Cover Story: A Matter of Trust

Is the end of Cincinnati's Collaborative Agreement over police reforms a success -- or premature?

Sean Hughes

A Seed Grows in Cincinnati

Brian Garry still is shaken when he recalls the incident that occurred on an unseasonably warm evening a few weeks ago in Over-the-Rhine. As he worked in his Vine Street storefront office with the windows open, he heard a family who lived in the building next door having a barbeque in the back alley behind their apartment.

An African-American woman grilled some food as her young daughters laughed and played, all while the family listened to music from a nearby stereo. Garry remembers pausing briefly and trying to smell the tantalizing aroma from the sizzling meat before he continued his work.

It was a typical urban scene repeated in cities across the nation: a poor family doing what it could to have some quality time together on a skimpy budget and in the absence of a nice home with a backyard to call their own. Soon, though, the incident took a turn that some people say places the event squarely in the stark reality of Cincinnati.

Several police officers walked down the breezeway between the buildings with their guns drawn, shortly after dusk. As they approached the family, an officer pointed his weapon at one of the girls and yelled, telling them to turn down the music.

Frightened, the girls began crying as their mother tried to figure out what was happening. She was told that police had received a loud noise complaint.

"They had their weapons out and ready," says Garry, a neighborhood activist and advocate for low-income families who has run unsuccessfully for Cincinnati City Council. "The girls just completely freaked out, and it was all for a noise complaint. It was just so unnecessary. It's very disconcerting to have a gun pointed at you. Stuff like that happens all the time around here."

The family's barbeque was near the intersection of 12th and Republic streets, within view of the alley where Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a police officer during a foot pursuit in April 2001. The death of Thomas, an unarmed black man wanted on 14 misdemeanor traffic warrants, ignited three days of scattered rioting that rocked the city.

"This is a similar situation near the same spot that Timothy Thomas was killed," Garry says. "What have they learned? That's what spawned all of this."

Depending on whom you ask, everything has changed about policing in Cincinnati or nothing has changed about policing in Cincinnati in the five years since the unrest.

From riot to collaboration
At the time of Thomas' death, a team of area lawyers was preparing a class action lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police Department, alleging racial profiling. The lawsuit, headed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was partially spurred by the deaths of 15 black men — 16 including Thomas — who were killed in confrontations with police since 1995, a period during which no white suspects were killed.

Some people believed the disparity was caused by a police department that treated African-American residents differently from whites.

After Thomas was killed, already strained police-community relations worsened, like a match thrown into a racial tinderbox. Over-the-Rhine became the center of street violence that saw store windows broken and some buildings ransacked and burned, with the chaos subsiding only after then-Mayor Charlie Luken declared a citywide curfew and had Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers stand guard with rifles at street corners overnight.

Faced with a growing public outcry, Luken asked for a review of police practices by the U.S. Department of Justice.

To avoid a lengthy and expensive court battle that would further tarnish Cincinnati's national reputation, city leaders, police supervisors and the police union negotiated a deal over the next year that called for dozens of reforms to the way local cops do their jobs. As part of the deal, police didn't admit to any wrongdoing but conceded that better methods could be used in their daily operations and how they interact with residents.

The settlement ended a 10-month process in which opinions were collected from more than 3,500 residents on how Cincinnati should improve relations between its police and citizens, especially African Americans.

Known collectively as the Collaborative Agreement, the police reforms were to be implemented over a five-year period under the supervision of a federal judge. The document was approved by Cincinnati City Council, the local Fraternal Order of Police, the Department of Justice, the ACLU and the Black United Front, a local civil rights group headed by the Rev. Damon Lynch III.

Then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft flew into town for the signing ceremony at City Hall in April 2002. He hailed the deal as historic, adding, "One year ago Cincinnati was a city of strife. Today Cincinnati has shown itself a model of reform and an example of the success that can be achieved when a community comes together in the pursuit of a common goal."

The agreement, along with court oversight of Cincinnati Police, ends this year unless one of the parties to the deal asks the federal judge for an extension. Those decisions likely will be made in the next two months, officials say.

A private meeting between the parties is set for Feb. 1 before U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott.

Police and city officials are eager to shed the court supervision, but the ACLU and some residents aren't quite so sure that's warranted.

Are mass arrests an improvement?
Whether the goals of the agreement have been met — and whether police-community relations have improved — are topics open to debate.

"In some respects it's been very successful, and in others it hasn't," says Alphonse Gerhardstein Jr., an ACLU lawyer.

The Collaborative Agreement is actually two separate deals that were combined by the judge. The first is a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department involving technical changes to police training. It affects the department's use of force policies and requires a new computerized system for tracking officer behavior, in hopes of identifying problem officers. This agreement expires in April.

"It's a more traditional police reform agreement that the police department can do internally themselves," Gerhardstein says.

The other deal, which settled the ACLU's racial profiling lawsuit, involves changes in policing strategies. It calls for police to implement "community problem-oriented policing," or CPOP, which entails greater interaction between police and residents and takes a more preventive approach to crime. This agreement expires in August.

"This is the more innovative of the two agreements," Gerhardstein says. "This tries to change how police view their job and create a partnership with the community and is designed to lessen tension and restore trust."

Generally, police have successfully made many of the technical changes in the former agreement but lack a firm commitment to the latter, he adds.

Gerhardstein cites recent studies — conducted by the Rand Corporation as part of the Collaborative Agreement — that concluded certain policing strategies impact the African-American community more negatively. For example, how police handle a complaint about a minor offense like an open container of alcohol often differs between predominantly black and white neighborhoods, he says. In a black area, police are more likely to issue a citation or use it as a pretext for a search because the resident lives in a high-crime area.

"Those strategies create a lot of unrest in the black community because they feel — quite rightly, I believe — they are being dealt with a heavier hand," Gerhardstein says. "Police need to know the racial costs of some of these strategies."

Saul Green, a former federal prosecutor from Detroit who was appointed by the U.S. District Court to monitor the Police Department's progress, also has some concerns about its compliance.

In his most recent quarterly report, issued earlier this month, Green questioned the use of crime sweeps that target low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods, known as "Operation Vortex."

"The Cincinnati Police Department cannot use mass arrests from zero tolerance and saturation deployment as its path to better policing," Green wrote. "More precise strategies are required."

In fact, Operation Vortex is so controversial that leaders in one of Cincinnati's most crime-plagued neighborhoods — the Avondale Community Council — recently asked that the tactic not be used there, contrary to the department's plans. The unit, which targets crime hot spots, has been used in Over-the-Rhine and Price Hill and is scheduled for expansion into other areas.

Last year's springtime crime sweep in Over-the-Rhine resulted in 1,050 arrests over a six-week period, though more than 700 arrests were for misdemeanor warrants, causing some civil libertarians to challenge their legitimacy and allege harassment. A closer look at some of the arrests raises questions.

For example, Berta Lambert, an elderly Streetvibes vendor, was cited by police for disorderly conduct in April while he and a friend walked along Findlay Street in broad daylight taking photographs of buildings. Although Lambert's companion, Avtar Gill, wasn't cited, police took photos of both men at the scene. A judge eventually dismissed the charges.

Such strategies heighten mistrust and resentment, Green says.

Referring to Rand's studies of traffic stops, the monitor wrote, "Black residents are more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods characterized by crime and disorder, and residents in high-crime neighborhoods in Cincinnati are more likely to see 'proactive policing' such as aggressive traffic enforcement, pedestrian stops and officers patting down individuals on the street corner.

"Because of where black and white residents live in the city, and because of police decisions on deployment and crime control strategies, some might even say that there is a 'Tale of Two Cities' in how blacks and whites experience policing in Cincinnati."

Although the studies found no systemic racial bias in how police handle traffic stops, they concluded that black motorists in Cincinnati generally experience traffic stops that are longer; are more likely to involve searches for drugs, weapons and contraband; and are more likely to involve investigation of all of the vehicle's passengers. Also, black motorists are more likely than whites to be stopped for equipment violations, the studies found.

As a result, Green wrote, there exists "a wide gap in perceptions between whites and blacks in Cincinnati that must be addressed."

"These gaps must be reduced in future years for the Collaborative Agreement to be successful and its goals to be achieved," Green wrote. "Central to this issue is the impact on the black community of decisions about police strategy. The right police strategy is one that effectively reduces crime, makes people feel safer, and reduces perceptions of police unfairness and bias. As noted by Rand, police research has shown that traditional reactive policing can create frustration and distrust of the police, and its effectiveness is questionable."

'A lot of new energy'
Even the Cincinnati Police Department's harshest critics will admit there are some notable improvements in the past five years.

In that time, the number of suspects killed in confrontations with officers has dropped dramatically and police have overhauled their use of force policies to rely more frequently on other, non-lethal methods such as Tasers.

"Injuries to officers and citizens during arrests are both down, and officers haven't shot anyone to death lately," Gerhardstein says. "Those are huge improvements."

Mayor Mark Mallory agrees.

"The true measure of the effectiveness of the Collaborative Agreement is the change that it has produced in our community," says Mallory, who was a state legislator in Columbus when the deal was reached. "While we still have work to do, the Collaborative has helped the Police Department make dramatic department-wide changes in how they do business. These reforms will not solve our problems overnight, but over time they are making progress and building trust throughout our community."

Other modifications included changes about using chemical irritant spray against suspects. They involve making officers issue a verbal warning before using the spray, maintaining records on how much spray is used annually by each officer and requiring permission from a supervisor before spray is used for crowd control.

Further, police altered when beanbag pellets and 40-mm foam rounds may be fired at suspects, limiting their use to prevent imminent physical harm to an officer or another person and prohibiting their use to prevent vandalism or minor theft.

The department also simplified the process for residents who want to file a complaint against an officer, and city officials created the Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA), a civilian panel that reviews police misconduct complaints and issues its findings to the city manager. Now any decision on possible discipline against an officer is postponed until the CCA completes its investigation.

Additionally, police established a special unit for dealing with mentally ill people. Officers have undergone intervention training that emphasizes de-escalation strategies taught by mental health professionals and are dispatched to scenes as incidents warrant.

The unit was created to enhance training that began after police shot and killed Lorenzo Collins in 1997. Collins had recently escaped from a psychiatric ward at University Hospital and was shot after allegedly threatening two officers with a brick. He was surrounded by officers at the time.

Many mental health experts and community activists had said the death could have been avoided.

Moreover, the city established the Police Community Partnering Center to oversee the CPOP process and hired a retired assistant police chief, Richard Biehl, to serve as the department's liaison.

CPOP groups have been formed in about 20 of Cincinnati's 51 neighborhoods, with varying degrees of success. Some of the more active CPOP groups are located in Kennedy Heights, Lower Price Hill, Madisonville and Northside.

"It's been a success in that it's brought a lot of new energy and new people to the table to work on public safety problems," Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell says. "Anytime you get grassroots people more involved in participating in whatever way, that's an asset."

City Councilman John Cranley, who helped negotiate the agreement, says some type of court involvement with the police department was inevitable, and a voluntary pact allowed the city to retain some control over the process.

City Councilman David Crowley believes the Collaborative Agreement provided the framework to begin dealing with long-simmering problems that otherwise would have been ignored.

"On the whole, it's been a good thing," Cranley says. "Otherwise, we were facing a consent decree from the court, which involves even greater oversight and greater loss of autonomy of the police force. At the same time, this allowed us to make cutting-edge changes to our training."

"It forced us as a community to sit down and recognize that we need to address these issues," Crowley says. "There were so many things that came together so explosively at that time. Had the agreement not happened, we wouldn't be where we are now. We haven't solved all these problems, but we are further along."

Homicides and cheerleading
Other changes during the past five years, however, are more troubling.

The number of homicides in Cincinnati has increased to record-breaking levels, and shootings have become far more common. Last year the city had 86 homicides, the highest number of killings since the city standardized its police record-keeping in 1950. The previous records were 82 homicides in 1967 and 81 homicides in 1971.

Although killings are on the rise in cities nationwide, statistics reveal that the Queen City's spike in homicides predates the national trend and began in 2001.

Not as well known as Cincinnati's homicide rate is a police slowdown that began after the riots.

Bristling under increased scrutiny, the Police Department's morale suffered and disgruntled officers began a slowdown in arrests that lasted more than a year, subtly encouraged by supervisors and the police union. As crime worsened, Luken and Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. eventually acted behind the scenes to end the slowdown. Arrest numbers rebounded, but violent crime has remained on the rise.

A study commissioned by city officials that was completed last year shows that Cincinnati's homicide rate increased a staggering 190 percent between 2000 and 2004. In 2000 Cincinnati was listed as 111th among major urban areas in the United States for homicides per capita. That ranking jumped to 23rd just four years later, the study says.

During the same period, the city's violent crime rate increased more than 31 percent. Cincinnati's rank skyrocketed from 85th among major urban areas in 2000 to 36th in 2004, statistics indicate.

Using more updated figures, the FBI ranked Cincinnati 15th nationally in homicides per capita among cities with more than 100,000 residents in 2005.

Also, shootings have quadrupled over the past five years, up to nearly 300, according to local hospitals.

To compensate police for the scrutiny and to boost morale, city council has taken several actions in recent years. Council approved higher-than-budgeted raises for officers in union contracts, hired 75 more officers to bolster their ranks, bought Tasers, allocated extra overtime money and exempted the department from budget cuts at City Hall.

"Morale has suffered a lot," Tarbell says. "It's not entirely due to the Collaborative. I do think there needed to be extra cheerleading to make up for some of the challenges posed by the Collaborative."

Although some politicians spent last fall's campaign blaming the police reforms for the spike in killings to score votes among the law-and-order crowd, observers directly involved in the reform process — including some officers — say the trends aren't connected. In fact, some people allege that, if full implementation of the two legal agreements driving the reforms had occurred, it might have prevented the homicide jump.

"The crime isn't because of the Collaborative, but we need to work to reduce it," says Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, who helped negotiate the agreement while on city council. "You can't look at the current crime numbers and think it's wholly successful, because its goal is not only police-community relations, it's also safety."

Even as police shootings have decreased, some observers allege that officers are resorting to using their newly issued stun guns too often.

"What we're finding is that officers aren't using their de-escalation techniques to the extent we would like them to," Gerhardstein says. "There is still more force being used on citizens than is needed if they just slowed down and talked to people more."

Proprietary policing
Implementing the Collaborative Agreement hasn't been easy.

In April 2003 the Black United Front withdrew from the deal after city council pressured the group to choose between the Collaborative Agreement and its boycott of downtown Cincinnati. City officials had complained that the Front's boycott was hampering efforts at raising $20 million from private companies to pay for some of the reforms.

Dlott appointed a 12-member citizen advisory panel, put together by the ACLU, to replace the Front as a plaintiff in the case.

After the Front withdrew, both Luken and the police union tried to pull out of the deal, but Dlott refused the requests.

Neither Lynch, who was the Front's president, nor police union leaders returned calls seeking comment for this article.

In March 2005, Dlott ruled that the city and its police department had breached the deal when Streicher and police supervisors blocked a court-appointed monitoring team from viewing police training and accessing records at police headquarters. The team also complained that Streicher and his assistant, Lt. Col. Richard Janke, were persistently rude and uncooperative.

Dlott warned city officials to improve their behavior or face stricter oversight and the levying of fines.

A crucial sticking point centered on CPOP and how much involvement the public should have in shaping how officers do their jobs.

Streicher wanted a more limited role that focused on using residents to patrol their neighborhoods and report crimes and suspicious activity to the police. Plaintiffs insisted on enforcing a provision to create the Police Community Partnering Center to oversee the department's CPOP efforts and to coordinate similar efforts among civilian groups and others.

"The police have sort of dragged their feet on this," Gerhardstein says. "It cuts right to the core of their proprietary skills: 'We're the experts, we know what we're doing.' "

Harriet Kaufman, a Clifton resident involved in the initial mediation process and later active in CPOP efforts, says city officials and the police union have paid lip service to the Collaborative, publicly supporting the agreement but not always willing to do the work it requires.

"The police hierarchy, under certain circumstances, sometimes speaks well of the Collaborative Agreement," Kaufman says, "but its words have not always matched up to its actions."

Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine, who was a city councilman when the deal was passed, blames the Front's withdrawal for harming CPOP efforts.

"There was a commitment in the Collaborative to do some community engagement, but one of the parties was allowed to drop out and that took away one of the underpinnings," DeWine says. "Since then, it's been more of a top-down thing instead of bottom-up."

Cranley also was perturbed by the Front's action.

"A relationship has to be a two-way street," he says. "They just backed out."

But a source directly involved in helping the police department implement the Collaborative Agreement believes its support for the deal is half-hearted. The source agreed to comment anonymously for fear of jeopardizing future effectiveness with police supervisors.

"I don't think the police department has ever fully embraced the Collaborative," the source says. "Unless something happens that keeps the pressure on, I think these things will eventually fade away."

When told that several people contacted for this article didn't want to comment publicly on whether the Collaborative Agreement should be extended, the source wasn't surprised. It reflects the divide that still exists in Cincinnati over whether the deal should have been signed in the first place.

"The fact that people will not talk about it, to me, speaks volumes," the source says.

'Not there yet'
Just as views on the Collaborative Agreement's effectiveness differ, so do opinions about a possible extension.

"The work under the Collaborative should continue, but I'm not sure the federal structure should remain in place," Pepper says. "It's up to the mayor and city council to see that it continues. It's a matter of political will."

Crowley agrees.

"It needs to be put to rest," he says. "It was a mechanism for that moment in time. We need to assess it and maybe carry on with it in a different structure."

Tarbell also wants to see court oversight end.

"Whether we needed to go to Washington (in the first place), I'm not convinced that was necessary," he says. "We could've figured out a lot of these things here."

He adds, however, "I'm not convinced of where some of these things will go after the Collaborative is over."

Cranley believes the Collaborative's time has rightfully come to an end.

"We've lived up to our end of the agreement," Cranley says. "The changes in place don't end when the agreement ends. There's no plan to change the use of force policies or any of the other things. (But) we do not need court oversight. There are costs associated with that, and the time and resources can be better spent elsewhere."

Kaufman is worried that ongoing police reforms will be discarded without the judge's presence.

"I would love for Judge Dlott to extend it, because I don't think there is the heart to do this work unless it's court-mandated," she says.

Gerhardstein notes that much of the agreement involved changes that will endure even if oversight ends, such as the Citizen Complaint Authority and the Police Community Partnering Center.

"The only assurance the public has that these changes will live on is they were all designed as institutional reforms," he says. "Many of them have been insinuated into the fabric of policing in Cincinnati."

Garry isn't as trusting.

"The police need exterior monitoring," he says. "There's no reason why the police shouldn't have civilian oversight. They're public servants. We're the public, and they're the servants."

The ACLU hasn't decided yet whether to seek an extension, but Gerhardstein says there remains much work to be done in improving police-community relations.

"One of our goals going into this was trying to improve the trust that the black community has in the police," Gerhardstein says. "We're not there yet. That's unfortunate, but it's also honest. I feel bad about it, but I don't want to sugarcoat it."

Noting that the problems that led to the Collaborative festered for decades, he adds, "These reforms are going to have to stay in place longer and show results to have a lasting impact. Change takes time." ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.