News: Editorial

The Difference Between Blame and Accountability

During the recent tense days of unrest and curfew, Cincinnati leaders called on citizens to calm down, back off the rhetoric and be patient. Everyone on all sides of the issues needed to take a deep breath, the leaders said, and give them a chance to come up with a plan.

To their credit, citizens have been patient. The riots haven't returned, and subsequent demonstrations have been orderly and peaceful.

And what have citizens received in return for their cooperation?

Dozens of rioters have been hustled swiftly through our justice system and been indicted for their crimes, while the main examples of alleged police misconduct — Officer Stephen Roach and the cops who shot nonlethal ammunition at protesters after Timothy Thomas' funeral — see their cases creep along because prosecutors want to be "careful."

The business community announced that its contribution to the cause would be 3,000 summer jobs — a shortsighted offer that would be funny if it weren't so sad. At least it was better than the other idea business leaders considered: paying for the city to keep the community pools open longer this summer.

Mayor Charlie Luken decided to appoint a "blue ribbon" panel to study the problem of race relations in Cincinnati, and the early news of his recommendation for panel leaders shows the usual suspects from the same business community that came up with the great summer jobs idea. Think there will be any real people on that panel?

How about a resident (not self-appointed leader) of Over-the-Rhine and a beat cop (not police administration)?

City council has begun debate on Cincinnati's civil service system, which could lead to changing the city charter to allow police chiefs to be hired from outside the police division. But since this issue was on the city ballot in 1997 and debated back then, you'd think council could move a little quicker on this legislation.

City leaders asked for patience, and they got it. Citizens demanded action on the root problems that exploded following Thomas' death, and they've gotten very little. Mostly there's been a lot of denial, a lot of promises and a lot of business as usual.

Two weeks ago in this space, I suggested a comprehensive plan be adopted to deal with three underlying issues: serious problems in police division policies, lack of economic development in Over-the-Rhine and legalized discrimination and intolerance via Issue 3 ("It's Time to Get Real," issue of March 19-25). Elected officials have begun picking at the edges of some of these problems, but it's clear no coordinated strategy is being worked on or even contemplated.

And whose fault is that? Obviously, our elected officials either aren't taking the riots and their root causes seriously or don't have the wherewithal to deal with them. But it's our fault, too, for letting them get away with doing nothing.

The debate over City Manager John Shirey's future is a microcosm of what's wrong with our leaders. Some council members want to fire him, and others say he's unfairly being blamed for the recent unpleasantness.

It's funny how it's called "being blamed" when you or your friends screw up and it's "being held accountable" when someone else screws up. Blame suggests an emotional, irrational response, while accountability evokes thought and reason.

The bottom line is that the racial divide that erupted into full-scale war between the city's police and the African-American community happened on Shirey's watch. He oversees the police division and city services, and both areas have failed black Cincinnatians. Blame him if you want, but he must be held accountable. That's his job.

Likewise, Police Chief Thomas Streicher must be held accountable for what officers under his command have done. Looking at how police responded to the recent TransAtlantic Business Dialogue protests and last month's riots, a completely new approach has to be devised for how Cincinnati cops interact with citizens.

Ultimately, of course, city council must be held accountable for Shirey, Streicher and everyone else who works for the city and the people of Cincinnati. If the current members of council lack the imagination or the will to take action, please, for God's sake, step aside and give someone else a chance. There are others who are willing to take on the task.

The old saying might be trite, but in this case it's true: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

I don't know how many riots it'll take for elected officials to get serious about changing Cincinnati for the better. I was hoping the answer was "none," but I'll settle for "one."

Contact john fox: [email protected]

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