Cincinnati Was a Model for Police Reform. What Happened?
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The chaos in Cincinnati started, in earnest, at a budget hearing three weeks after the murder of George Floyd. The topic was a million-dollar bump for the Cincinnati Police Department, a hugely controversial proposition amid nationwide calls for drastically cutting police budgets.
Residents filed into the Duke Energy Convention Center on a Thursday night in June 2020. One by one, people took the floor, using their two minutes of allotted time to shout down the increase. “To know as a taxpayer that CPD is receiving my hard-earned money to continue and consistently oppress my brothers and sisters is sickening,” said a woman named Mecca, joining via Zoom. “At this point we are paying slave masters with badges.” Cincinnati police had killed nine people, most of them Black, in the past five years. In 2018, a video of an officer using a Taser on an 11-year-old Black girl in a Kroger supermarket went viral. Applause periodically swelled into “No Justice, No Peace” chants.
Almost three hours in, a middle-aged White man in a plaid button-down short-sleeved shirt walked up to the microphone. He introduced himself as Carl Beckman, thanked the committee, and began reading a prepared speech. “You should give priority to the funding of the police department … .” As soon as his allegiances became clear, an unrelenting two minutes of booing began. He soldiered on as “Black Lives Matter” chants started to drown him out.
After his time was up, the room didn’t settle. David Mann, the council member running the meeting, explained that this was a forum for all sides of the debate. That didn’t calm things down much. Mann grabbed his gavel, slammed it down, and adjourned the forum five hours earlier than planned. Protesters poured into the streets. They burned an American flag and painted graffiti on the convention center. “This went from an emotionally charged evening to close to a mob,” Mann told a local Fox TV affiliate that night.
Until recently, the Queen City had been heralded as a model for community policing. After the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., news outlets across the country lauded the CPD as a case study in how police departments could work with and better serve Black residents. Bloomberg Businessweek ran a profile of the department called “Building a Better Police Department.”
Cincinnati hadn’t gotten to this place voluntarily. In April 2001, a CPD officer shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas—the sixth such violent act in almost as many months. His death was the last straw for Black Cincinnatians, who make up more than 40% of the city’s residents. They ran into the streets and barely left for days. There was a reported $3.6 million in property damage. Hundreds were arrested.
Already facing an economic boycott from local activists and a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit, then-Mayor Charlie Luken asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the police department’s use of force. Ultimately, a federal judge settled the lawsuit and the inquiry by imposing what would become known as the Collaborative Agreement, or simply “the Collaborative.” It mandated a series of reforms to the CPD, the most important of which was an order for officers to move away from arresting petty thieves and low-level drug dealers in favor of “community problem-oriented policing” (CPOP). That meant addressing issues that cause people to commit crimes in the first place.
The reforms didn’t come without resistance and took years to be fully implemented, but for a time the arrangement worked. From 2008 to 2014, felony arrests declined 41.9%, according to a University of Cincinnati study. From 2000 to 2014, the department’s use of force fell 70%, according to city data. Perhaps the biggest improvement, though, was residents’ relationship with police. In 2015, amid a tour of police departments across the U.S., then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised “the determination from residents and law enforcement officers to improve their city together.”
In recent years, however, city officials seem to have become complacent, and the police department, according to critics, has fallen into old habits. A 2017 report commissioned by the city found that the CPD had essentially walked away from the Collaborative Agreement. Now, many local activists would rather focus on defunding the department instead. After last June’s contentious city council meeting, the committee nixed the extra million for the CPD, leaving its budget at $151 million for fiscal 2021.
The rise and fall of the Collaborative in Cincinnati shows how easily local leaders and police departments can abandon reforms—even when they’re working. Still, President Joe Biden, who has said he doesn’t support the defund movement, is betting on the Cincinnati model. In April, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments—much like the one Mayor Luken had requested. Their findings may lead to reforms that are similar or even identical to those that were imposed on Cincinnati two decades ago.
The city’s experience should be instructive for reformers. The conditions that led to its success were remarkable—but ultimately temporary. What made it work required vigilance, and once that went away, the will to comply among police and the city government did, too. “People celebrated the Cincinnati collaborative for 10 years,” says Saul Green, a federal monitor who for years oversaw the reforms. “Nobody in those celebrations pulled back the layers and really checked to see what was going on.”
Iris Roley was driving to work on a spring morning in 2001 when she heard that police had killed another Black man. She walked into the General Electric Co. office, where she worked in consumer finance, to tell her boss she had to go, and rushed down to the alley where Timothy Thomas had a bullet put through his chest. Roley was there to gather information. Officials had said there were no witnesses to Thomas’s death; she didn’t believe that. A few weeks earlier, Roley, along with lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, had filed a class-action lawsuit against Cincinnati and its police department alleging more than 30 years of racial profiling. “We were devastated and even more disappointed in the police department,” Roley, 57, says.
Cincinnati-bred, Roley was raised by activists. The way she tells it, she grew up on the front lawn of a community space known as the “Black House,” an old synagogue given to civil rights advocates in the 1960s. She spent her childhood going to protests with her grandmother, Vivian Kinebrew, a nurse by trade who Roley says was arrested on multiple occasions during the course of her activism. “I know my particular role in this life,” Roley says. “When I walk into a room, I’m walking in for Black people.”
Roley got her first taste of large-scale organizing in 2000, when she helped form the Cincinnati Black United Front to boycott a group of restaurants that decided to close during the Cincinnati Music Festival. The annual three-day event draws tens of thousands of people downtown, many of them Black. Roley says the establishments didn’t want to serve this influx of out-of-towners and offered up various racist excuses for why not, such as ugly stereotypes about tipping and rowdiness.
A few months later, when police killed two Black men in 24 hours—an event that became known locally as “two in 24”—Roley’s group turned its attention to police brutality. She helped organize demonstrations and investigated what happened. The group also asked locals what they wanted. Almost universally, people said accountability. Roley and her fellow activists thought they could get that only via the courts, which is when they decided to file their suit. “That was the hammer,” Roley says.
Roley says the activism after two in 24 laid the groundwork for the Collaborative. By the time another Black man, Thomas, was killed several months later, the lawsuit was already making its way through federal court. And the city, still reeling from the earlier shootings, could no longer contain its grief and anger. “Folks just weren’t taking it anymore,” Roley says.
Then came the August 2002 settlement. The Collaborative’s main goal was to get the city, its police department, and its residents to work together. It also included some specific reforms. It created the Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA), an independent oversight body that would investigate questionable officer behavior. The police department would have to put together a foot pursuit policy for when and how to approach suspects and a mental health response team, limit the use of chokeholds, and more clearly spell out when and how force could be used. But the most innovative directive was the requirement to use problem-solving policing strategies.
The document was remarkable, says Green, a former federal prosecutor and the agreement’s court-appointed monitor, in that “it said arrests will not be the primary way in which police respond to problems.” Roley was overjoyed. “It was amazing because we had fought so hard,” she says. “You’re grateful for that particular moment because of the blood that had been spilled on the street at the hands of the police.” Then reality hit. Federal monitors estimated it would take a decade to see any measurable improvements or changes.
At issue was resistance from the city and the police department. The terms of the agreement allowed Green’s team access to police reports, facilities, and personnel so he could diagnose problems and ensure the new policies were enacted. Police Chief Tom Streicher, a career officer who spent decades rising through the ranks, took the reforms as a personal indictment of his life’s work. He limited access to the department and slow-walked information, according to court documents.
On one occasion, according to Green and court documents, Streicher kicked a federal monitor out of a police station. Another time, a lieutenant colonel spent the better part of a meeting stonewalling a federal monitor’s questions, before calling another question “the stupidest,” according to court documents. Rank-and-file officers took their cue from the top and acted as if nothing had changed. “I was a hard-charging cop. I really thought arresting people and putting them in jail was the way to go,” says Maris Herold, who worked in the department for more than 20 years.
Mayor Luken, who’d called in the Justice Department in the first place, tried to back out of the agreement. Months after signing it, he complained to the press and city council that the feds were overbilling the city. (Luken didn’t respond to emails and calls from Bloomberg Businessweek.) Things got so bad that in 2005, three years into the effort, the federal judge overseeing the agreement dragged Streicher to court and threatened the city with daily fines until it stopped obstructing Green’s team.
Luken’s successor was Mark Mallory, the city’s first Black mayor elected by popular vote, who’d won after running an outsider campaign. Unlike Luken, he embraced the Collaborative as a way to unite his racially polarized constituents and pressured Streicher to implement the reforms.
To almost everyone’s surprise, the new regime worked. “If you follow the process you can reduce disorder, violence, crime,” says Herold, who’s now chief of police in Boulder, Colo., where she’s still carrying the torch for problem-oriented policing. “I’ve never looked back from those days.”
Even Streicher came around once he saw the methods were actually effective. He remembers one particularly troublesome apartment complex that sent an unending stream of domestic disturbance calls to police. “We had been, for 20 or 30 years, making thousands of radio runs to this same apartment complex for the same people,” Streicher says. In the spirit of the Collaborative, the department started calling in social services groups to help with substance and spousal abuse. The CPD made fewer trips to the complex; community relations improved. “That was an eye opener for us,” says Streicher, who now consults for police departments on collaborative models.
By 2008, Green called the model “one of the most successful police reform efforts ever undertaken in this country.” Not only were felony arrests and violent crime down, a 2009 study of 3,000 residents by the Rand Corp. found that Black Cincinnatians rated police professionalism higher than they did in 2005, and their perception of racial bias had diminished over the same period.
Roley spent those years as the community’s advocate, reporting back to Green and his group while attempting to create a framework that could endure. “I was strategizing on how we, as the parties to the Collaborative Agreement, could stay together to do the work,” she says. “I felt like: ‘Can we do this without the federal oversight?’ ”
The success of the agreement was part of its undoing. By August 2007, police brass, city officials, and Green’s crew thought they’d met most of their goals and decided to formally wind things down the following year. To assuage concerns like Roley’s that things would quickly fall apart, a Manager’s Advisory Group, comprising members of the community, police union, department, and city government, would meet once a quarter to ensure the reforms continued to stick.
Green went on to become deputy mayor of Detroit. Streicher retired in 2011. Two years later, Mayor Mallory reached the end of his final term. Roley started noticing little things. The city stopped collecting statistics on traffic stops. Police employee behavioral tracking was abandoned. Then, in 2010, Roley’s cousin Kelly Brinson was tased to death by a University of Cincinnati police officer, whose department was never covered by the Collaborative.
The 2015 shooting of Quandavier Hicks, a 22-year-old Black man, was a low point. Just a month after Attorney General Lynch’s visit to Cincinnati, police responding to a disturbance complaint entered Hicks’s home without announcing themselves, according to interviews with officers submitted to the city firearms review board and the county prosecutor. When Hicks opened his bedroom door while holding an unloaded rifle, an officer shot him in the chest, killing him.
The city and county investigated the shooting and cleared the officers involved of wrongdoing. When the CCA looked into the case, it failed to follow through with key parts of an independent inquiry, says Rob Linneman, a civil rights lawyer who is representing Hicks’s family in a lawsuit against the city. It didn’t look into whether the officers were justified in entering the building or talk to anyone outside of the police investigation, according to Linneman.
The CCA, at that point, had lost much of its funding. An investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer found that by 2016 the $499,000 CCA budget was less than half, in inflation-adjusted terms, what it had been in its first year of operation. By 2018 it had ticked back up to almost $650,000, but that wasn’t enough to fully staff the group.
Meanwhile, allegations of abuse piled up. The investigatory body was blowing through its 90-day deadline to look into cases—that 2016 Enquirer investigation uncovered 21 files from the year before that still hadn’t been touched.
“The Citizen Complaint Authority was thought to be a groundbreaking thing at the time, and it was thought of as something that could give civilians real power in terms of how they are policed,” Linneman says. “That has turned out to be a disappointment.”
Gabe Davis, who currently runs the CCA, says the organization does “a quite thorough job of independently gathering the evidence.” Davis, who wasn’t in charge during the Hicks investigation, adds, “Certainly folks don’t have to like the conclusions we come to.”
A month after Hicks was killed, University of Cincinnati police officers killed another Black man. A campus patrolman shot Samuel DuBose in the face during a traffic stop for a missing front license plate. “It was another blow,” says Roley. “It’s more pain. But you keep fighting to change.”
In 2017, almost 10 years after the court monitoring ended, Green was invited by the city to review the Collaborative Agreement. When he arrived, he saw old signs of resistance. The police union president, Dan Hils, didn’t show up to the meetings or otherwise engage in the process.
Green’s report was brutal. He found the department not only had moved away from the model that had worked so well, but also had “abandoned the principles of” and “unilaterally withdrawn from the Collaborative Agreement.” “Cincinnati is an example that change can occur, and it can occur with important and significant community involvement,” says Green. “But it is hard to sustain.”
Hils, who still runs the union, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Bloomberg Businessweek. The city’s mayor, John Cranley, appreciates Green’s input but disagrees with his assessment. “We do more today in the spirit of the Collaborative and spend more in the spirit of the Collaborative than we did in any given year when we were actually under court order,” he says, pointing to the millions of dollars the city has spent on body cameras and training officers on unconscious bias and de-escalation. “We’re not perfect,” he adds. “We’re working to improve every day.”
Despite having lost so much, Roley remains as committed as ever to her cause. Last year she successfully lobbied for changes to the police union contract, including extending how long bad behavior stays in officers’ records. She’s also training a new generation of activists, whom she calls the Leaders of the Free World, to take up her decades-long fight. She says she’s always known it would be a long-term project.
But after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, there’s a growing feeling among activists that these kinds of reforms won’t be enough. Even if the Justice Department managed to implement something like the Collaborative Agreement in Minneapolis or Louisville, it couldn’t oversee that reform forever. And what about the 12,000 other local police departments in the U.S.?
Police killings have continued unabated since 2013. In 2020 alone, police killed 1,126 people across the country. They’re on track to kill just as many in 2021, according to Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative that compiles the data. And that’s just one bleak stat. In Cincinnati alone, Black people make up a disproportionate number of the homeless population and own a tiny proportion of property, despite accounting for nearly half of the city’s residents.
“That tells me that we have not made the progress that we need to,” says Mona Jenkins, a community activist who helped lead last summer’s protests. “At what point throughout this insane process do you realize this is not working and say we need to try a different approach?”
Jenkins, who works as a director at the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, respects Roley’s contributions, but disagrees with her on the way forward. She’s focused on lobbying to move funds away from police to other services that address the underlying causes of crime. That effort has had some recent victories. In addition to defeating this year’s police budget increase, pressure from activists won the CCA an extra $200,000, fully funding it for the first time in years. The group hired a new executive director and new investigators to chip away at its 130-case backlog.
Roley understands the spirit behind the defund movement. But, she notes, there’s no political will at the federal or local level to send money to Black neighborhoods for better schools, housing, grocery stores, or parks.
So she’s staying the course. “I think some days people want me to be critical, but I’m optimistic. I want to see the opportunity,” Roley says. Just because the police department and city haven’t held up their end of the bargain doesn’t mean she has to give up working to improve people’s lives. “The strength of the community has been what kept this thing alive in the city of Cincinnati,” she says. “We’ll be at this thing continuously improving it until communities can stand up and say, ‘Yes, we’ve got a good framework here.’ ”
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