© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Could Police Reform In Cincinnati Provide Model For Ferguson?

William Freivogel for St. Louis Public Radio

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati’s police reform following a deadly police shooting and riots in 2001 has lessons for Ferguson and St. Louis. Here is what the reformers there say:

  • Police reform will take a long time – many years, not many months.
  • A Justice Department investigation, such as the one underway in Ferguson, is necessary but not sufficient to bring about lasting reform. The Justice Department goes away after five years.
  • An enforceable court order will be necessary to make sure changes are implemented in the long term. A new policing strategy is also needed to bring the police and community together.
  • The reforms should include transparency when police shoot civilians, an early warning system to identify troubled officers, new policies minimizing use of force, a civilian review board and video and audio on police cars and officers.

Here’s the story of the reformers in Cincinnati.
A stranger in her hometown

Iris Roley burst into tears when a federal monitor told her a decade ago that it would take more than 10 years to transform the relationship between the black community and the Cincinnati police.

Roley, a leader of Cincinnati’s Black United Front, wanted action right away. She felt so alienated that when people asked where she lived she refused to say Cincinnati. “I didn’t feel included,” she said.

Police had killed 15 young black men in the six years leading up to the 2001 shooting death of Timothy Thomas. The ACLU had filed a class action suit alleging that the police had violated the civil rights of 14 young black men by shooting them, profiling them and illegally stopping and searching them.

Then came Thomas' killing, which ignited four days of riots and led to a costly economic boycott of businesses and tourism. Protesters demanded the prosecution of the officer who had shot Thomas, but he was acquitted of a minor charge.

“We were bleeding as a community,” recalled Beth Benson, vice president of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

Thomas' shooting “brought the police command staff to its knees,” said Lt. Lisa Davis, who now runs the quality of life enhancement teams. “It brought the chief, Chief Tom Streicher, to his knees.”

Reform did take a decade and more. But it has taken root. Deadly force incidents are way down and the police and the community have a working relationship.

Roley is friends with the head of the police union who once opposed the reform. She serves on a committee that oversees police matters. And she proselytizes nationally in favor of police reform, partnering with her old foe, former Police Chief Streicher.

One of the first calls she received after the Ferguson shooting was from Streicher offering to help – even though Streicher recently quipped that in 2001 Roley “wouldn’t have spit on me if I was on fire."

Roley has made multiple trips to Ferguson in the past two months. She carries with her the collaborative agreement that lays out the blueprint for reform. And she tells protest leaders the same thing she didn’t want to hear.

This will take a long time.

Has the black community come to trust the Cincinnati police?

Jesse Roley, Iris’s husband, said, “I don’t think I can say we are trustful yet.” Sitting across from his wife in their awards and graphics shop, he adds, “I can say things are workable. We went from protesting and being on the front lines in the insurrection to seeing officers hand out a card at a police shooting 12 years later. It makes you partners as opposed to adversaries.”

The United Front had to avoid the blame game, he said. “We did an agreement without blame. It wasn’t an easy thing. … You have to remove yourself from the emotional part of it. The bigger picture was the end. Blame was something that we had to give up.”

Today, when someone asks Iris Roley where she’s from, she says Cincinnati.

Meaningful Reform

The changes in Cincinnati are not just cosmetic or limited to improved interpersonal relationships. Concrete changes have led to a significant drop in the use of deadly force and to the creation of a policing strategy that binds the community to the police.

The use of force by the Cincinnati police department has decreased to 22 incidents in 2013 from 145 incidents in 2002 when the collaborative agreement was implemented.

Here are the essentials:

  • Court-enforced agreement – Alphonse Gerhardstein, an ACLU lawyer, says the most important element of reform is a court-enforceable order requiring action. A five-year Justice Department intervention is not enough.
  • Transparency – When a police officer shoots a citizen, the police immediately send electronic messages to community leaders and hold a press conference within 12 hours with details of the incident. The details include the name of the officer, the video recorded by a camera on the cruiser and audio recorded by a microphone on the officer. “You never want the community to think you are hiding something,” says Lt. Davis. “That’s what happened in 2001. We had a police-involved shooting the day before Michael Brown was killed. We had a press conference by 2 p.m.”
  • Early warning system – Police track officers who receive lots of complaints or repeatedly violate policies. Every quarter commanders work out plans to improve performance or remove the officers whose weaknesses are identified.
  • Citizen Complaint Authority – Citizens can file complaints with a citizen board that has investigative and subpoena powers. Pam King, who heads the authority, remembers that “when I got to the scene when Timothy Thomas was killed, I stood outside the tape,” she said. “Now they are looking for us to come in.”
  • Problem-oriented policing – Many of the reformers say that shifting the overall policing strategy to problem-centered policing is the most important factor in changing police-community relations. The strategy puts the police and community leaders together to figure out specific crime problems instead of just reacting to the police radio.
  • Mental health response team -- The team is specially trained to deal with cases involving citizens with mental problems.
  • Force policies – New policies on the use of force and foot chases emphasize using as little force as possible and taking more time with a difficult situation. Tasers were introduced to reduce injuries and deaths. There were three tasings in 2002, 597 by 2004 and 222 last year.
  • Video and audio – Video cameras were installed on police cruisers and officers wore body microphones. The ACLU’s Gerhardstein said that the video from cameras on cars is much better than from cameras on officers. “I see less from a body cam than a cruiser cam. The officer is running around and moving his body quickly. Everything is distorted.” The importance of video was illustrated several years ago when officers shot and killed a young black man in Fountain Square. “This is the kind of case where I would have filed a suit in the past,” Gerhardstein added. “But I was convinced from the video that the kid had a gun and pulled it.”

Slow start to reform

Mayor John Cranley remembers the weeks after Thomas' shooting as “a miserable experience. The city was deeply divided and tension was in the air,” said Cranley, who was a city councilman at the time. “I don’t want to go back there.”

Success in Cincinnati was not predestined. The city council voted narrowly, 5-4, to mediate the lawsuit filed by Gerhardstein rather than fight it. Cranley recalled it as a tough vote but a correct one.

Credit Office of the mayor of Cincinnati
Mayor John Cranley

"I was raised on the west side of town where a large number of police officers were born and raised and at the time they thought to mediate was to give credence to charges they thought were unfair.”

At first, the commanders and the rank-and-file pushed back. Streicher threw the court monitor, Rana Sampson, out of police headquarters when she demanded information. That’s when U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott stepped in on behalf of the monitor.

“The chief almost was fired,” said Davis. “Cops really shut down here at first. There were a few years there when this was all being worked out that things were worse, … It took me a while. There was a real us vs. them attitude.”

One of those who thought negotiating was admitting guilt was Kathy Harrell, now head of the Fraternal Order of Police. When the collaborative agreement was presented to the police union, she voted no.

“I looked at it as a personal attack on me as being racist and saying it was racially profiling and that was not how I policed. I thought a yes vote was agreeing to that,” she said.

She’s changed her mind. The changes turned out to be good for the police.

“The cameras don’t hurt us. They save us more than they hurt us. The Tasers don’t hurt us. There have been fewer injuries. The Civilian Complaint Authority doesn’t hurt us but helps the citizens feel confident.”

Over the years, Harrell has become friends of her former foes. “I got to be friends with Iris Roley and Al Gerhardstein. If you had told me that I would have worked so closely with them, I would have told you you were crazy.”

Problem-oriented policing

Lt. Maris M. Herold runs the 4th District where she specializes in problem-oriented policing.

“If you just are reacting to calls and making arrests, that’s where there is damage in the community,” she said. “If your community’s primary strategy is problem-solving, a lot of the problems cease to exist.”

To illustrate, she points to cleaning up an apartment complex at 3522 Reading where there had been a rash of shootings, including the murder of a 14-year-old girl.

Most of the violence was traceable to the men connected to three or four women who were staying in the apartment complex.

Herold says she partnered with residents to disentangle the problems. She also brought in an array of social services as well as the city's chronic nuisance attorney to pressure the landlord for changes.

“We changed the landscaping, put some new fencing up and a place for kids to play and most importantly they provided two security people who monitor the hallways. They are not armed but extra eyes and ears.

“You start getting really good intelligence. You get info that it is Apt. 3 where all the drugs are coming out and the guys are hanging out. Out of 45 units, it came down to three who are connected to the guys who are violent. Once you do get the building stable, it empowers the women and this is often overlooked.

“The majority of these women just want to get through the day without violence.”

It took 90 days to turn things around, said Herold. Since then the building has had only one violent incident.

“At the end of the day,” said Herold, “all it’s about is the police department working with the community. Police are not going to like this in the beginning but it makes you a much better police.”

John Eck, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, said problem-oriented policing “enhances the status of the police officer who no longer is just a foot soldier who could be purchased by the dozen, but rather a person who understands how to address community problems.”

The new chief

The new chief in Cincinnati, Jeffrey Blackwell, is a strong proponent of reform. He agrees with something the Rev. Al Sharpton told him. “Sharpton said that if the people of Cincinnati have to call him, they don’t know you.”

The chief says the department has one of the lowest use of force ratings in the country and he touts community programs such as the Chief’s Basketball Program for youths, Shop with a Cop and a recent volunteer cleanup of a homeless camp.

Optics are important, he said. “We won’t wear black gloves. I don’t believe in standing in a line. We are infused into the city. We were part of the festival we are policing. ”

Added Davis: “You have to mirror what you want your community to see. If you want them to see you as an army, then use military uniforms.”

A few hours after talking to a reporter, Blackwell and Davis are at an evening presentation at Frederick Douglass School on the ABC’s of the CPD (Cincinnati Police Department).

Davis goes through a number of street scenarios to give residents an idea of what to expect. An audience of about 40, including rapt elementary school children, sees video of a violent traffic stop that ends in a shooting.

One street scenario involves a stop of a motorist claiming the police are only stopping him because he is a black man with a white woman. The police advice is that even if angry, make sure you stay in the car unless told to get out and keep you hands where they can be seen.

More than police reform

One other important ingredient of reform in Cincinnati has been the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which has funded an array of education and economic programs in addition to a police academy.

Kathy Merchant, the president, said that the business community didn’t like the boycott that followed the Thomas shooting, but she realizes today that it helped prod the city toward reform.

The biggest businesses – Macy’s, Toyota, Cincinnati Bell, Procter & Gamble, E.W. Scripps – joined with the philanthropic community to form Better Together Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Foundation was a leader in efforts to create the Community Police Partnering Center to teach problem-oriented policing, the Minority Business Accelerator to grow minority businesses and early education initiatives.

The biggest successes have been in education. “We start with the babies and have a 'Success at 6' program. Our poverty rate is higher than the U.S. and growing faster, but in education we are seeing some progress … from small to medium degrees.” Kindergarten readiness has increased to 57 percent from 42 percent.

Merchant has heard from the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation seeking pointers for Ferguson. The St. Louis group is much smaller and more focused on asset development than community leadership, he says.

There does not seem to be tradition of collaboration in St. Louis," she added.

Missing ingredients in Ferguson

Police reform experts from Cincinnati have noticed that Ferguson lacks, so far, elements that were essential to negotiating a successful agreement.

There is no consensus on who should come to the table to negotiate an agreement. Many protest groups have sprung up in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown; in Cincinnati the United Front was the identifiable group that could negotiate.

Nor is there yet a ready vehicle for an order enforceable by the court.

The Justice Department’s pattern or practice investigation in Ferguson could lead to an enforceable agreement, Gerhardstein says. Cincinnati had a similar Justice Department investigation. But more is needed – active judicial oversight over a period of years.

Eck agreed that a federal pattern or practice suit by the Justice Department is not enough.

“In some sense the Justice Department’s approach is not different from U.S. military intervention abroad. Eventually they are going to leave. And then things go back the way they were” unless there is an enforceable agreement still in place.

“The Justice Department’s “pattern or practice is the best tool out there because it deals with systemic change,” said Eck. “But it still has shortcomings because you have to have someone who keeps after it.”

In Ferguson, there is no lawsuit like Gerhardstein’s. Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the local ACLU, said he favors a collaborative process like Cincinnati’s and “always likes where there is an enforcement mechanism.”

But he added, “We don’t even know who the parties are to get to the table to talk about collaboration. … We don’t want to speak for the organizations or the young people on the ground. We are leaving space for community voices.”

Gerhardstein thinks that Cincinnati can serve as a model for Ferguson. “A long-term enforceable agreement plus continuing organizing by the community and openness from the city can indeed help Ferguson adapt the Cincinnati model to its own purposes.”