On the Watch, Part 10: Cincinnati’s police reform story – a lesson for Baltimore?
In 2001, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Black United Front brought a federal lawsuit against the city of Cincinnati and the police department for racial bias, a white officer in Cincinnati shot an unarmed black teenager as he fled police.
And then, along came a lengthy U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found a pattern of discriminatory practices by the department and an agreement for changes that took months to hammer out. The process of instituting those changes has lasted years. Some would say it’s ongoing.
Baltimore is at the beginning of that process.
Between now and November 1, the Department of Justice and city officials will craft a consent decree – a court-ordered agreement outlining the steps the Baltimore Police Department will take to fix the problems exposed in a recent justice department report. The report found a systemic pattern of unconstitutional policing in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
Can Baltimore take a lesson from Cincinnati?
John Eck, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, was an advisor to the court during the police reform negotiations there. He says the consent decree process wasn’t pretty – the mayor at the time did not want a consent decree--and it wasn’t quick, but the agreement slowly came together.
The ACLU and the Black United Front, similar to today’s Black Lives Matter movement, joined negotiations with the city and the Justice Department. The police union - the FOP - voted to take part as well.
Eck says that decision was an important factor in Cincinnati’s police reform story.
He called the run-up to the vote "a very difficult campaign." But said the point is "it was a cooperative effort."
Despite the city’s initial resistance, officials finally agreed on the terms of the consent decree. They called it - and still do call it – "The Collaborative".
The Collaborative had several components. The main one was a complete overhaul of a policing strategy known as "broken windows," or "zero tolerance." The city agreed to adopt a new strategy called problem-oriented policing. That strategy had officers trying to solve problems without using force and making a lot of arrests.
The Collaborative also created the Citizens' Complaint Authority, an independent group to investigate use of force complaints against the police department.
Kim Neal, authority director, says people in Cincinnati, can complain directly to her agency. The Authority, which reports to the city manager, not the police chief, has the power to require any officer named in a report to come in for questioning.
Neal says her department keeps a constantly updated database that tracks demographics, neighborhoods, complaints
- and the cops they’ve investigated.
"The Collaborative says we must do a patterns report," she said. "If there is an officer who has had a complaint filed against him more than 10 times in a three year period, we consider that a pattern officer."
Neal says they alert the police chief and the city manager when there is a "pattern officer”"whether the complaint was sustained or unfounded.
Their annual reports are available to the public online and the "pattern officers" are identified in the report.
Baltimore's Citizen Review Board doesn’t have nearly as much power. In Baltimore, police can refuse to answer questions. The results of the board's probe are sent back to the police department, but they are never made public. And that’s the end of citizen involvement.
The Collaborative’s contract officially ended in 2008, but city leaders, residents, and others didn’t want to go back to the days when citizens in the poorest neighborhoods were scared of crime
– from the corner boys as well as the police.
So, the city hired a Collaborative Sustainability Manager who’s in charge of making sure the police stick to problem solving and don’t return to "lock 'em all up" mode. The manager follows the police department's personnel changes and the use of force numbers. He also has community liaisons report back to him so he can stay in touch with what’s happening in the streets.
And Citizens' Complaint Authority continues to investigate use of force complaints.
Keeping The Collaborative’s guidelines intact takes a big commitment from city officials, the community and police officers. For example, city officials created new, paid positions, like the sustainability manager. The police department created a mobile mental health crisis team for 911 calls that involve a mentally ill person and invested in extensive training in problem solving policing and updating officers on the latest techniques.
But not everyone in Cincinnati is satisfied with how far police reform has gone.
Brian Taylor, 42, is a Cincinnati native and a leader in the city's Black Lives Matter movement. He points out that several people have been killed by police in the city in the past two years. "We've had Sam DuBose, [Melvin] Murray, [Jawari] Porter, QuanDavier Hicks..."
He says others may think of Cincinnati as a model of fair policing, but the lack of indictments in most of those cases says otherwise. One of the people Taylor names – Sam DuBose - was killed by a University of Cincinnati police officer. That police officer was indicted on murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. His jury trial is expected next month.
Taylor says the Black Lives Matter movement is hundreds strong in Cincinnati - with activists coming from the surrounding counties. If the indicted university officer – Officer Ray Tensing – isn’t convicted, they’ll be in the streets to express their outrage.
Taylor says it's not enough for police reform to center on community policing, recruiting, and training.
"There’s a certain line of thinking that the problem is simply that [there are] just a few bad police," he said. "If what you believe is at the heart of the crises - just not understanding "the 'hood" - then those would be viable solutions."
But, he argues, systemic problems are built into the police department, the court systems, city hall. And they’re much deeper than how police see the inner city communities.
Taylor says their work didn’t end when The Collaborative came to be ten years ago.
"Nothing is set in stone - as time passed, police started to test their space," he explained. "And they gained space and more space and more space."
Eck - the criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati says, police reform like The Collaborative has to be nurtured. It can never be neglected.
This special series is supported by grants from the Bendit Family Foundation, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund, and Open Society Institute-Baltimore.