Mayor Cranley Proposes Keeping Streetcar Fares to Pay for Increased Police Presence to Combat Gun Violence

The debate about whether you should have to pay $1 to ride a 3.6-mile streetcar loop has managed to touch the city's historic spike in gun violence, a burgeoning social movement seeking racial justice, transit accessibility and other issues.

Sep 1, 2020 at 12:25 pm
Cincinnati's streetcar - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati's streetcar

Back in June, Cincinnati City Council passed legislation that would fully fund the city's streetcar — which had been running passengerless due to the global pandemic — and make it free to ride.

But Mayor John Cranley has another idea. He'd like to keep collecting fares for the streetcar and use the money to fund increased police presence at places that have seen big upticks in gun violence this summer, including Over-the-Rhine's Grant Park. In August, 10 people were shot there in a single incident and two died during one of the city's most violent weekends on record.

The debate about whether you should have to pay $1 to ride a 3.6-mile transit loop managed to combine the city's most pressing topics: A historic spike in gun violence, a burgeoning social movement seeking more police accountability and racial justice, response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, transit access and more. 

Council's Law and Public Safety Committee today debated and declined to pass Cranley's legislation, but committee chair Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman indicated he will use procedural rules to make sure it comes before full council for passage tomorrow. Smitherman and council member Betsy Sundermann voted in favor of the ordinance. Council member Jeff Pastor abstained. Council members Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, Greg Landsman and David Mann voted against it.

The vote came after a long hearing about the city's uptick in violence, which Cranley, Police Chief Eliot Isaac and others attributed at least in part to the global pandemic. The city has seen 355 shootings so far this year — a 49% increase from this time last year, according to police data — and 68 homicides.

Cranley said more police presence is needed at Grant Park and other locations involved in those shootings, and that making the streetcar free to ride instead of collecting money to pay for that sends the wrong message.

“The majority of city council is poised to make the streetcar free instead of funding the initiatives that are being asked for today," he said. "Today we’re sending the message that bus riders, you still have to pay for bus fare, but streetcar riders get to ride for free.”

But some council members took issue with that reasoning.

"What you're seeing at Grant Park and other places is the result of concentrated poverty and bad policies," Pastor said, noting he supports a fareless streetcar. "In short, I'm just baffled — I love police officers — but I'm also sick and tired of putting everything off on police officers."

The discussion over using streetcar fares to fund more police presence is taking place as a national conversation occurs over the proper role of policing in America, with some on the left calling for the defunding or reimagining of police forces in Cincinnati and across the country.

No one on council has quite gone that far, but there have been questions about changing who responds to some non-violent incidents and what the city could do to better to hold police accountable. At today's meeting, the council committee passed along a motion asking for monthly reports about recommendations from police watchdog office the city's Citizen Complaint Authority and another asking for a report on expanding options for dispatchers receiving calls about incidents that involve mental health concerns.

Police Chief Isaac didn't weigh in on streetcar fares today. He did tell council that the city's police department needs support. But he said solutions to violence have to go beyond policing. 

Isaac told council he believes recent scrutiny of police is "largely justified, sometimes not" and said more resources should go toward helping community members organize to address violence in grassroots, on-the-ground ways.

“I fully agree that the root causes of what is going here are the social conditions in many of our communities,' he said. "Housing, education, employment… all of those things touch the root causes of this. We are police officers. It’s going to take others to solve this.”

Landsman called the fight over the streetcar "a distraction" as the city wrestles with other issues.

"My hope is that we tackle the pandemic and the issue of gun violence," he said. "This issue with the streetcar should have been tackled back in June, but because of vetoes, we’re back at it."

In June, Cranley vetoed a council budget item paying for fareless streetcar operation out of the city's transit fund, which is filled via a city earnings tax. That fund normally goes to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority to run its Metro buses, but a change in funding structure means SORTA will get money from a county levy starting in October. The city earnings tax that pays for the transit fund will sunset at that time.

Council overrode that veto Aug 5. Council also set forth an alternative plan for paying for the streetcar's operations — using money from Over-the-Rhine and downtown's Tax Increment Financing districts, which capture taxes on increases in property values in those neighborhoods. Cranley vetoed that as well in August.

Full council will meet tomorrow to vote on overriding that veto, as well as Cranley's proposal to use streetcar fares to pay for more officers in places that have experienced gun violence.