Firing of ex-police chief re-emerges as controversy after release of emails, settlement agreement

Mayor and city manager defended decision
Posted at 2:53 PM, Dec 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-30 11:51:50-05

CINCINNATI -- The mayor and city manager Thursday defended the decision to fire former Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell in 2015 as some council members criticized it following the release of several documents.

Those documents included emails between Mayor John Cranley and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel about race and police reform, a settlement agreement between the city and Blackwell and a draft of a lawsuit Blackwell had considered filing against city officials.

In the agreement, the city agreed to pay more than $250,000 to Blackwell and his attorneys, and Blackwell agreed not to sue the city over his termination. Some officials said they didn't know about the settlement, which was signed in August, until it was reported Wednesday.

Cranley was joined at the 3 p.m. conference by City Manager Harry Black, Police Chief Eliot Isaac, Councilmember Christopher Smitherman and City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething.

"Terminating Mr. Blackwell and hiring this great chief of police, Eliot Isaac, was the right thing to do for the people of Cincinnati," Cranley said.

Councilmembers Wendell Young, Charlie Winburn, Chris Seelbach and Yvette Simpson -- who has announced a run for mayor next year -- as well as several local African-American community leaders held their own news conference on the subject at 6:02 p.m. They called for an investigation into what role Cranley played in the decision to fire Blackwell, and whether any role he may have played was appropriate.

"It was wrong, the way the city manager -- and anybody else involved -- fired the police chief," Winburn said.

Cranley and Black denied that the mayor had any involvement in the decision, saying it was the city manager's call alone.

Blackwell threatened lawsuit

City officials released a copy of an eight-count complaint Blackwell sent to the city but never filed Thursday. In the complaint, Blackwell laid out his issues with the city government.

Blackwell accused Cranley of "abuse of power" and Black of "illegal conduct," alleging a "conspiracy that resulted in the destruction of [Blackwell's] long and distinguished career as a law enforcement professional."

The complaint states that, during meetings in May 2015, Black pressured Blackwell to resign and said that Cranley was "the boss" who wanted his "own man" and believed Blackwell was a "bad fit" for police chief.

After Blackwell refused to resign, Cranley and Black "began a campaign to assassinate his character," according to the complaint.

Blackwell was then terminated in September 2015 "without warning and due process," the complaint states.

In a news conference Thursday, Black reiterated the reasons for Blackwell's dismissal that he had released in a memorandum at the time: "disarray" and low morale in the police department.

"All of this not only jeopardized the overall effectiveness of a nationally renowned police department, but also put in jeopardy the overall safety and well-being of our residents," Black said.

After Blackwell's termination, officials named Eliot Isaac as the new chief. Blackwell's complaint alleged Isaac was picked "to avoid public pressure from the African-American community." Isaac, like Blackwell, is African-American.

Black called the suggestion that Isaac's appointment to chief was based on race "absolutely untrue."

"My decision to appoint Mr. Isaac as chief was based on what I felt the department and city needed at the time in terms of law enforcement leadership," Black said. "Chief Isaac possesses the proper temperament and law enforcement acumen, in addition to being familiar with the department and city."

Cranley also said firing Blackwell and promoting Isaac "was in the best interest of the safety of this city." Like Black, he cited low morale in the police department as well as rising violent crime in the summer of 2015.

The mayor called the allegations in Blackwell's complaint "all categorically false" and accused Blackwell of "abusing his subordinates."

"Mr. Blackwell's failing leadership of the police department was putting the safety of our citizens at risk," Cranley said.

Controversy over emails, settlement

The news conferences came the day after the settlement agreement between the city and Blackwell was released. Several city council members expressed surprise over the agreement, saying they had been unaware it had ever been made.

In light of the settlement, and Cranley's emails to Emanuel, Young said he planned to introduce a motion calling for a "special investigation" into Blackwell's firing.

Unlike the mayor's news conference, Young's event had an audience of cheering supporters. It also featured non-government community leaders, including Dwight Tillery, the head of The Black Agenda Cincinnati and a former mayor, Bishop Bobby Hilton and NAACP Cincinnati branch President Robert Richardson.

Bishop said Cranley's emails make it appear "that Mayor Cranley positioned blacks against blacks. It appears that he's saying that he waited until he could get some black people to be on his side, and use black people to calm black people down."

"Don't try to calm me down," Hilton said. "Just tell me the truth."

Ahead of the second news conference, Cranley accused Simpson and Young of "trying to make political hay" of Blackwell's firing and the settlement ahead of the next election.

"Young and Simpson are defending a man who abused his subordinates and city employees instead of standing up for city employees," Cranley said.

Simpson questioned why the mayor was accusing them of making the firing and emails a political issue.

"I didn't write the email," Simpson said. "I didn't release the email. Neither of us did that. So why is it our fault?"

She did also say the emails showed a lack of respect from Cranley.

"What we saw is a leader who uses people as pawns in a complicated chess game to accomplish his objectives," Simpson said.

Speaking briefly at the second event via phone, Blackwell thanked his supporters and urged them to continue.

"I want you all to keep pushing for the truth," Blackwell said. "It's there, and I think you guys know what it is."