News: Who's in Charge?

Council's 'will' not good enough for the Police Department

A political tug-of-war about civilian oversight of the Cincinnati Police Department might be heating up again between city council and police supervisors.

Police officials and Cincinnati's interim city manager have quietly abolished a key change approved by council two years ago about who controls some of the money that police seize from criminals. Although council had wanted to decide for itself how the money should be spent, that authority has reverted back to Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr.

In addition, an 11-member civilian advisory board — created to review applications from community groups seeking the money for projects and then make recommendations to city council — was pared down to five members who now make recommendations directly to Streicher.

Council members only recently were notified of the changes when they asked for information about the process from police. Council's inquiries were prompted by e-mails from constituents and former Councilman Christopher Smitherman. He'd pushed for the new procedure to provide more oversight of police in 2004, and council unanimously approved it that spring.

"It's simply outrageous," Smitherman said. "The new procedure doesn't comply with what council passed. If there wasn't a vote on council to change something that council put into effect, to me it's another indication of the police department and perhaps the city manager overstepping the limitations of their authority."

An explanation for the policy reversal is buried on the second page and ninth paragraph of a three-page memo that interim City Manager David Rager sent to council June 8.

A political tug-of-war about civilian oversight of the Cincinnati Police Department might be heating up again between city council and police supervisors.

Police officials and Cincinnati's interim city manager have quietly abolished a key change approved by council two years ago about who controls some of the money that police seize from criminals. Although council had wanted to decide for itself how the money should be spent, that authority has reverted back to Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr.

In addition, an 11-member civilian advisory board — created to review applications from community groups seeking the money for projects and then make recommendations to city council — was pared down to five members who now make recommendations directly to Streicher.

Council members only recently were notified of the changes when they asked for information about the process from police. Council's inquiries were prompted by e-mails from constituents and former Councilman Christopher Smitherman. He'd pushed for the new procedure to provide more oversight of police in 2004, and council unanimously approved it that spring.

"It's simply outrageous," Smitherman said. "The new procedure doesn't comply with what council passed. ... If there wasn't a vote on council to change something that council put into effect, to me it's another indication of the police department and perhaps the city manager overstepping the limitations of their authority."

An explanation for the policy reversal is buried on the second page and ninth paragraph of a three-page memo that interim City Manager David Rager sent to council June 8. It was in response to a request by Councilman David Crowley made May 22.

According to Rager's memo, Ohio law requires that police departments decide how the money is disbursed.

"The procedure was changed," the memo states, "to reinstate the police department as the entity responsible for determination of the use of the Community Preventative Education funds to simplify the selection and allocation process, and to expedite the distribution of funds, but primarily to bring the city back into compliance with (state law)."

Cincinnati police have reaped about $6.8 million in money and goods seized from criminals during the past five years. In the past, Smitherman and some council members had said that the money went only to a few select groups favored by police brass and that other worthwhile community groups were shut out.

Before the 2004 policy change, the police department's forfeiture fund hadn't been independently audited in about 14 years, causing some residents to describe it as a "slush fund."

Police Capt. Kimberly Frey, a department spokeswoman, said she was told by assistant police chiefs to make no further comment on the matter beyond what was included in Rager's memo.

"That's the statement that we made and that's all we're releasing at this time," Frey said.

Meg Olberding, Rager's spokeswoman, said a council vote to reverse the 2004 policy wasn't required. That's because city council made the initial change using a motion, which doesn't carry the same authority as an ordinance, which actually changes city law.

"A motion is different in that it's the will of council, not the directive of council," Olberding said. "It doesn't require council action."

The city's asset forfeiture fund is comprised of three accounts: one for cases with forfeitures that were prosecuted under federal law, another under state law and a third for the city's share of Ohio's mandatory drug fines. Ohio law requires that 10 percent of the first $100,000 seized in state forfeiture cases, and 20 percent of the balance, go toward preventive education programs in the areas where the money was confiscated.

Smitherman and some other council members contend that state law provides some flexibility on deciding how the preventative education funds are spent. That stance was supported by advice given to city council by staffers in 2004.

During a hearing on the issue shortly before council's vote two years ago, then-Finance Director Bill Moller told council, "You can have as much or as little input into the process as you want." ©

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