Reeling from a record-breaking year for homicides and three attempts by suspects to shoot police officers in the past month, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory last week unveiled the first steps in his initiative to stem the rising violence on city streets.
Mallory will have the police department reorganize its investigations bureau, combining the drug and vice units to work together in a more coordinated fashion.
The mayor's plan calls for aggressive policing strategies to target Cincinnati's "50 most violent criminals" and asking the U.S. Attorney's Office to prosecute more suspects under federal gun laws, which entail longer, mandatory prison sentences. Cincinnati Police annually present about 150 cases to federal prosecutors, but only about 20 to 25 are accepted in a typical year.
The police department also will turn its attention from street-level dealers to the mid-level dealers supplying them with drugs — "those hidden in middle-class neighborhoods," Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. said at a Jan. 19 press conference announcing Mallory's plan.
"We don't believe we've had an intense enough focus on the mid-level drug dealer," he said.
Streicher vowed more frequent use of forfeiture and property seizure laws to take the assets of drug dealers, including their houses, cars and bank accounts.
Cincinnati had 79 homicides in 2005, its deadliest year since 1971. Although overall crime is down in the city, homicides have steadily increased over the past five years, ever since a 2001 riot following the police shooting death of an unarmed African-American man during a foot pursuit.
"Let me say from the outset, dealing with this issue will not be easy," Mallory said.
"These problems did not develop overnight, and they will not be corrected overnight. This is going to take the effort of the entire community, it's going to take a lot of hard work, it's going to take some time."
Explanations for the spike in killings vary. Some attribute it to criminals emboldened by the riot; others blame a slowdown in enforcement by a demoralized and resentful police department that must make dozens of reforms subject to a federal court order.
Mallory, who took office Dec. 1, side-stepped questions about what should have been done earlier.
"We're not here to lay blame or talk about what hasn't happened in the past," he said.
Frustrated by the persistent crime statistics, a previous city council last spring voted to ignore Streicher's advice and established quotas for his department. Council set a goal of lowering violent crime by 20 percent in the city's 10 most violent neighborhoods within a year. Those neighborhoods are Over-the-Rhine, Downtown, Avondale, East Price Hill, Walnut Hills, Westwood, the West End, West Price Hill, Corryville and Northside. It's unclear if the current council will track the mandate.
But city officials in the past already advocated some aspects of Mallory's plan, with limited success.
Mallory wants to create a centralized database within the police department to help analyze crime statistics and better deploy resources.
"This will allow a more intelligent way of policing," he said. "This will allow for statistical analysis to look for patterns, allocate resources and track results."
The approach is similar to the "Comstat" system that helped reduce crime in New York, Baltimore and elsewhere. Police use the computer tracking system to monitor crime trends and assess the performance of individual districts. In most cities using the system, daily meetings are held to update hotspots and benchmarks are developed to gauge progress.
Former City Councilman Pat DeWine, now a Hamilton County Commissioner, first pushed for the tracking system in early 2003, but Streicher and his commanders said the system then in use was sufficient.
Additionally, critics noted that Cincinnati Police already use forfeiture laws to their fullest advantage and doubt that cases eligible for federal prosecution will significantly increase.
'Getting out there'
Still, city council members generally praised Mallory's initiative and were hopeful about its chances for success. The difference, they said, is the general change in attitude at City Hall since the 2005 election.
"I think the difference between yesterday and today is that you've got a unanimous political support system here," said Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell. "For the mayor to come out with the full support of council is important. Whether it's repeating what others have said in the past or not, there is a certain unanimity of support, and it just feels different with this council.
"It's not just a rah-rah pep rally to show we support police, it's a strategy for what specifically can we do. Today was probably repeating some of the obvious but, hey, you've got to start somewhere."
Although city council repeatedly passed resolutions in recent years to support police and boost their morale, Councilman Chris Monzel believes other actions undermined the effort.
"In past councils, some of those motions have been more window dressing than what actually took place out in the community," he said. "We've had much, much criticism of our police department for the past three years.
"(Now) we're telling them that we support — we want you to go out and do your job and we're going to back you up. I think that's a lot better than passing a motion, which is just a lot of symbolism. We're actually getting out there and saying it."
Other aspects of Mallory's plan include truancy sweeps and adding a telephone line to Crime Stoppers that will allow people to anonymously text-message tips about possible suspects.
In many homicides, police have had difficulty getting witnesses and informants to step forward, due to fear of retaliation.
"It is clear that the police department cannot solve every crime on its own," Mallory said. "We need the assistance of our citizens to stand against crime and decide that we will no longer accept criminal activity. We call on all citizens to accept their civic duty and come forward with information they have and assist officers with catching the criminal element."
Mallory plans to hold a meeting soon with educators, clergy and neighborhood leaders to listen to their input about other strategies. Not included so far in his plan, however, are two ideas he floated during the mayoral campaign — sending non-violent youth offenders to boot camp and using state troopers to patrol area highways, freeing up city police for other duties.
"Those things are still under consideration," Mallory said. "As time goes on and we have time to properly analyze them, I will make the determination whether or not I will do them." ©