Editorial: Keep the police free of politics

Posted at 10:09 PM, Sep 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-09 22:09:16-04

CINCINNATI -- Wednesday was a historic day in Cincinnati, and not in a good way.

The city manager fired the police chief. That’s never happened before.

It never happened before because, until 2001, the police chief could not be fired.

That year, Cincinnatians voted to change the city’s constitution -- the charter -- to give the city manager the power to hire and fire the police chief.

What happens next in the police drama also will be affected by that vote in 2001.

The next police chief can be chosen from a national pool of candidates, not just from within the current ranks of the department. The change was voted on after the April 2001 riots, after the police department was sued by citizens who said a closed culture was partly to blame for hostile police relations in black neighborhoods.

Whether city manager Harry Black, and his boss, Mayor John Cranley, will choose to conduct a national search this time isn’t clear. But so far, the results of looking outside the force have been mixed.

It will take leadership and commitment to move forward and find the next police chief. Leadership will be needed from Black and Cranley to take the time to find the right person, someone who can quickly earn -- and keep -- the respect and trust of a demoralized force. It will also take the commitment of the assistant chiefs and other police leadership to work productively with a new chief.

Cincinnati is now on its third police chief in four years. Jim Craig, the first chief hired from out of town, left after two years. Now, Blackwell, also hired from out of town, is gone after two years.

Eliot Isaac, a 26-year veteran of the Cincinnati Police Department, has been named interim chief, and presumably a broad search will be conducted for a new chief.

Black and Cranley should search as widely as possible for the city’s next top law enforcement officer, despite the short terms of the first two out-of-towners. But they should also examine the culture of the rank-and-file.

Cincinnati has a notoriously closed culture among its police force. That can be good and bad. The good: it can make for a cohesive force. The bad: It makes change very difficult.

Police Specialist Scotty Johnson said as much Wednesday in front of a dramatic City Council meeting. “It’s difficult to come into Cincinnati as an outsider,” he said. “Especially within our agency. It’s difficult to come in and be welcome.”

Blackwell was mostly welcomed in the community. He was committed to improving police-community relations and making life better for impoverished black youth. He earned loyalty in the neighborhoods for that.



But within his department, any welcome he may have enjoyed appears to have evaporated. Lack of direction, lack of communication, distrust, hostility, dissension and an atmosphere of intimidation are some of the most damning things mentioned by an outside report. Blackwell appears to have lost the trust of his department, and that is dangerous – literally -- in a police department.

That’s not the kind of problem one person can change. It will take a committed effort by not only a new chief, but the mayor, the city manager and city council.

Cincinnati’s police chiefs once enjoyed civil service protection to shield them from the whims of politicians that could result in retribution, favors, or otherwise compromise what the police force is here to do.

It’s taken 14 years to see the full effect of the changes we voted on in 2001. Elections have consequences. But Cranley and Black need to leave politics behind as they move forward in the coming months to repair a broken department. The safety of our city is too important not to.