CINCINNATI -- A key to unwinding the details surrounding the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. that sparked days of rioting and protests will be an outside investigation led by the U.S. Justice Department — a scenario in which Cincinnati police and city leaders are familiar.
While the Justice Department’s review will run parallel to a St. Louis County investigation, the independent audit is essential, experts say, to re-building trust and improving police and community relations.
“It’s one of the things you often hear citizens clamor for following an incident like what happened in Ferguson,” said David Harris, a professor of law at University of Pittsburgh who studies police behavior and policies. “Especially, if in the end, there is a finding that a police officer was not in the wrong, it’s best to have that come from an independent voice, someone outside of the police department.”
In Cincinnati, independent investigations into alleged police misconduct occur regularly. But in the last five years, the number of complaints received and investigated by Cincinnati's Citizen Complaint Authority have steadily declined – along with its budget and staffing.
Riots Spark Independent Review Group
In the aftermath of 2001 riots, Cincinnati created the Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA).
The entity has an independent staff that investigates citizen complaints against officers ranging from allegations of excessive use of force and search and seizures to improper pointing and discharging of a firearm. A seven-member commission, appointed by the mayor with city council approval, reviews the findings.
As the CCA conducts an investigation, the Cincinnati Police Department also takes on its own internal review.
Ultimately, the city manager has the final decision on any disciplinary actions.
Such authorities are increasingly more common, said Harris.
“There are different models across the country, and they have varying degrees of success,” said Harris. “You need the right structure and budget in place.”
In the last five years, the number of complaints and its staff have dropped by half each.
In 2009, the authority reviewed 111 complaints. Last year, it reviewed half of that - with 55 investigations. Of those 10 were upheld and three remain pending.
Meanwhile, CCA’s funding and staffing levels have been trimmed from 10 full-time employees with a budget of more than $538,670 in 2001, to five full time employees and a budget of $498,260 this year.
Program Nearly Axed
In 2010, a proposed budget by then city manager Milton Dohoney called for eliminating the program altogether.
For CCA’s to remain truly independent, Davis said their budget “really needs to be insulated from any political or pushback.
“Resistance (to such authorities) can come in many ways – including budget cuts,” Harris said.
The budget reductions – which have landed along with city-wide funding cuts - hasn’t hampered the investigation work of the CCA, but has impacted other areas, said Pam King, the authorities interim director.
“We would love to be able to do more outreach and just educate the community, especially on issues like what to do when you come in contact with a police officer,” said Pam King, the CCA’s interim director. “We’d also like to have some forums with the local community councils to see what kinds of issues they are seeing in their neighborhoods.”
That kind of work is where most authorities and cities fall short, says John Eck, a University of Cincinnati professor of criminology.
“These authorities are necessary, but they’re no better at preventing police misconduct than courts are at preventing criminality,” said Eck. “The less understood potential, though the CCA has done some of this, is to look at patterns of the complaints and identify situations which might lead to trouble in the future.”
To that end, King said research led by the CCA in recent years has been “instrumental” in changes to the city police department’s use of Tasers and its consent to search policy.
“The city manager and police department uses our findings not just to discipline police officers, but they look at our data to find patterns of misconduct and as a way to review their own practices and policies,” said King. “I was an investigator when the 2001 incident exploded, and I can tell you the culture we had then has come a long way.”
Cincinnati Police Capt. Eliot Isaac, a criminal investigation section commander, agreed.
“We have really evolved,” he said. “This is a process that’s been in place for more than a decade, and many of our officers have joined the department in the last 10 to 12 years – so it’s the only process they know, and it works. There is no reason for opposition to it.”
That kind of cooperation, Harris says, is found in few cities.
“Often, you hear from law enforcement – that ‘this isn’t necessary, we have our own internal bureau for this work,” he said. “I think things in Cincinnati went from a very poor start to now you’re getting an actual city policing cooperation. That takes time, and it takes a lot of effort.”