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How Isaac went from pizza cook to police chief

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Posted at 4:59 AM, Sep 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-17 04:59:18-04

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati police captains greet each other with witty banter just before 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

One by one, they set their cups of coffee down and remove their white uniform hats before taking a seat around the long conference table just outside the police chief's office.

"Morning, boss."

They address Lt. Col. Eliot Isaac in unison when he takes his seat, before briefing him on the latest updates in their districts.

Isaac is now the man at the head of the table, a week after former Chief Jeffrey Blackwell got the boot. But just two months ago, before Isaac's back-to-back promotions to executive assistant chief and interim police chief, he sat at the other end of the table among the police captains who now call him "boss."

For a city that brought in its last two top cops from outside, Isaac's leadership feels homegrown. For some, it's a welcomed change in a department struggling with low employee morale, a lack of direction and communication issues, according to an independent climate assessment City Manager Harry Black commissioned in June.

RELATED: Police morale already improved, one day after chief's firing, city manger says

Isaac went to high school here, cooked pizzas at LaRosa's and even briefly drove the parking shuttle at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport before joining the department nearly 27 years ago.

"I was 22 years old," he said. "I was, for all intents and purposes, still a kid. I feel like I grew up doing this job." 

Isaac is a six-year U.S. Army National Guard veteran, a Xavier University graduate, and now he's pursuing his master's there, too. He's a husband of 25 years and a father to two daughters. He's a "White Castle coffee guy," an avid Cincinnati sports fan and a man who prays when he arrives at the office each day.  

"I'm a person of faith, and I think people who know me know I rest on fairness," he said. "I believe in doing what's fair and what's right and doing what's right for the right reasons. I think that's probably what people would tell you about me. I'm not not looking for the limelight. I'm not that person but I think people will tell you that I'm also not afraid to lead."

Eliot Isaac

The 49-year-old Forest Park resident spent three years as commander of the Criminal Investigations Section and worked in administration sections for a short time. But Isaac has spent most of his career in and out of the Internal Investigations Section and District 4 as both a police sergeant and eventually the commander of those units. District 4 covers policing in 10 neighborhoods, including Avondale, Walnut Hills, Bond Hill, Roselawn and Mount Auburn. Internal Investigations handles police misconduct allegations.

"I think (working in internal investigations) was a very pivotal point in my career where I really saw my role in moving up the ranks and the opportunities there and looking at the department from all aspects rather than just what you could do inside of a district," Isaac said.

Isaac Passionate About Community Engagement

For a police agency that has touted its community engagement success nationally under the Blackwell regime, its interim leader has been at the forefront of community policing and reform on the ground here. As a District 1 officer in the early 90s, Isaac served as a community-oriented police officer in the West End for several years.

"Back then, community-oriented policing was something that was developing," Isaac said. "Our biggest challenge then was just to build a relationship with the community. Where we've evolved over the last 20 something years is just tremendous. Now we work together and we solve our problems."

As a police sergeant in April 2001, when riots followed the fatal officer-involved shooting of unarmed black teen Timothy Thomas, Isaac was a sergeant in the Internal Investigations Section. He assisted with the investigations that followed Thomas' death and then became involved in U.S. Department of Justice oversight once he became the commander of the internal investigations unit as the community worked toward developing the Collaborative Agreement.

"It was during my time there that we actually met the standard that was set for us on how we conducted internal investigations," Isaac said. "Some of the (standard operating procedures) that we developed are still in use today, and also the relationship that we have with our Citizen Complaint Authority, I'm pretty proud of the fact that I helped grow that relationship to what it is now." 

'I Don't Want To Undo The Positives That Chief Blackwell Did'

With Blackwell's departure, many have questioned whether the specialized units that Blackwell created or the community-oriented and youth engagement programs he oversaw will get ousted from the department too -- especially at a time when police leaders say they need more boots on the ground to respond to emergency calls.

"I know a lot of people are concerned that I'm going to eliminate some of the things that we were currently doing," Isaac said. "That's not my desire. I don't want to undo the positives that Chief Blackwell did." 

Blackwell's pet projects will likely continue in some form, but may be moved to other units in the department.

Eliot Isaac

Isaac said he and the command staff are now going through a top-to-bottom review of the police department to see what areas need improvement. The chief made his first change earlier this week when he added 25 officers to street patrol. With just a week on the job, the interim chief said he hasn't nailed down what else will change but he hopes to have a plan in the next week or two. In about 30 days, the leadership will also decide which components of Blackwell's 90-day plan will remain in place, Isaac said.

His top priorities right now:  reducing a spike in gun violence, dealing with department morale issues and deepening relationships with community partners. 

That means community engagement initiatives are here to stay. Isaac said you'll likely see him walking through Cincinnati's neighborhoods or popping in at a community cookout, just as Blackwell did during his tenure.

"You know, I'm a different person," Isaac said. "I have somewhat of a different style than Chief Blackwell did, but I think that those things that are really important, that really matter, they're not going to see much difference. I think that there may be some personality differences, but I think one of the common grounds that we did have is that we both shared that passion for the community, and I fully supported him in that."

Unlike Blackwell, who spent more than 70 days traveling on the job, Isaac doesn't plan to travel more than is required, he said

"I'll do what I need to do but my priority has always been and is Cincinnati," he said. "This is where I've raised my family. This is where I lived -- I've invested my entire career here in Cincinnati; I'm not looking for a national stage. I'm not looking for a stepping stone." 

Isaac, who said he believes in servant leadership, said he's addressing internal communication issues that were publicly raised when Blackwell got fired.

"Moving forward, I think you're going to see a lot of collaboration from inside the department," he said. "It's my desire to have a unified command structure. We'll come in this room and we'll hash out our issues, but when we leave. We'll be unified in the direction that we're going." 

Other than that, he gave few specifics on how he's different from his former boss. He said he did not want to "cast a shadow" on Blackwell.

Isaac recognizes that it's not just the people inside the department who need to heal during the leadership transition. When Blackwell got fired, some community members felt like they lost their biggest advocate, as well as a friend. 

"We're really going to have to roll up our sleeves and continue to have some honest dialog," he said. "This was a tough thing for our city to undergo. Anytime there's a change in the department leadership, and particularly when it's got some negative connotations around it, you know, it's something that is going to take some healing around, and I just want the community to know that there are people that still do care." 

The interim chief has the OK to do everything a permanent chief can do. Isaac said he wants to make a difference in his temporary role rather than "tread water" as the chief selection process unfolds.

"I need to move the department forward because however this plays out, whether I'm sitting in the first chair or the second chair, I'm going to still be here," he said.

He said he never planned to be the chief at this stage in his career, but he doesn't seem opposed to applying for the full-time gig. 

"If I believe that I can help make a difference, then absolutely," he said. "We're going to see how things go and if I have the support and what I need that I can move this place along successfully, then absolutely I'll do that."