Call it Cincinnati's "Hurricane Katrina" moment, when officials' indifference and disorganization in the face of a looming crisis were made apparent to a surprised public.
Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. last week embarrassed city council and ignited a public backlash with his comments that crime here isn't so bad when compared to other cities and that people are fearful only because of aggressive media coverage.
The outcry about the chief's comments left council members scrambling to do damage control, quickly approving a resolution to make public safety the top priority in the next municipal budget and giving interviews to TV news crews to assure people the problem is taken seriously.
Even with Cincinnati on pace to break its annual record for homicides this year — for the third time in four years — Streicher insisted at a press conference last week, "We really don't have an issue with crime," when the murder rate is compared to other cities.
Streicher's remarks came just days after Philip Bates, the husband of Cincinnati School Board member Melanie Bates, was gunned down Aug. 27 while sitting on the porch of their North Avondale home. Four days later Streicher and Mayor Mark Mallory attended a National Violent Crime Summit in Washington, D.C.
Upon their return, Mallory and Streicher held a press conference to assure residents that Cincinnati is safe and that city council stands united behind the police department in its efforts to bring the rising homicide and shooting rates under control. Or at least that was the intent.
Streicher, who rarely appears at press conferences or council meetings, had other ideas. He pointed out that most murder victims are involved in the buying or selling of illegal drugs.
"Rarely is there a perpetrator/stranger homicide," Streicher said.
"The overwhelming majority of homicides that we have occur when people are involved in crime."
Streicher said police chiefs and mayors from other cities at the Washington summit laughed when he told them that residents here complain about crime, stating it doesn't compare to what their cities are experiencing.
"They are way worse than us," Streicher said. "Let's paint a realistic picture for people. Cincinnati is one of the safest cities in the nation."
Strangely, Streicher cautioned against making per capita comparisons of homicide rates in other cities in this region, like Columbus, Indianapolis or Louisville, saying it would be unfair.
"I would argue, 'Don't get caught up in the comparative statistical analysis,' " he said. "It's like comparing apples and oranges."
Mixed messages aside, Streicher's comments unleashed a torrent of complaints. Melanie Bates, appearing at the next day's council meeting accompanied by dozens of residents, scolded the chief.
"This was a huge disappointment and insult to those of us affected by violent crime in the city," Bates said. "I would suggest we have a staggering problem, and it's your job to do something about it."
As of Sept. 9, Cincinnati had 59 homicides this year, on pace to surpass the 79 homicides reported in 2005. The city's all-time homicide record was set in 1971, with 81.
A recent study commissioned by the city shows 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.
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.
"We're not a safe city," Bates said. "Do something about it. You're the leaders."
Ironically, Philip Bates was shot after returning from a benefit for Brandon Morris, a family friend killed outside a Columbia Tusculum bar while trying to stop a mugging. A few days later, one of Bates' neighbors was mugged while walking home from a candlelight vigil for Bates.
Streicher's comments especially rankled Matthew Thomas, who was Bates' godson and Morris' friend.
"Two men were killed heroically," Thomas told council. "They were not drug dealers. You are the men and women leading this community, and you are lying to this community."
City leaders emphasized they recognize the gravity of the problem. Council members plan to fund the hiring of 100 new police officers in the 2007-08 budget as well as providing cash for improvements such as crime-hotspot cameras, shooting sensor technology and building a temporary jail. Further, council wants to make a temporary police task force that has conducted crime crackdowns in Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills and Price Hill into a permanent unit and expand it into other neighborhoods.
"The city has entirely too many homicides, too many violent attacks," Mallory said. "Most major cities are seeing the same trends we are, but we cannot take comfort in that. We're going to work hard and remain vigilant."
'It's the leadership'
But Cincinnati's problem might be connected to factors unlike those in other cities. Some community leaders blame a slowdown by a demoralized and resentful police department following the 2001 riots. In the 18 months following, adult arrests declined by 36 percent and juvenile arrests dropped by 28 percent. Arrests have since rebounded, but it took a few years.
Since the riots, council has repeatedly held press conferences to state its support for police. In the past few years, council also has approved the hiring of 75 additional officers and increased funding for police overtime.
Despite the support, Streicher is notoriously thin-skinned about criticism. A recent study by police expert John Linder said the department was stuck in a "defensive posture."
Illustrating the point, before last week's press conference, Streicher berated a reporter from a daily newspaper for what he repeatedly described as "a silly ass story" that allegedly contained inaccuracies and painted the department in a bad light. Although the bewildered reporter later declined to identify the story in question for CityBeat, he said all the facts had come from police supervisors.
Although critics might question Streicher's own motives — alleging he's trying to deflect blame for the rising violent crime rate under his tenure, a spike that predates the national trend — or his lack of sensitivity to victims, the chief might be partially correct on one point.
When it comes to local TV newscasts around the nation — and Cincinnati is no exception — media studies have repeatedly shown that the visually driven medium often follows the philosophy, "If it bleeds, it leads," with an emphasis on the sensational and salacious. A recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the most common topic covered by TV news was crime, by a 2-to-1 margin.
Cincinnati's crime problem, though, cannot be blamed solely on public perception. In addition to crime statistics, some council members have quietly complained behind the scenes about Streicher's leadership and job performance.
Criticisms include the domestic violence complaint lodged against Streicher by his then-wife Kathryn when she filed for divorce in 2001; his later marriage to a subordinate officer who was then granted disability retirement; his reluctance to confront the slowdown in arrests that occurred after the riots; and a federal judge's reprimand after Streicher kicked a court-appointed monitoring team out of police headquarters in 2004.
Mallory and council called upon residents to get involved with reducing crime. Melanie Bates agrees but said that approach only works to a point.
"We'll participate," she said. "We'll partner, but it's not our jobs to do their work."
Bates praised the detectives assigned to investigate her husband's death.
"I salute the men and women in the trenches," she said. "It's the leadership I have problems with." ©