Deeper Issues

Experts say Cincinnati is a model for police reform, but healing wounds might go beyond changing law enforcement

click to enlarge John Crawford Jr. speaks to the Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations in Cincinnati March 9.
John Crawford Jr. speaks to the Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations in Cincinnati March 9.

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ast August, the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri sent ripples far beyond the St. Louis suburb, sparking numerous protests across the country. The ongoing tensions — Brown was black and the police officer who killed him was white — had a particular resonance in Cincinnati, which saw three days of civil unrest following the police shooting of an unarmed black man in 2001.

Now, eight months after the deaths of Brown and other black citizens at the hands of police, tensions still simmer. Officials, community leaders, police and activists across the country seek ways to span the deep rifts between law enforcement and the citizens they are supposed to protect.

That search has turned attention once again to the Queen City, bringing state and national task forces here to find out how the city reformed its police department 14 years ago. But some suggest answers must go beyond a particular approach to policing to address wider social issues.

At a March 9 meeting of the Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations in Cincinnati, John H. Crawford, Jr., whose 22-year-old son John Crawford III was shot two days before Brown while holding a toy gun in a Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart, said a cultural shift beyond simple changes in police tactics and diversity training is needed. Government panels are a start, he says, but not the end of that process.

“Some fundamental questions that are being asked here can’t be answered,” said Crawford, who is a former parole officer. “I struggle with this daily. It will haunt me until I sleep in the hearts of the earth.”

In January, a task force created by President Barack Obama met for two days at the University of Cincinnati to hear expert testimony about the relationship between cops and the communities they serve. And more recently, an 18-member panel convened by Gov. John Kasich also met here to hear expert and community input on that issue.

Some at the panels touted Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement, a deal designed to keep police accountable and rebuild trust, as a model for the rest of the country. But many also pointed to larger problems beyond the scope of law enforcement reforms.

“We know what we went through in Cincinnati 14 years ago, and clearly we’ve come a long way,” says Pastor Damon Lynch III, one of the architects of the collaborative agreement who now sits on Kasich’s statewide taskforce. “But with policing in America, whether it’s in New York or New Mexico, there are some real underlying issues. There are just underlying racial issues in America that we have to address. And they can play themselves out in policing, they can play themselves out in the economy, in issues of poverty.”

The poverty rate for whites in the United States is 10 percent, according to data from the non-partisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health policy issues. For blacks, it is 27 percent.

Cincinnati’s own struggles with race and law enforcement erupted after white officer Stephen Roach shot unarmed black 18-year-old Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley in 2001. Thomas’ death was the 15th officer-involved killing of a person of color in three years in the city. The shooting set off a powder keg, causing days of protests, vandalism and clashes between police and citizens. In its aftermath, a group of activists including Lynch and others met with attorneys, police and city officials to hammer out a unique agreement aimed at improving relations between the police and the black community in Cincinnati.

The agreement asked for a new approach to law enforcement — policing oriented toward service and problem-solving in communities, not just stopping and arresting those in low-income neighborhoods. It also created a Citizens Complaint Authority, which investigates accusations of officer wrong-doing.

Veteran Cincinnati Police Officer Captain Paul Humphries says the department looks much different than it did when he started nearly 30 years ago and credits the agreement with much of that change.

“Back then, it was, ‘How many arrests did you make? How many tickets did you write?’ ” Humphries says of his early days with the force in the 1980s. “That was being a productive officer. There’s been an evolution of policing from hiring bouncers to hiring smart, ethical, diverse people who want to help and have some problem-solving skills. The eye opening started in 2001, and we needed it.”

Many, even activists who once called the Cincinnati Police Department corrupt and brutal say the approach has worked — for the most part.

“I sue cops,” says civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein, who helped draft the collaborative agreement. “And I sue cops all over the state. But I don’t sue them very often in Cincinnati anymore because we’ve improved policing here.”

But not all departments have the resources to make the necessary strategic changes easily, Gerhardstein notes, nor do they have what it takes to hire top-notch police talent. They also don’t have a federal judge enforcing agreements between police departments and citizens, as Cincinnati had post-2001.

The federal government has become deeply involved in the ongoing issue. After two years of research, the Justice Department late last year issued a 56-page report detailing excessive use of force by Cleveland’s police department. The report came out just weeks after Cleveland police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was on a playground with a toy pistol.

The DOJ also released its report on Ferguson earlier this month, which had damning details about the city’s use of its police force as a revenue-generating office, stopping and ticketing predominantly people of color to pump money into the city’s coffers. That caused huge amounts of tension.

“[The DOJ report said] what’s really messed up in Ferguson is primarily at the mayor’s level, the city council level and the city manager level,” said University of Cincinnati Criminal Justice Professor Dr. John Eck at the March 7 panel. “It’s a strategy they picked for the department. You put a good officer in that department, they will screw up on a routine basis. You put an officer in a really good department like Cincinnati’s, they’ll screw up less.”

Cincinnati’s shift in strategy seems to have worked, at least on some levels. Police Chief Jeffery Blackwell touts lower crime rates in the city, fewer arrests and a better sense of partnership with the community. Violent crimes are at some of the lowest levels the city has seen in years. Serious crimes have dropped from nearly 4,000 in 2005 to 2,352 in 2014.

“We’re trying to teach the nation that there’s a different way to do policing,” Blackwell told a group at the city’s neighborhood summit March 7. “There’s a right way to do it — problem-solving policing, community-engaged policing, transparent and authentic relationship building.”

Not everyone is convinced. Some residents in Cincinnati’s most neglected and violent neighborhoods say things haven’t changed much between them and the police.

“They are still beating people’s asses, and nothing is being done,” 32-year-old Charles Berry of Avondale told the Marshall Project, a website focused on the U.S. justice system. “This is the way of life in Cincinnati.”

Iris Roley, another activist involved in creating Cincinnati’s agreement, echoes her colleagues that the hard-won collaboration with the city’s police department has been positive. But she says work toward equitable policing is still ongoing and must take place along with an awareness about the deeper societal issues facing people of color across the country.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy cast that issue in a national frame while testifying to the Ohio task force in Cincinnati.

“One thing I haven’t heard nationally is how to reverse 300 years of history in this country,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, the experience of the African-American community in this country has been one of institutionalized racism that was enforced by the white police officer. As a result of this, there is a narrative that exists in this community of distrust that goes a lot deeper than a recent incident. That’s the perspective we have to come with.”

Kasich’s task force is set to release a report on its findings April 30. President Obama’s task force has already issued its own 100-page document, which concludes that the recent problems around police-community relations must be solved by tackling a variety of social issues around race. ©

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