New director of Cincinnati's Citizen Complaint Authority revamping the way complaints are handled

CINCINNATI -- When Kim Neal assumed her role as the new director of Cincinnati’s Citizen Complaint Authority in July, she could have simply maintained the status quo.

After all, attention was focused on the city’s standing as a model of effective police reform.

Police-related deaths in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and other cities and the resulting calls for drastic reforms put a spotlight on Cincinnati as a city doing it right.

In May, The Atlantic magazine ran a glowing article focused on the city’s history of reform stemming from the 2001 riots and titled it “How to Fix a Broken Police Department.”

That same month, the final report of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing also pointed to Cincinnati’s strategies as a template for others.

And the complaint authority, which independently investigates police shootings and certain citizen complaints against the Cincinnati Police Department, is a major piece of those reforms.

But to assume that was good enough for Neal would show a lack of understanding about the way she works.

Neal has degrees in business administration and law and a resume that includes ethics, compliance and investigation. Her motivation is a simple one.

“I really like to ensure people to do the right thing and to teach people to do the right thing. I think it’s really important,” she said.

So she went to work.

“I looked and wanted to make sure we were in compliance and doing everything right,” she said of her first days on the job, noting that the problems faced by other communities impacted her outlook. “Based on what was going on around the country, I wanted to see, proactively, if there was anything we could do to ensure that didn’t happen here in Cincinnati.”

While she found the complaint authority was in compliance with the collaborative agreement, the document upon which Cincinnati’s police reforms were built and later codified as city law after the 2001 riots, she did find issues.

One of the biggest was a lack of community outreach. While the complaint authority had always responded to requests to speak at community events, there was no formal outreach program.

“In September, we started reaching out to community councils and letting them know the (complaint authority) is here,” Neal said. Complaint authority representatives are now in the middle of appearing before all of the city’s roughly 52 community councils.

Rocky Merz, Cincinnati’s director of communications, said the outreach is crucial. While the complaint authority and reforms garnered plenty of attention and press in the years following the 2001 riots, he said the department has fallen off the public’s radar somewhat.

“We have institutionalized this here,” Merz said. “The challenge for us is how do we continue to raise awareness, letting people know that hey, this is here if you have a question or complaint.”

Neal’s experience with neighborhood councils backs up that assessment.

“We generally get about 50 people at each meeting and about half of them have no knowledge of the (complaint authority),” Neal said, adding that those who do know often don’t understand exactly what the department does.

“We can’t get them out of their court cases. We can’t get them out of their tickets,” she said with a chuckle.

The complaint authority investigates a specific set of cases: Any time an officer fires a weapon, when someone dies in police custody, complaints of excessive force and improper search and seizures.

In looking at the complaint authority procedures, Neal also found another anomaly. While the collaborative agreement states the complaint authority should have access to crime scenes in police shooting cases, investigators were not taking advantage. Neal does not know why that was, but she made a change.

“Immediately when I asked (the police chief) for access, we were given access,” she said. “So every time there is a police shooting, we are at the crime scene along with the police officers and the Prosecutor’s Office.”

In addition, Neal’s department also now listens in on police interviews in those cases, something that hadn’t been done until Neal made the request.

Moves like these gave Neal credibility with those in the community that pay attention to police relations and the complaint authority.

“I like the tenacity of Ms. Neal,” said Iris Roley, a representative on the group that forged the Collaborative Agreement and Project Manager for Cincinnati Black United Front. “She did a complete assessment.”

It’s clear Neal quickly recognized and understood the crucial role the complaint authority plays in police and community relations, Roley said. But she also wants to see more.

While the complaint authority makes findings on cases and complaints, it’s often unclear what, if any, actions police leadership take to discipline or respond to those findings. Roley said there needs to be more transparency and follow up.

“What do we do to fix that?” Roley said.

Neal has heard this complaint as well and agrees.

“That’s what the community wants to know,” Neal said. “If these allegations are sustained, people want to know, what’s happening to the officers and is the police department listening to you.”

The complaint authority, Neal said, is working to address this, working with the police department to develop a system to track department responses.

And as with everything she’s done that involves the police department, Neal said the she’s found police leadership to be open and willing.

“Any issues we’ve had since I’ve been here, the police department has addressed it,” Neal said.

About The Citizens Complaint Authority

The Citizens Complaint Authority is charged with investigation of the following police incidents or complaints:

  • Discharge of firearms
  • Death in custody
  • Improper pointing of firearms
  • Improper search
  • Improper seizure
  • Discrimination
  • Use of force
  • Excessive force

How to file complaints

  • By phone at 513-352-1600.
  • In person at 805 Central Ave, Suite 610, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or by appointment.
  • Via email at CCA-complaints@cincinnati-oh.gov or by filling out an online form

You can learn more about CCA, view investigative summaries, audit reports and more at www.cincinnati-oh.gov/ccia.

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