Changing of the Guard

Jim Neil's unlikely road to Hamilton County sheriff signals a new day for the department

click to enlarge Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil


ost Cincinnatians have only known two sheriffs during their lifetime, and for a majority — almost 30 years — that sheriff was Simon Leis.

Leis’ tenure in office inspires strong feelings from both his supporters and detractors. He’s as well known for his high-profile prosecution of Larry Flynt and bust of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center as he is for helping reduce crime in Over-the-Rhine, creating a disciplined law enforcement agency and expanding the department’s capabilities to the air and water.

Leis retired as Hamilton County’s top cop in 2012 after 25 years. 

He’ll be succeeded by Democrat Jim Neil on Jan. 4 — the first time in more than 36 years that a Democrat has held the office.

But Neil’s win at the polls in November amounts to much more than ground games or various demographic changes that pundits turn to when explaining election results. 

By all rights, Neil probably shouldn’t have won the race. 

Neil ran for the office against Republican Sean Donovan — Leis’ hand-picked successor who had been groomed for the job since 1997 when he was appointed chief deputy. Donovan was Leis’ right-hand man and confidant this entire time, and people know it.

Neil was also financially disadvantaged, with a shoestring campaign budget of $42,000, compared with Donovan’s $650,000. Neil also had to retire in order to run because of his classification as a civil servant. Donovan, on the other hand, did not.

After 30 years in the department, Neil put his career on the line for the chance to remake what he sees as a top-heavy, out-of-touch agency.

Despite these challenges, Neil won the election handily, securing 53.5 percent of votes cast, compared to Donovan’s 46.5, a sign that Leis’ stronghold on the department has faded since his early days running the region’s largest law enforcement agency.  


So what accounts for this surprise upset?

Part of the blame lies with 2011’s election during which voters overwhelmingly overturned a measure that would have stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

The measure was spearheaded by Republicans and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich, but a referendum effort saw it overturned by voters.

That effort was joined by police and firefighters’ unions — traditional Republican allies.

Donovan was a vocal advocate of Senate Bill 5, the name of the proposal that eventually became the law stripping public employee unions of their power. He even made a TV ad during the referendum process urging voters to keep the law in place and wrote a letter that was distributed to voters, which contributed to Neil receiving endorsements from all of the local public safety unions. The heads of two of them said Donovan’s stance on the union-busting bill was a major contributing factor in their endorsement.

“When push came to shove and when it came time to stand up and do what was right, we knew who would stand up with us,” International Association of Fire Fighters Local 48 President Matt Alter says of Neil. Sean Donovan’s brother Tom until recently served as the second vice president of the union. Alter says this made for an awkward decision, but they still went with Neil.

Tom Martin with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 69 said the lodge typically doesn’t explain its endorsements to the press, but its leadership did interview both candidates and asked them where they stood on S.B. 5. He said Donovan’s support of it “probably hurt him in the interview.”

Some have also speculated that there had been a growing distrust between Sheriff Leis and his rank-and-file. Neil campaigned against what he called a management style of “fear and intimidation” (Lt. Mark Schoonover, who will serve as Neil’s chief deputy, described it as a “floggings will continue until morale improves” mentality).

The day after the election, The Enquirer reported on some chatter on a police/fire scanner.

“Hey, I don’t know if you heard or not, but Jim Neil won,” one male voice said. “The reign of Simon Leis is over.”

The second voice responded, “About time.”

Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke says the party knew that a lot of the rank-and-file in the sheriff’s department wanted a change in leadership and, anecdotally, he had heard that most of them voted for Neil.

So what did Jim Neil campaign on?

Probably his most-remembered promise was to launch a full, independent fiscal and performance audit of the sheriff’s department. He’s coupled that with a pledge to expand services on a reduced budget.

To accomplish this, he suggested reducing his administrative staff, sharing some services with local police departments and retiring some of Leis’ more eccentric purchases, like the county’s tank (properly called an “armored personnel carrier”).

Neil has also promised to make the department more transparent, both to the public and to deputies and staff.

Neil campaigned on a promise to end what he called the cronyism and double dipping of his opponent’s administration.

He’s also pledged to change some rules and regulations, including minor shifts in the uniform and footwear, as well as modifying former Marine Leis’ stringent physical fitness requirements.


To understand what Neil’s leadership will change in the department and to understand what that will mean for Hamilton County, it’s important to understand Simon Leis.

Leis was appointed sheriff in 1987, but before that he served as both a common pleas court judge and Hamilton County prosecutor.

Leis wasn’t afraid of or even shy about making headlines as prosecutor. His first big publicity came from disclosures during a prostitution investigation in 1974 — disclosures that forced the resignation of then-City Councilman Jerry Springer.

Then Leis had two prosecutions that put him on Hollywood’s — and the nation’s — map. 

In 1976, Leis took down then-Police Chief Carl Goodin on charges of perjury and tampering with evidence.

It had been alleged that Goodin, the commander of the vice squad, along with six other officers, were involved in a laundry list of corrupt activities, including kickbacks from officers to the chief, use of policemen to do repair work on Goodin’s vacation home and lax drug enforcement in Avondale.

Leis assembled a grand jury, which handed down indictments and the then-prosecutor eventually convicted Goodin on some of those charges. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1978.

But the trial in which Leis made his bones as a cultural warrior was that against pornographer and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

The feud started in 1972 between Flynt and Leis — a no-nonsense former Marine who was on a crusade against pornography, which he saw as a threat to community values. At the time Flynt owned local strip clubs and a bar; 

he didn’t begin publishing Hustler until three years later.

Still, the two butted heads over what one saw as his First Amendment rights and the other viewed as an affront to decent community values.

Flynt fired the symbolic — and literal –— first shot from a handgun into the ceiling of his crowded Cincinnati bar.

Flynt claimed it was an accident, but some witnesses said he fired the shot in celebration after engaging in a sex act. Leis sent him to jail for 21 days.

Flynt was also implicated in providing strippers to entertain police officers, including then-Chief Goodin, though charges were never brought against him.

But then Flynt did something that forced Leis’ hand — in 1975, he started Hustler magazine.

In an attempt to compete with Playboy and Penthouse, the magazine published the most explicit photographs Flynt could find. 

That crossed the line for Leis, who brought obscenity charges against the pornographer in 1977.

The trial gained national publicity for Flynt’s courtroom antics, but it also became a defining moment in Leis’ career as a culture warrior. Leis symbolically and physically drew a line in the courtroom, taking a piece of chalk along the jury box.

“There is no such thing as moral neutrality,” he reportedly told the jury. “You must act to protect this community. You must draw that line.”

Flynt was convicted and received a seven-to-25-year sentence, but it was overturned on a technicality by an appeals court.

The whole ordeal was featured in a 1996 Hollywood movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Bill Clinton strategist James Carville played Leis. The irony was not lost — about the only thing Leis and Carville have in common is a baldpate.

When Leis became sheriff, he quickly gained the reputation for running an old-school, disciplined shop. Leis instituted stricter physical fitness requirements for deputies and also instituted new uniform requirements, earning the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department recognition as the “Best Dressed County Sheriff’s Office in the USA” by the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors in 1991.

Leis racially integrated his force at a time when most law enforcement was predominantly white. While the city of Cincinnati’s police force was widely regarded as ineffective in Over-the-Rhine around the time of the 2001 race riots, Leis’ county deputies took over patrols of that area after the riots and are considered to have reduced crime in the neighborhood. 

However, what some have called Leis’ “obsession” with smut continued after he was appointed sheriff in 1987. 

In 1990 the Contemporary Arts Center displayed Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment, a series of photographs, some of which had homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes. 

As hundreds of people watched from the arcade outside of the CAC, police closed the facility and videotaped the exhibit for evidence in an eventual obscenity trial.

Louis Sirkin, a downtown attorney who was part of the CAC’s representation during the trial, told CityBeat in 2000 that Leis wanted to smash the photos but couldn’t because the department needed them as evidence.

A criminal trial was held from Sept. 24 to Oct. 5, 1990 and a jury of eight men and women acquitted the CAC and museum director Dennis Barrie of all obscenity charges.

Since then, by all accounts, Leis has mellowed out. Even his political opponents sung his praises during recent interviews.

“He mellowed over the years, he ran a well-organized department,” county Democratic Chairman Burke said.

“He demonstrated some political courage when he joined with two Democrats on the county commission to fight for necessary changes in the criminal justice system, both in terms of getting better jail systems, but also getting better programs in place as alternatives to jail. That was pretty unique and I think he deserves some credit for that.”

Former Democratic County Commissioner David Pepper says he had a very positive relationship with Leis when the two worked together.

“No one had to reduce their budget more than the sheriff in past years, and in the end he made them,” Pepper says. “It may not have been pretty every moment, but more so than other officials he’s been more willing to make the cuts necessary.”

However, Leis’ department has run into criticism from some in the legal community for being antiquated and opaque.

Attorney Scott Greenwood has run up against Sheriff Leis a number of times in court.

Greenwood defended a number of users of a computer bulletin board (an early predecessor to an Internet forum) in which dirty pictures were traded. Leis raided the servers the way most other agencies would raid a drug house, with armed deputies seizing vast amounts of computer equipment, Greenwood says.

He said no significant prosecutions came of the seizures.

Greenwood was also part of a group that helped overhaul and modernize the Cincinnati Police Department, crafting an agreement between the community and the police force. When Leis started patrols in the city, he refused to abide by that community agreement and sued to avoid it.

“In terms of law enforcement functions, he was very old school, very intolerant,” Greenwood says. “As a result he’s leaving an agency that is not in any way shape or form a modern law enforcement agency.”

He calls the difference between the CPD and sheriff’s deputies “night and day” in terms of how much and what kind of training each receives and the way they interact with the public.

Greenwood says the biggest single contrast was that the sheriff’s office doesn’t have the same built-in accountability that the CPD does. He says there’s no public transparency or insight into what kind of training deputies receive or their procedures, including in terms of use of force. If deputies have to fill out reports every time they use force, the public doesn’t know if those reports are investigated by superiors.

Burke says that one point of contention he has with Leis is the sheriff’s refusal to mount dashboard cameras on police cruisers, another example of the lack of transparency protected by the former administration. 


Tall and trim — Neil jokes that he lost 25 pounds while walking the campaign trail — Neil cuts an imposing figure. However, the 53-year-old who spent his entire career in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is very thoughtful and deliberate in his speech. He often pauses to punctuate sentences with a motion of his hands.

In an interview with CityBeat, Neil said he hopes to bring a new era of transparency to the department. 

Because he was vastly outspent during the campaign, Neil made it a point to show up at every community meeting and event he could find. Without the dollars to get him to the media, he says he went to the people instead.

As sheriff, Neil says he would have to devote a lot of his time to running the county department, but he’ll still try to attend as many community meetings as he can and send representatives when he can’t. He also pledged to make himself more available to the media than his predecessor.

“We plan to continue that kind of access and openness,” he says. “These things don’t cost money. That’s a management style. You’re going to see a sheriff’s office that is very transparent and has open lines of communication.”

While Leis was a big advocate of what he called a “metro government” — combining all 49 local police departments with county law enforcement — Neil says he doesn’t think that’s practical or feasible. 

Instead, he’s more open to providing specialized services to local departments — things they can’t provide themselves, such as helicopter patrols, a dive team, a bomb squad and canine units. 

Neil also hopes to make deputies a more visible presence and have them engage more with the public. Neil doesn’t want people to be fearful of interactions with sheriff’s deputies.

“If I have someone who’s not on a detail, you’re going to see them walking around, patrolling, interacting with the public — not just patrolling, but asking how can we help you,” he says.

Though the era of decades-long sheriff tenures may be over, Neil has an opportunity not many are presented with: a chance to change the top law enforcement agency for the third most populous county in Ohio. 

Overall, Neil hopes to make the office more accessible and open to the public. 

“That’s what our product is — service. And in order to effectively deliver that service we need to engage the people and have a relationship with the people we’re serving.” ©

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