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A protester in the Cincinnati neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine, on April 10, 2001.
Feature

Cincinnati: Ferguson’s Hope or Hype?

A closer look at the Ohio city that everyone is touting as the model of police-community harmony.

CINCINNATI — The once-dangerous streets near Cincinnati’s downtown are now lined with brightly colored boutiques, charming cafes and new condominiums. Police officers, formerly viewed by many residents as aggressors, glide around on Segways, smiling beneath their bike helmets as they wave hello.

In Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood where the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager set off several days of rioting in 2001, officers are everywhere. Uniformed patrolmen and women are out on bicycles, in cars and on foot, exchanging pleasantries with longtime African-American residents and their recently arrived young white neighbors.

Ohio’s third-largest metropolis is in the midst of a renaissance, a tentative recovery from a volatile period of high crime, racial strife and economic decline. What some advocates call “The Cincinnati Model” of law enforcement is being promoted as a blueprint for police reform in other cities—from New York to Albuquerque, N.M. to Ferguson, Mo.—that struggle with urban violence and mistrust of anyone armed with a badge and a gun.

President Obama may well have had Cincinnati in mind Monday night when, reacting to the emotions boiling over in Ferguson, he said that “we know that there are communities who have been able to deal with this in an effective way.”

Police officers in Over-the-Rhine out on bike and Segway patrol.

“Cincinnati really jumped out to us immediately,” said Darius Charney, a civil rights lawyer who represented black and Latino New Yorkers in a federal class-action lawsuit against the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy. “The relationship between the police and the community, while still fraught with issues, is so different than it was.”

In New York, the federal judge who deemed the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional recommended that officials follow Cincinnati’s example as it constructs its reform plan. Albuquerque, whose police department is under Department of Justice review because of complaints of excessive force, hired a former Cincinnati police chief for advice. And in Ferguson, residents and civil rights lawyers have consulted with Cincinnati’s black leadership to discuss ways to foster better police relations in the wake of the Michael Brown case.

But a close examination of Cincinnati’s experiments with new approaches to policing suggests that the marketing of its “model” may have outpaced the lasting changes. If anything, Cincinnati highlights the depth of the problems and the complex challenges of federal intervention in racially divided cities.

Advocates say that the 12-year-old effort to include neighborhood groups in the design of some of Cincinnati’s policing strategies has succeeded in lowering tensions between officers and the public. A second strategy shift, to target gang members, drug dealers and other repeat violent offenders, is widely credited by criminologists with reducing violence.

But many African-Americans, who make up 44 percent of Cincinnati’s population, are still resentful of what they see as an old boys’ police department. Blacks, especially men, complain of harassment by the police. While middle-class homeowners are participating in police-community strategy sessions, renters living in high-crime areas are reluctant to engage. And violence continues to worry residents.

Black men interviewed on the streets in Avondale, one of Cincinnati’s most violent neighborhoods, were doubtful that other cities would find much to emulate.

“They are still beating people’s asses, and nothing is being done,” said Charles Berry, a 32-year-old mover. “This is the way of life in Cincinnati.”

Cincinnati, a city of almost 300,000 people across the Ohio River from Kentucky, has a long history of racial tension.

Before the Civil War, the city’s proximity to America’s Southern states made it a gateway for runaway slaves. Blacks referred to crossing the Ohio River as passing over the “River Jordan.” Cincinnati’s early history was so intertwined with fugitive slaves that resident Harriet Beecher Stowe based “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on her conversations with blacks who had fled to Cincinnati.

But it was also the scene of anti-black riots in the years leading up to the Civil War. Black adults were prohibited from testifying against whites in court. White public schools barred African-American children, even those with one white parent, from the classroom.

Segregation continued into the second half of the 20th century as poor neighborhoods continued to swell with black tenants who couldn’t find housing in white communities. After the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrators firebombed white-owned businesses in the mainly black neighborhood of Avondale.

By the 1980s, Cincinnati’s racial problems were under intense national scrutiny. The Department of Justice ordered police officials to hire more black officers in 1981. Six years later, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of the Cincinnati Firefighters Union, which argued that affirmative action aimed at increasing the numbers of minority firefighters was unfair to whites.

The Black United Front, an activist group, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police Department in March 2001, complaining that officers, still overwhelmingly white, had subjected blacks to excessive force during the last three decades. One statistic in the lawsuit stood out: Thirteen black males had been killed by police in the past five years. A few weeks later, a police officer shot and killed a 21-year-old black man during a narcotics raid.

Then, on April 7, the number rose to 15 when a white officer shot Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black 19-year-old, during a night foot chase in Over-the-Rhine, a slum in the shadows of the downtown skyline. Two days later, riots erupted. State troopers patrolled the streets while authorities imposed an early evening curfew. Authorities battled for more than 72 hours to quell the chaos, which led to hundreds of arrests and millions of dollars of property damage.

Under pressure from the Justice Department Civil Rights Division and the Black United Front lawsuit, local officials scrambled to find a reconciliation. U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott proposed that the various negotiations be consolidated in a single forum aimed at coming up with guidelines to reduce friction between residents and police and imposing greater accountability.

The Department of Justice signed a memorandum of agreement with the Cincinnati Police Department in April 2002 and outlined a list of necessary reforms: A risk-management system funneling complaints against officers into a centralized database; revised rules on excessive force that limited the use of choke holds and off-leash police dogs; annual firearm retraining sessions for officers.

Avondale residents Daniel Parker, 44, (left) and Charles Berry, 32, spoke about recent interactions with neighborhood police.

Meanwhile, Dlott was putting together a second set of reform guidelines, focused on alleviating the frustrations of the black community. More than 3,000 residents participated, attending town hall meetings, filling out surveys, and suggesting ways to improve the relationship between the public and police officers.

“If the citizens are unhappy and the police department isn’t listening, then the whole system is screwed up,” Dlott said.

Dlott’s order, called the Collaborative Agreement, outlined a new multi-agency law enforcement strategy, which called for an approach to crime-fighting that did not entail merely sweeping up potential suspects and sorting them out later. Residents, especially African-Americans, were encouraged to participate in the new strategy, named Community Problem-Oriented Policing. Commanders were expected to deploy their officers on projects to clean up blight and to curtail quality of life crimes such as prostitution and outdoor drug dealing.

The police union leadership and the city of Cincinnati supported Dlott’s ruling. The police rank and file, however, frustrated by months of national scrutiny by the Justice Department and the federal court, did not.

“The officers felt they were completely under attack. The officers had a bunker mentality,” said Cincinnati’s former police chief, Thomas Streicher. “They completely shut down.”

In 2006, the homicide count reached a record high of 94, according to state records. Criminologists stressed that the rise in violence could not be clearly blamed on police officers’ resistance to the new mandates. Still, the city of Cincinnati turned to David Kennedy, a brash gang-crimes expert from New York, for help. Kennedy, who built his reputation working with investigators in Boston during the late 1990s, declared the Collaborative Agreement largely a failure.

“I laugh when people talk about how wonderful the Collaborative Agreement was, because they” – police officials, civil rights lawyers, black activists – “hated each other,” Kennedy recalled. “And as far as we could tell, nothing in terms of policing or in criminal justice or public safety significance was happening.”

Kennedy’s approach focused police on the most violent offenders and crime hot spots rather than massive arrest campaigns.

Cincinnati’s suspected gang members were sent to a federal courtroom, where they had to sit through speeches by Streicher, victims’ relatives, and former criminals imploring them to change their lifestyles or face a prison sentence. The program was named Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence.

Crime rates fluctuated. The homicide count dropped to 51 in 2012, then jumped to 70 last year, according to state records. But the police department embraced the idea of what Streicher calls “surgically precise policing.”

Police officials say they are confident the city is safe. The redevelopment of formerly seedy Over-the-Rhine, with its influx of young professionals and real estate boom, could not have taken place without a restoration of order, they say.

“Out of crisis, comes opportunity,” said Streicher, the former police chief. “People saw an opportunity to change here.”

Since the implementation of Cincinnati’s policing scheme, its architects have been in high demand as the Obama administration and the federal courts continue to review local police departments at an accelerated pace.

The Lackman Bar (left) in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine, one of the area's most popular hangouts. Other parts of the neighborhood are still developing.

After his 2011 retirement from the police department, Streicher opened a consulting firm with Scott Greenwood, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who estimates that he sued the Cincinnati Police Department 19 times in the course of his legal career. The city of Albuquerque, currently under federal review because of a high count of police shootings, is their first big city client.

Cincinnati civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein has traveled to New York and Cleveland, sharing the benefits of the Collaborative Agreement. Gerhardstein and activists in the Black United Front have counseled residents in Ferguson as the federal investigation into the police department there continues.

On the ground, those living in Cincinnati’s low-income and middle-class neighborhoods paint a much different picture of their interactions with the police than what is being shared on the national stage.

Black men in crime-ridden pockets of East Price Hill and North Avondale say that the police have adopted a practice of focused harassment, calling them out by name while on patrol. Thanks to intensive diversity efforts, the 1,023-member force is 30 percent black, up from 10 percent in 1984. The current police chief is black, and his predecessor was the first African-American ever hired for the position. But race-based animosity toward the police is still strong.

Barbers at Anointed Cuts, a popular corner hangout for teenagers and young men in East Price Hill, said the changes in police headquarters haven’t deterred officers from picking on them and their customers.

“They always pull up right here,” said barber Michael Brown, 24. “Stop us. Make sure to say everybody’s government name. Just to let us know, that they know who we are.” Brown said police pay attention to him because of an earlier arrest for marijuana possession.

The Cincinnati Police Department acknowledged that officers are trained to focus on individuals with a history rather than peppering entire groups of people with random questions. The tactic, based on the federal court’s guiding principle of “bias-free policing,” was embraced by neighborhood officers after Kennedy’s anti-gang violence program launched in 2007.

“There is no corner-clearing because of the way people look,” said Assistant Police Chief James Whalen. “We start with a very ‘Hi, how you doing?’ approach. Not a ‘What are you doing here? Get off my corner,’ approach.”

Cincinnati’s reform was supposed to encourage a continuing, civil dialogue between black residents and neighborhood officers as part of a team effort to create community-backed policing strategies.

But black residents are hesitant to participate. A recent Monday night gathering in City Hall, open to anyone who wanted to complain about dangerous apartment buildings and absentee landlords, attracted four middle-age white homeowners.

Many of their grievances, which ranged from loud parties to drug-dealing tenants, involved properties, populated with blacks, outside their immediate neighborhoods.

The redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine pushed low-income African-American families into Cincinnati’s West Side, once a German-American enclave. Since 2000, the number of white residents on the West Side has dropped 22 percent, while the black population has grown by 76 percent.

“The riots never ended. The criminal element just moved to the West Side,” said Don Driehaus, 55, driving home after the City Hall meeting. Driehaus is the former board chairman of the city’s public housing authority. His brother Steve was a congressman and his father, also named Don, ran the city’s Democratic Party.

“This block 10 years ago was fine,” he said. “Because of the influx of Section 8 households, it is going kaput.”

By the numbers, it’s hard to gauge whether the attempt at police-community partnership has made neighborhoods safer or cultivated a healthier relationship between the public and the police department.

Former police chief Thomas Striecher talks with Cincinnati police officers in Over-the-Rhine.

The crime rate continues to fluctuate and reports of police abuse and shootings, especially in black communities, are still common. From 1998 through this August, five whites were shot by police. The number of black people shot in that period: 59.

The Citizen Complaint Authority, a watchdog agency created by the federal court order, has reviewed 4,305 reports of police misconduct from 2002 to 2013 ranging from an officer improperly pointing his gun at someone to unspecified “discrimination.”

And there have been staffing issues. The agency was down to two investigators over the summer, although the Collaborative Agreement requires that it employ five. In July, the agency’s director resigned after city officials found he violated residency requirements by living in a suburb.

The police department keeps a separate database of complaints reported directly to police by the public or by police supervisors, but the records are incomplete. About 2,500 out of 6,900 complaint case records provided to The Marshall Project had been filled out by the department with missing or wrong information.

The police department’s continuing challenges with race relations and violent crime have not deflated the hype surrounding the Cincinnati model. Proponents argue it’s still the most comprehensive set of guidelines anyone has produced. But Gerhardstein, the civil rights lawyer and Cincinnati model booster, concedes the plan only works “if we stay on top of it.”

“We are still struggling,” he said. “I stay honest about that.”