With homicides a near daily occurrence in Cincinnati and street shootings becoming bolder and more common, some city officials are beginning to question privately — and a few not so privately — whether more could be done to reduce violent crime.
The behind-the-scenes debate shows some of the first cracks forming in the carefully crafted image of unity that Mayor Mark Mallory and Cincinnati City Council have cultivated during their first six months in office.
Cincinnati has had 32 homicides so far this year as of May 8, putting the city on track to exceed last year's 79 homicides. 2005 was the city's deadliest year since 1971.
"We're heading toward breaking another record if we keep this pace up," says City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz.
Secret crime study
A tide of violence is sweeping the Queen City's streets, according to an independent study on police deployment issues. Several sources provided CityBeat data from the study, which has been completed but not publicly released.
The study 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.
The figures come from a study ordered by then-Mayor Charlie Luken in June 2005. It was conducted by nationally renowned police expert John Linder, who consulted with New York, New Orleans and other cities in the 1990s.
The study cost more than $100,000. It was paid with private funds from business groups such as the Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC) and Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, which allows the document not to be considered a public record under Ohio law — and thus avoid public scrutiny — until someone at City Hall is given a copy.
Although the study was supposed to be done by December 2005, Mallory says he hasn't yet received a copy. CBC officials didn't return telephone calls about the study's status, but CityBeat obtained some data from the document from other sources.
Real-life experience of veteran police officers underscores some of the study's findings.
Police Lt. Col. James Whalen has noticed a marked difference in the prevalence of guns since he began his career 21 years ago.
"At the time a Cincinnati police officer would catch somebody on the street with a gun on them four or five times a year," Whalen says. "Now it's four or five times a day. It's a massive change."
The trends prompted Mallory to unveil an anti-crime plan in late January, a month after he took office. His initiative relies heavily on the Cincinnati Police Department reorganizing its investigations bureau, combining the drug and vice units to work together in a more coordinated fashion.
Mallory also asked police to shift its focus away from arresting street-level drug dealers to the mid-level dealers who supply them. As part of the strategy, police are asking the U.S. Attorney's Office to prosecute more suspects under federal gun laws, which entail longer mandatory prison sentences.
The centerpiece of Mallory's initiative is a police crackdown in Over-the-Rhine, which has generated more than 1,000 arrests since it began April 10. Eventually, similar efforts will be conducted in other high-crime neighborhoods such as Avondale, he says.
"I think a lot of people in Over-the-Rhine have noticed there's been a change in the dynamics there over the last two or three weeks, and that effort is going to continue," Mallory says. "We are not going to be able to solve all the issues of crime overnight. It's going to take a while."
'We're not getting it'
But critics question why it took police so long to begin the crackdown. Part of the timing might be connected to Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr.'s plan to have deputies begin patrolling Over-the-Rhine this summer. About 20 deputies will work in the neighborhood, a move that originally was opposed by Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher.
Council members, however, welcome the extra help.
"That's a step in the right direction," Councilman Chris Monzel says. "We need to have as many people involved in this as possible."
To date, more than 700 of the Over-the-Rhine crackdown arrests were for misdemeanor warrants, causing some civil libertarians to challenge their legitimacy and allege harassment.
As an example, they note the arrest last month of Berta Lambert, an elderly Streetvibes vendor. Police cited him for disorderly conduct while he and a friend were walking along Findlay Street taking photographs of buildings. Although Lambert's companion wasn't cited, police took photos of both men at the scene. Lambert's court hearing is scheduled for May 22.
Brian Garry, an activist and former city council candidate, has compared some of the efforts to "ethnic cleansing" and believes they're designed to drive poor people out of Over-the-Rhine so it can be redeveloped.
On the other side of the issue, even some crackdown supporters are unsatisfied and believe more could be done. Ghiz, a Republican, is unhappy that Mallory, a Democrat, hasn't introduced any new anti-crime proposals in five months and hasn't kept council informed about police progress.
"He came out with a plan and he hasn't presented to any of us what the details are since then," Ghiz says. "It's very possible that they're working on these things, but no one on council has been told about it."
Some council members contacted also say they share concerns about the effectiveness of local anti-crime efforts, but preferred discussing the matter only with their colleagues for now.
Ghiz says she asked Councilman Cecil Thomas, the Democrat who heads the Law and Public Safety Committee, to hold a public hearing on crime statistics but never received a response. Thomas didn't return a reporter's calls.
Mallory counters that many initiatives to reduce crime are underway; they just aren't publicized.
"There's a common misperception that, just because you don't get information, new initiatives aren't having any results," he says.
His plan will continue to evolve over time as needed, Mallory says.
Ghiz replies that council members shouldn't have to attend Mallory's weekly media briefings to get information, as he once suggested. Instead of waiting on Mallory to suggest anti-crime proposals, she plans on introducing her own, in conjunction with police, over the next few months.
"I am going to start rallying council members and introduce my own initiatives," she says. "I'm tired of waking up to murders. You look for someone to lead you through this, and we're not getting it."
Among likely proposals, Ghiz wants to update the police department's computer systems, buy scanners that can identify suspects by reading palm prints — which officers now have to travel to Indianapolis to use — and possibly hire up to 90 more officers over the next few years. ©