Many Cincinnatians will never drive down Rice Street in Mount Auburn.
From its start at Mulberry Street just north of Over-the-Rhine, the tucked-away street passes a few blocks of modest two-story houses. Then it makes an S-curve, passing the sheer, rocky cliff that holds up Christ Hospital’s parking garage on one side and a small, calm playground bordered by a dense clump of trees on the other.
After the curves, there are two more blocks of houses.
Samuel DuBose died here one year ago, before Rice makes a tight turn to become Thill Street, which runs to Vine Street. A faded T-shirt with his image and deflated balloons attached to a telephone pole mark the spot at the corner of Valencia Street where the unarmed black motorist’s Honda Accord stopped after he was shot in the head by white University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing during a routine traffic stop.
But Rice Street is more than just the place where DuBose was killed.
Months after the national news cameras and police tape, after the memorial balloons, Rice Street still passes through a community full of neighbors, parents and children, younger and long-time residents. Like many neighborhoods that have seen controversial police shootings, both in Cincinnati and across the country, the Census tract where DuBose died is one of its city’s poorest.
It is quiet here most days. The chatting among neighbors on porches mixes with the sounds of birds and the hovering hum of Christ Hospital’s massive climate control equipment, which looms on the hill above.
Residents are friendly, though some don’t like to be quoted in news articles. Many will tell you all about their community, though.
Rosemary Carr has lived on Valencia Street since 1986.
“I love it,” she says of the neighborhood, which she doesn’t want defined by the shooting that happened five houses down from her a year ago. "I just love Mount Auburn."
DuBose, who lived in Avondale, was driving near UC’s campus when Tensing noticed he didn’t have a front license plate. Tensing followed DuBose, pulling him over just under a mile away from campus. There, after a few minutes of arguing with DuBose after he failed to produce a driver’s license, Tensing shot the father of 13 in the head.
Tensing originally told other officers that DuBose dragged him with his car before he fired. But body camera footage seems to show Tensing firing on DuBose without cause while his car was stationary. He now faces murder and manslaughter charges, for which he will stand trial in October.
Carr says she’s never heard a satisfactory explanation for why the UC officer was there in the first place. She’s angry that DuBose was killed.
Some of her neighbors, including Charna Corbin, who lives a few houses down, are similarly distraught about DuBose’s death and have suggested naming the street after him. Corbin says she’d like to get a petition going. But Carr balks at that.
“Him getting shot here didn’t have anything to do with the neighborhood,” she says. “It had to do with the police.”
In one way, Carr is right — that DuBose’s death happened at this isolated corner of Cincinnati was a matter of circumstance. But the neighborhood has a lot in common with many other neighborhoods where law enforcement intertwines with poverty and racial issues — including those in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., Chicago and here in Cincinnati that have seen controversial police shootings.
Rice Street runs down the middle of much of the city’s Census Tract 23, a small area that stretches from McMillan at the north end, along Vine and Mulberry Streets to the west and south and along Auburn Avenue and Sycamore Street to the east.
Three-quarters of the tract’s 1,143 residents are black. The median household income here is $16,344 — half the city’s overall median. Three-hundred-fifty-four of the tract’s 810 housing units sit vacant. Sixty-five percent of its residents pay more than 40 percent of their income for rent; 56 percent pay half or more of their income for rent.
Despite sitting in the shadow of one of the state’s biggest public universities, only 13 percent of residents in Census Tract 23 have a bachelor’s degree. And though one of the city’s premier hospitals sits in the middle of the area, life expectancy in Mount Auburn is three years below the average for the city.
When Carr moved in three decades ago, her street ran up to a dense section of row houses that surrounded Glencoe Place. That development, first built in the late 1800s, saw alternating fortunes over the years. By the 1950s, city officials considered it a slum. A 1970s redevelopment as middle-class housing won national urban planning awards, but by the mid-1990s it was vacant.
Then Glencoe Place was blocked off to through traffic, sealing off Valencia Street from busy neighborhood artery Auburn Avenue. The row houses were demolished in 2013. Today, the area seems to be reverting to a kind of urban prairie, concrete cracking and weeds growing in the blocks that once held hundreds of people.
The vacant blocks and empty houses make the area around Rice Street feel forlorn and isolated, though residents there say they love the quiet, the greenness and the tight-knit feeling.
But they say more could be done for them and for their children.
“We need things for the kids to do around here, positive things,” Carr says, noting that young people in the area need activities that will keep them out of danger.
As residents who live around the site of DuBose’s death look to move on from the violence of July 19, 2015, many in Cincinnati are far from putting the incident behind them.
A crowd of more than 4,000 people gathered in front of the Cincinnati Police Department earlier this month and marched to Washington Park, protesting police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana and remembering DuBose.
“I was completely lost,” Samuel’s mother, Audrey DuBose, said at the event about the aftermath of her son’s death. “I didn’t know what to do. I never paid much attention to what was going on around me. But it was really out there. When it comes into your home, when it happens to you, you’ve got a job to do. We best go to battle. Don’t wait for it to happen to your child. The time is now.”
UC administration says it has taken measures to get to the bottom of DuBose’s death and make necessary changes to its police force. To start, the school fired Tensing shortly after Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters indicted him.
Then the university hired outside consultancy firm Exiger, which audits law enforcement agencies, to review UCPD from top to bottom.
“This university has taken the unprecedented step of examining an individual, specific incident — that being the shooting death of Samuel DuBose — and turning that into an overall structural assessment and review of the University of Cincinnati Police Department,” Robin Engel, UC’s vice president for safety and reform, told attendees at the unveiling of the audit last month.
Exiger’s report provides 14 recommendations for UC in terms of reforming its police department.
Among the problems Exiger found: UCPD lacks a process by which to develop proper procedures and policies and needs to update the ones it has. The policies UC didn’t have or hadn’t updated included training officers about bias in policing.
“Those policies need to state that UCPD officers may not use race, color, ethnicity or national origin to any degree in conducting stops or detentions or in activities following stops or detentions, unless there is a suspect-specific description of an individual that contains his or her race,” Exiger President Jeffrey Schlanger said last month during an unveiling of the report.
Training on implicit bias is now underway for UCPD officers, officials say. A number of studies show that law enforcement agencies across the country police poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods more aggressively than they do whiter, more wealthy ones. This creates a self-reinforcing bias that makes police more likely to be on high alert in mostly black, mostly low-income neighborhoods like Mount Auburn.
Part of UC’s problem with bias, according to the Exiger report, is that it had almost no people of color on its police force. In the months after DuBose was killed, only one of UC’s 75 officers was black. The school says it is working on that.
UCPD has also temporarily stopped, for the most part, patrolling in the neighborhoods off campus after it was ordered to do so by the city of Cincinnati. But why was UCPD in neighborhoods like Mount Auburn in the first place?
UCPD’s role in the neighborhoods surrounding campus dates back to an agreement between the department and Cincinnati Police signed in 1989. That agreement, called a Memorandum of Understanding, set the areas UCPD could patrol and what it could do there.
S. Gregory Baker, UCPD director of police community relations, says the university ramped up its police force in the years preceding the DuBose shooting in response to a spike in crime around the university that started around 2008. The school ended up doubling the 35 officers it had in 2013 to 70 in just a year and a half. It’s now the third-largest law enforcement agency in the county behind the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.
UCPD presence in surrounding neighborhoods was boosted when UC hired former Lamar University Police Chief Jason Goodrich to lead the department.
Traffic stops went up 300 percent in 2015 under Goodrich’s tenure. Arrests also tripled. With that surge, racial disparities also increased. During this time, stops of white individuals actually decreased. Black stops went way up, however.
Goodrich resigned earlier this year following another report released by Exiger that suggested he pushed for more traffic stops around UC and that he and UCPD Major Timothy Thornton were later “untruthful” about their knowledge of those stops.
Neighborhoods like Mount Auburn “were, according to the chief, to be effectively ‘no fly zones,’ through which, via excessive traffic enforcement, criminals would not want to drive,” Exiger’s report reads.
Tensing seems to have exemplified this more aggressive approach during his time at UCPD, stopping and arresting far more suspects than the average UC cop.
Four out of 5 traffic tickets Tensing issued were against black motorists and three-quarters of arrests were of blacks. In the same time frame, UCPD officers as a whole gave more than 60 percent of their tickets to black motorists.
“Was it racist?” Baker asked about those disparities at a police-community relations panel in April. “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…”
Residents suggest that level of policing might not be necessary.
Eba Erco, who has lived in the neighborhood on Rice Street for about six months, says he likes it there because it’s calm. Erco recently graduated from UC and says he could “kind of understand” the presence of UC police on his old street, Wheeler, which is much closer to campus and where there were a number of break-ins and muggings. But in this quiet cove? He doesn’t see why a university officer would be there.
A heat map of Cincinnati Police Department data shows the areas around Rice, Valencia and neighboring streets in a deep shade of blue — meaning a low number of incidents — next to orange and red splotches signifying higher levels on nearby Vine Street to the west and McMillan Avenue to the north. The year before DuBose was killed saw only a couple small incidents there, including a person breaking into a vacant house and the theft of six dollars from a woman’s wallet. There is one exception — a murder that happened on Gage Street to the south in the weeks after DuBose’s death — but otherwise the area is much less active than others to the north, closer to UC, or further south into Over-the-Rhine.
The department is still wrestling with what its role should be in communities like Mount Auburn, Baker says. UC has created a 19-member community advisory council that will weigh in on ongoing reform efforts. That council is made up of students, neighborhood residents and faith leaders.
As reforms are hashed out, residents along Rice Street and its surroundings wait for more concrete improvements to their neighborhood.
These days, Carr says, she’s focused on a park just north of her street. As she speaks, her half-dozen elementary and middle school-aged grandchildren file out her front door to meet their mother.
Inwood Park used to a have more amenities where kids could go play, she says, making it a spot for people in the neighborhood to congregate in a positive way. But Carr says the park has become neglected, crime has gone up and playing there has gotten more dangerous. Cincinnati City Council last year mulled money for a rehab of the park, but it was left out of the city’s budget.
Carr says she’s hopeful a memorial planned for DuBose at UC will be completed soon, so the one on the corner near her house can come down. She says she was glad it was there for the first few months. But now it is fading, decaying.
“I’m ready to move on,” she says. “Why remind yourself of something tragic that way?” ©