Police Reform in the Queen City

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Posted in: Criminal Law

I spent the better part of last week with the Cincinnati Police Department. They gave me extraordinary access, and I tried to make the most of it. I sat in on planning and brainstorming sessions for soon-to-be launched operations, met with senior leadership about their vision for the CPD, interviewed senior and mid-level command officers about the challenges they faced and the projects underway in their districts, and rode through the city with junior officers. Though they knew I was working on a book on criminal justice reform, no one quizzed me about my personal or political philosophy, challenged me on my background as a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, or asked me what I intended to write.

I went to Cincinnati because of the long road the CPD has traveled. In 2001, a Cincinnati officer shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old black man. It was the fifteenth killing of a black man by the Cincinnati police in six years. This time, the city erupted in riots, which finally brought the police department to the bargaining table to settle a lawsuit previously filed by the ACLU and a community group called the Black United Front. Eventually, the parties came to an agreement that would serve as a framework for a new approach to policing and become a model for police reformers nationwide.

The parties agreed that policing in Cincinnati, as well as police/community relations, would be built around five goals. Police and the community would: (1) become “proactive partners in community problem solving”; (2) build “relationships of respect, cooperation and trust within and between police and communities”; (3) “improve education, oversight, monitoring, hiring practices and accountability” of the CPD; (4) “ensure fair, equitable, and courteous treatment for all”; and (5) create “methods” that would help the public understand “police policies and procedures” in order to “foster support for the police.” The final result, called the Collaborative Agreement, is worth studying in full.

It took a long time to hammer out the Agreement, and success was never a foregone conclusion. Precisely how it happened—including the back story that hasn’t yet made it into print—is a tale that needs to be told, since it serves as a lesson for cities nationwide. This isn’t the place for that story, but suffice it to say that it represented a lot of hard work by a lot of people who were not natural allies. While I was in Cincinnati, I had dinner with John Eck, a nationally recognized criminologist at the University of Cincinnati who wrote the initial draft of the agreement and participated in the negotiations. He said the negotiators were on a roller coaster that seemed to cycle up and down about every 48 hours, which means once every other day, for more than a year, he thought it would all fall apart.

Yet the agreement is just a bunch of words on the page, with language that no police department in the country should find objectionable. What police chief would ever say, “I’m sorry, but we don’t want to ensure fair, equitable, and courteous treatment for all, nor do we have any desire to build relationships of respect, cooperation and trust within and between police and communities.” Old habits are the hardest to break, and without a commitment to the spirit of the document, the words on the page would never translate into change in the street. When I was with the CPD, one senior commander told me that many in the department initially did their best to derail the negotiations and undermine the agreement. Looking back, he’s happy and more than a little relieved they failed.

So what does change look like? At a concrete level, what does the CPD do now that they didn’t do before; what have they stopped doing that used to be routine? That’s a big question since the changes reach all aspects of police practice. But fundamentally, change in the Cincinnati Police Department has been driven by the recognition that the overwhelming majority of crime is committed by a very small number of people at a very small number of places, a phenomenon I have described before. At least when it comes to law enforcement, most people are innocuous, and most places are irrelevant.

Aggressive and creative law enforcement has a legitimate role in this environment, but it is vital to understand that outside the problem places and people lies a community that deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Realizing this, the leadership I spoke with described their enforcement efforts with words like, “surgical,” “precise,” “tailored,” “focused,” and “limited.” On a continuum between “zero tolerance,” where the police stop, ticket, and search everything that moves, and “surgical policing,” which means what it sounds like, Cincinnati has gradually moved away from the former and toward the latter, reconceiving its entire mission.

The difference ripples through everything CPD does. I started to get a sense for that almost as soon as I arrived. On my first morning in Cincinnati, Chief Jeffrey Blackwell invited me to sit in on the bi-weekly meeting of senior leadership, which included Blackwell, his assistant chiefs, the commanders from each of the five districts in the department, and the officer in charge of each specialized unit. After introductions for my benefit, each person briefed the Chief on developments since the last meeting and the status of major projects underway in their respective portfolio.

A captain from violent crimes made the first report. She said that Joseph Deters, the Hamilton County District Attorney, had retained outside counsel, who had apparently advised him that police videos, recorded either from the dashboard of an officer’s squad or a body camera, were the officers’ work product. This meant they were exempt from disclosure under the state Open Records Act. According to the captain, Deters planned to resist the next request he got for disclosure of a video in order to force a definitive ruling by the Ohio courts. In the meantime, videos in his control—meaning those that were part of a criminal investigation, and therefore of greatest interest to the public—would not be disclosed.

In some places, the police leadership would welcome this decision. After all, if the DA can withhold a police video, so can the police. They’d never have to disclose another embarrassing tape. But that’s not how the CPD responded. To say the DA’s plan was poorly received by the Cincinnati police leadership would not do justice to their reaction. The room went silent. “That’s a terrible idea,” one captain finally said. “That’ll really set us back,” added another. Others shook their head in disbelief. One started to think aloud about workarounds. Well, just because we don’t have to disclose a video doesn’t mean we can’t, right? Finally, Chief Blackwell announced, “We’re going to fight this.”

There was a brief discussion, but nobody needed convincing. Everyone knew the CPD could not accept this decision. Since 2001, the leadership of the Cincinnati police department has internalized a culture of transparency. The leadership understood that withholding information, even if legally allowed, could wreck the department’s fragile relationship with the community and undo what they’ve tried to achieve since 2001. If the community thinks the police are trying to hide their dirty laundry, they stop trusting the department and start questioning its legitimacy. They cease to think of the police as partners in a shared campaign to end disorder and prevent crime, and come to see them as partisans committed only to their own agenda. Ultimately, they stop cooperating with the police, and without the community, cops can’t do their job.

And understand, the question is not whether the DA is right about the Open Records Act. In fact, let’s assume the DA doesn’t actually intend to withhold the videos and that the captain misunderstood what she heard, or that the DA’s plans have changed. All of that is beside the point. What matters is that the leadership of the CPD, when presented with a choice, reflexively favored more rather than less transparency, and honesty rather than duplicity in its dealings with the community—even if it meant disclosing more than the law required, sharing material that might cast the department in a bad light, and taking a position contrary to the elected District Attorney. That’s the take away, and it’s a big one.

Don’t get me wrong. The Cincinnati Police Department is emphatically not a model police force. A number of people I spoke with feel the department no longer strikes the right balance between law enforcement and community engagement, which is perennially the most vexing challenge facing any urban police force. Others worry that the department still relies too heavily on the traditional tools of law enforcement—stops and arrests—and does not approach problem places as creatively as it should. And when I met with a longtime leader in the community and member of the Black United Front, who had been part of both the original lawsuit and the fractious negotiations leading to the Collaborative Agreement, she expressed considerable doubt that the CPD has ever been truly committed to meaningful reform.

But despite its flaws, CPD is one of the best departments in the country. Its leadership and most of its officers have crossed an important bridge from old to new, changing the way the department conceives its mission, plans its operations, and conducts its business. In Cincinnati, many in the department—not everyone, and not enough—genuinely view the community as an essential part of the solution rather than a dangerous part of the problem. Change is slow, and forever a work in progress. But it’s possible, and in Cincinnati, it’s happening.