UCPD review panel cautions: Reforms take time

Posted at 11:26 PM, Feb 15, 2016

CINCINNATI -- As an independent panel starts its top-to-bottom review of the University of Cincinnati Police Department, some residents who live near the university question whether that panel's recommendations will ever become reality.

UC announced Feb. 3 that it had hired Exiger, a nationally recognized police monitoring firm, to examine multiple facets of its police department, including policies, procedures, data collection, records management, recruiting, training and technology. University President Santa Ono called for the review as part of a series of reforms after a university police officer, Ray Tensing, killed an unarmed black motorist, Samuel DuBose, during a traffic stop last summer in the city's Mount Auburn neighborhood, not far from the school's campus.

Because of a countywide memorandum of understanding, UC police had authority to conduct police work -- including traffic stops for serious violations -- outside campus boundaries. Not long after DuBose's death, Cincinnati City Council revoked that agreement; university police are allowed to patrol areas around campus for safety purposes as part of an interim agreement, though. Data showed UC police were trending to make upwards of five times more traffic stops in 2015, or 3,477 stops, than the 615 stops that UC officers made in 2012.

Meeting with UC neighbors for the first time Monday night, the 12-member Exiger team pointed to problems in the differences between operating as a university police force and an urban police force.

"What we try to do is bring together experts in both urban policing and university policing, and, as somebody said tonight, there is an issue with a department straddling those two disciplines," Exiger Advisory Group president Jeff Schlanger said.

"It does boil down to more accountability, clarity of roles," said Charles Ramsey, a retired Philadelphia police commissioner and member of the Exiger team. "A lot of what you heard, in my opinion, revolved around just around the lack of clarity in terms of university police versus city police."

Freeman McNeal, who lives in Mount Auburn and has served on the neighborhood's community council, said he was skeptical that the reforms would become part of UCPD practice. And, he said, it was concerning that neighbors weren't included on the 12-member panel.

"How can you trust any advisory panel that doesn’t encompass the local residents?" he said.

Separate from the Exiger team, UC has assembled a 19-member community advisory panel, which includes residents from the adjacent Corryville and CUF neighborhoods. And the university has already reorganized its public safety operation, hiring Cincinnati Police Department veteran James Whalen to be its new director of Public Safety; Gregory Baker, former head of the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence, as UC's first director of Police Community Relations; and appointing crime researcher Dr. Robin Engel as vice president for Safety and Reform. Jason Goodrich remains chief of UCPD.

Department spokeswoman Michele Ralston said UCPD expects to have an interim report from the Exiger team by April, and a final report by June 1. The Exiger panel plans to hold several more community meetings before then. University officials have pledged to implement the panel's recommendations. 

Ramsey cautioned, though, that change often takes time.

“Whether it's diversity in the ranks, whether it's changes in policy, accountability mechanisms being in place -- all those kinds of things -- they just don’t happen with the snap of a finger," he said.

DuBose's death added to the national conversation about how police departments interact with black residents in the communities they serve. Baker, for example, acknowledged Tensing's record of stopping black motorists nearly four times as often as whites.

Tensing was indicted on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter, and he's pleaded not guilty. His attorney has said Tensing feared for his life during the traffic stop, alleging DuBose's vehicle was dragging the officer. In indicting the officer, a Hamilton County grand jury rejected that claim, as did the authors of an independent investigative report released by the university in mid-September.

Tensing is scheduled for trial Oct. 24.

Last month, the university settled with the DuBose family for $4.85 million plus free tuition for DuBose's 12 children. UCPD also fired Tensing shortly after his indictment.