Some community groups are outraged about a hastily crafted proposal by Cincinnati officials that could result in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office taking control of all policing within city limits, adding it shows a lack of planning and judgment.
Critics say the wide-sweeping proposal, which is being rushed through in three months, would disrupt many of the hard-fought police reforms that resulted from the Collaborative Agreement. That’s the deal that ended a racial-profiling lawsuit against Cincinnati police and called for dozens of changes to how officers do their jobs, all of which were implemented over a five-year period under the watchful eye of a federal court.
During heated budget negotiations in December, four City Council members unveiled a proposal to The Enquirer’s editorial board that called for contracting out the Cincinnati Police Department’s patrol functions to the Sheriff’s Office. That proposal was made publicly, without sharing it first with the remaining council members or Mayor Mark Mallory.
Backers included Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Councilmen Wendell Young and Jeff Berding. Also, Councilman Chris Bortz was involved in discussions and attended the meeting with the editorial board but said he hadn’t yet decided on supporting it.
When that proposal faltered, a council faction in February voted to study a full consolidation of the Cincinnati Police Department with the Sheriff’s Office. Council members asked for a report and plan on implementing the change from city staffers by April 30.
This time, six members voted to ask for the report. The four previously mentioned officials were joined by Amy Murray and Laure Quinlivan.
Councilmembers Leslie Ghiz, Cecil Thomas and Charlie Winburn are opposed, as is Mallory. With the mayor against the plan, it will take at least six council votes to override a likely veto — meaning all the study about consolidation might be for naught.
If a consolidation were to occur, about 1,000 people would be laid off from the city’s Police Department. Although they could apply for jobs at the Sheriff’s Office, there’s no guarantee they’d be hired and, for those that are, they likely would be working for less money.
Although elected officials continue to voice their support for the Collaborative Agreement, many community groups remain skeptical. With a police chief’s position that will soon be vacant and looming budget deficits, they wonder why prior planning failed to occur, only to be replaced with what they call a reactionary proposal.
Ironically, Qualls says it was the publicly noncommittal Bortz who first approached her with the idea of merging the two entities. Qualls says she felt the possibility worth exploring because it would save money from the city’s general fund and improve safety by placing more officers on the streets during all shifts.
“In addition, I and Councilmembers Young and Quinlivan have been very clear that the sheriff must agree to honor the Collaborative Agreement,” Qualls says. “Right now, we are waiting on a report from the city manager to update council on the discussions that have occurred between the manager and the sheriff.”
Expressing similar sentiments, Quinlivan says if the takeover could save millions of dollars in the city’s coffers while putting more officers on the street, she’s willing to consider it. On the negative side, Quinlivan voices her concerns about the ambiguous demographics of the sheriff’s deputies, noting the number of women and minorities in the office go untracked.
Also, Quinlivan doesn’t want to jeopardize police/community relations, which have improved considerably since the April 2001 riots that were prompted by the shooting death of an unarmed black man by police during a chase through an Over-the-Rhine alley.
In a private meeting with Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., Quinlivan says the sheriff offered assurances he would abide by the Collaborative Agreement as part of the takeover. If accurate, the decision seems to mark a change of heart for Leis, who petitioned a federal judge in 2006 to work outside the scope of the agreement while expanding Sheriff’s Office patrols to police Over-the-Rhine.
As a former reporter for WCPO-TV’s I-Team, Quinilvan taped a documentary about deputies patrolling the neighborhood that was part of a 14-month study. Many residents and business owners welcomed the deputies’ “tough on crime” approach, as well as an overall drop in crime and uptick in arrests, she adds. Quinlivan looks at this period as being a trial-run.
“The critics of this potential plan say, ‘(County officers) know how to do suburban areas but they just don’t understand urban policing,’ ” she says.
Less training, less oversight
In his letter to Mallory in December, Leis promises to “significantly improve the quality of service at a greatly reduced cost.” That’s a bold statement that doesn’t seem likely based on current facts, says civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, who helped negotiate the Collaborative Agreement.
Training for the Sheriff’s Office is conducted on-the-job in the county jail, while the Cincinnati Police Department conducts much more extensive training — including for methods not offered to deputies such as use of force, dealing with mentally impaired suspects and conflict resolution.
Also, the Police Department more closely mirrors the community it serves, comprised of 33 percent minority officers and 23 percent female officers, Gerhardstein says.
Instead of focusing on the number of arrests, City Council should focus on a number that can’t be measured: Conflicts that didn’t lead to arrests because they were diffused by police officers before they escalated.
“What we’ve tried to do under the Collaborative is achieve this whole notion of prevention as a goal and that isn’t captured by counting the number of arrests,” he says. “We’re actually trying to prevent arrests; we’re trying to save arrests for the most important crimes. That kind of benchmark would be foreign to the sheriff.”
An important element of the Collaborative Agreement at stake is the Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA), says Margaret Fox, director of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati. An interfaith coalition of 17 denominations of Muslims, Christians and Jews that address social concerns affecting public policy, the group helped keep the peace after the riots while police reforms were being negotiated.
The CCA allows residents to file allegations of police misconduct and bring them before an independent board for review. The board then makes a recommendation to the city manager, who has the final authority. Currently, county residents have no such recourse for questionable incidents and invariably have to hire a lawyer, Fox says.
The coalition has received complaints about questionable police incidents from several areas outside city limits including Silverton, Elmwood Place and Anderson Township, where deputies used a Taser on a diabetic man mistakenly suspected of driving while intoxicated due to his low blood sugar. The latter incident has prompted a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Hamilton County.
If any takeover comes to fruition, the coalition wants the various reforms — including the CCA — to remain firmly in place.
“The Citizen Complaint Authority is key because citizens go before an independent board in order to resolve the bias or treatment they felt was not fair,” Fox says. “That’s where a citizen can make their case and it goes directly to a decision maker — and I don’t know of many places in the country that have that in place as part of their structure.”
Show me the money
Although merger supporters say it would double the number of officers on the street while saving the city an unspecified amount of money, an expert on policing disputes the assertion. John Eck, a criminology professor at the University of Cincinnati, says any cost savings will be minimal and only occur in the long-term. Eck works with law enforcement agencies throughout the nation to improve their training, operation and efficiency.
He notes that mergers of city and county agencies in places like Louisville, Indianapolis, Charlotte/Mecklenburg County, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Clark County/Las Vegas only took place after extensive planning and careful deliberation. Further, mergers revolved around consolidation of other areas of government and not just one single function such as law enforcement.
Perhaps more importantly, Eck says City Council mistakenly believes policing is like private security. Just increasing numbers of officers doesn’t necessarily increase public safety, he says, and council needs to better examine what policing looks like in the 21st century.
“I think this whole thing is a slap in the face to the intelligent policing we’ve got here,” Eck says. “It goes back to the style of policing that, in 1955, would have been out-of-date and it doesn’t recognize the advances in policing — things that we know scientifically are not important that council members want to make important. For example, response time.”
Both Leis and Berding have touted that policing would improve because response time would be reduced, an efficiency notion that was disproven decades ago, Eck says. During the 1980s, Eck worked on research that proved rapid response is only needed in rare emergencies, doesn’t reduce crime and inevitably wastes money.
To potentially make matters worse, the proposed consolidation would allow voters in suburban areas to determine policing in urban areas, essentially disenfranchising inner-city residents.
“I’m not opposed to the idea of some form of consolidation, (but) it would have to be done with a mind that has a long-term payoff and not a short-term one, that is well thought out and least disruptive and produce, at the end of the process, a highly effective police agency that would be effective at lower costs,” Eck says. “If someone’s interested in addressing a momentary budget crisis, this is not the way to go.”
Their own worst enemy
As part of the 2007-08 municipal budget, City Council approved $7.6 million for hiring 100 additional officers, an action that was opposed by Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. Additionally, City Council approved $2.7 million in police overtime, the equivalent of hiring 50 officers, according to a budget report presented to council at the time.
In light of those actions, perhaps council members are their own worst enemies, says Iris Roley, the NAACP’s education chairwoman. Any budget shortfalls for 2011 should have been addressed long before the last-minute scrambling that resulted in the takeover proposal in late December.
Rather than waste time and energy on studying a takeover, council should focus on the true problem: Mismanagement of city funds, she says. As part of an effort to stop the takeover, the NAACP is circulating petitions to place a referendum on the ballot. Roley also is hitting the airwaves on black talk radio, speaking to different organizations and organizing community meetings.
Roley, who helped create the Collaborative Agreement, says it’s egregious that City Council is willing to put 10 years of hard work in jeopardy based on solely on its poor budget planning.
“We accomplished something that was so historic,” she says. “It’s amazing how the rest of the United States and other outside policing agencies and other outside civilian oversight agencies recognize what we’ve done in Cincinnati, but our current elected officials don’t.”
Jeffrey Stec, executive director of Citizens for Civic Renewal, believes budgetary issues were neglected for too long.
If the budgeting process had started as far back as April 2010, council members could’ve had a financial analysis in place and be able to factor in the impact of Streicher’s impending retirement. Stec, Roley and Fox were three of the five members appointed to an advisory board by the city manager to help select a new police chief.
Their appointment was announced Jan. 31, but just three days later the city manager indefinitely delayed the selection process due to council’s merger proposal and the uncertainty that would create for applicants
To truly get a feel where residents stand on the issue, Stec says, small group meetings should be held where people can voice their concerns and ask questions. And to be a truly deliberative democracy, questions should be framed by people, not politicians, he adds. The questions Stec is hearing from residents differ greatly from those posed by elected officials.
“The risk is the financial issues start to dominate the conversation and the money becomes the primary concern,” he says. “And it can’t be anything more than co-equal — money and culture are our two main considerations. So we’ve in a sense biased the entire community with this idea that money is the issue, and again that’s the problem with a budgeting process that’s devoid of strategic thinking.”
Councilman Cecil Thomas believes some of his colleagues have a different type of strategic thinking in mind. During budget negotiations, there were motions aimed at forcing the Fraternal Order of Police to agree to contract concessions. A retired police officer, Thomas says current officers have already given concessions and are strongly opposed to giving more.
“I think that the motivation behind this was more than we can save money by merging,” he says. “It was clearly an attempt to bust the unions, in my opinion.”