” Lee said. “We were the experts but not the ultimate authority, and it forced the community to begin to step up and take responsibility for what was theirs.”

Essentially, community-oriented policing tried to solve crimes in a traditional sense in addition to examine the “symptoms” of crime, he said.

Capt. Gary Lee Resume


  • Masters of Arts in Counseling, Cincinnati Christian University
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati
  • Bachelor of Arts in Education, Music Education, University of Cincinnati


  • District 1 commander (Mount Adams, Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton, Queensgate and the West End)
  • Patrol Administration Commander


  • Key architect of police visibility overtime distribution and plan
  • Supervised policing in Over-the-Rhine during time of economic revival
  • Led police and faith-based organization partnership to better provide social services as District 1 commander


"If this were the Navy, District 1 would be the flagship," Lee said.

The next evolution was community problem-oriented policing, which was the “natural progression,” in which police departments not only looked at the symptoms of crime, but the contributing factors. Instead of only responding to crime, police departments began to address factors that allow the crime to happen in the first place, Lee said.

“Stop the crime from happening to begin with and you don’t have to worry about how and who is going to response because you have reduced the crime altogether.”

The next evolution Lee believes is on the horizon is predictive policing. Not the type of predictive policing featured in Tom Cruise’s film “Minority Report,” but a philosophy that analyzes social and demographic trends to allow police to get ahead of the problem, Lee said.

“It’s more about anticipating where the problem is going to emerge next before it’s fully developed so the problem itself doesn’t even taking hold,” Lee said.

For example, if a city has a growing Latino community, a predictive policing model might look at that as an indicator because typically Latino populations tend to be highly victimized.

“So you might want to get out in front of that by developing good police-community relationships and by creating crime-prevention messages specifically designed for Spanish-speaking populations,” Lee said.

Life As A Cop

Early on in his career, Lee admittedly said he didn’t know how to police other than the way he was trained, meaning taking a reactive approach. His immediate supervisors didn’t recognize the changes in policing, either.

“As far as my first-line supervisors, the old salts if you will, {community policing) was a tough sell,” Lee said. “And to be perfectly honest, if your first-line supervisors have not been bought into any philosophy, it’s not going to work because they are the ones closest to the ground. The managers you need to get buy-in from.”

Lee looks back at his early days and described the culture at Cincinnati police in two words – “regimented and compartmentalized.” The emphasis was on organizational order and efficiency, and other than the executive-level administrators, street cops really didn’t have a say in decisions or the latitude to think creatively.

“We couldn’t really step much outside the bounds of the normal operating procedures,” Lee said. “There is a certain level of irony there because now in our current philosophy a lot of the change comes from the bottom up.”

Cincinnati police Capt. Gary Lee walks through his favorite spots in Over-the-Rhine, including Washington Park, Findlay Market and Vine Street on his last day on the force, which was Friday, Aug. 14, 2014. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO


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Rules on the use of force and treatment of citizens were vastly different, too.

“I can remember sitting in a courtroom once when a defendant was brought in for assault on a police officer, and the judge looks at the defendant who was relatively unscathed, and then he looks at the police officer and says, ‘why isn’t he wearing a turban?’ because that was the mentality back then,” said Lee, referencing a turban for bandages around the defendant’s head.

“The police had the authority and the community didn’t – we were going to impose authority on the community however we thought it was necessary. That was the autocratic model of old.”

There was a wide chasm between the police and the community during his early days, he said, and as he grew older and with the changes in policing, officers like Lee gained a greater understanding of the people they serve.

“Knowing what their plights and burdens are, and people begin to know one another, a lot of barriers begin to be broken down, and this mutual care takes places for one another,” Lee said.

During the early days of community policing, cops began to realize that “not everyone in the community was bad” and their perceptions began to change. Lee recollects taking a theft report in 1984 for a 75-year-old black women and stole her television, which was the “only thing of value in her apartment,” Lee said.

“That was her connection to the world and seeing how devastated she was at losing this $60-television, that was my first personal revelation that just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they are bad and just because you live here doesn’t mean that you aren’t suffering,” Lee said.

He hasn't quite tossed in the towel on service, though.

Lee is moving on to be a counselor for retired cops and military service members dealing with post-traumatic stress and the rigors of the job. He's also going to serve on the board of directors of the Carl H. Lindner YMCA in the West End and Character Council of Cincinnati.

"You can never underestimate the value of a single moment and what that means to someone else," Lee said. "Whether it's an act of kindness or an act of cynicism, but never underestimate the power of a single moment that can even change a person's life."

READ: Crime and justice stories from Kareem Elgazzar
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