CINCINNATI -- This city on the banks of the Ohio River might seem to have little in common with Seattle, but both cities' police departments have faced similar challenges.
In Cincinnati, it was quelling violent race riots in 2001, while in Seattle it was regaining control of the city after the massive WTO riots of 1999.
And in both cities, it was police shootings of minorities that prompted an intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In Cincinnati, as they would in Seattle a decade later, DOJ investigators found a broken police department where officers usedtoo much force, too often.
So it’s not surprising that one of SPD’s first moves after the feds dropped the hammer in December was to call the Cincinnati Police Department.
“It’s like ‘help’, ‘help,'" said Captain Dave Bailey, describing the phone calls he got from SPD commanders.
Bailey was tasked with carrying out the DOJ reforms in the Cincinnati Police Department ten years ago.
He said the department’s initial reaction was defiance: “Wait a minute; they’re going to tell me what to do? We know policing here in Cincinnati.”
Bailey said CPD quickly learned that defiance wasn’t the answer. “[SPD is] going to find out what we found out,” Bailey said. He said CPD had to change, and if Cincinnati can do it, so can Seattle.
From turmoil to revitalization
Cincinnati was in turmoil in 2001. “The pot boiled and it finally boiled over in April 2001,” said Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of the New Prospect Baptist Church.
Lynch said the city exploded after a police officer shot an unarmed man—the 15th black man killed by a Cincinnati police officer in six years.
Lynch was at the heart of the community’s demands for change. “I led the protests, I led the boycott, I led the lawsuit (against the city and the police department)," he said.
But it was the heavy hand of the feds that forced change, according to Lynch. “It was key to have the Justice Department, because we know we weren’t going to get it; locally, it just wasn’t going to happen.”
At first it seemed impossible to hammer out an agreement.
Captain Bailey said there was a lot of finger pointing. “And I suspect that’s what you’re going through now (in Seattle), ‘It’s not us, it’s you.' 'It’s you, it’s you!’" Bailey said, adding, "You’ve got to get the right people to the table."
Into that minefield stepped Cecil Thomas. He’s a Cincinnati City Councilman now, but in 2001 he was director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission after serving 27 years as a police officer.
Thomas described the atmosphere when negotiations first began: “It was extremely contentious. Citizens were saying, 'Police are our enemies.' The police were saying, 'The citizens are our enemies.' There was all of this distrust. And somebody had to bring some semblance of calm, a cool head so to speak, to the situation.”
It took a year of battling, but Cincinnati reached not one, but two agreements. The first was a Memorandum of Agreement between the DOJ, the city and police. It detailed more than 100 changes in policies, procedures, training and use of force. That included limiting the use of chemical sprays, scaling back foot pursuits, allowing choke holds only when deadly force is justified, and keeping guns holstered longer.
The CPD rank and file pulled back initially, saying the changes handcuffed them. But over time, officers adjusted.
Officer Robert Bohl works what CPD calls a “power shift” in a unit dedicated to patrolling Cincinnati’s toughest neighborhoods. Bohl said that police officers have not lost control of the streets under the new rules.
“I know other outside agencies think we’re handcuffed and we can’t do our jobs, but I can still do my job just fine,” Bohl said.
The second agreement was a Collaborative Agreement between the ACLU, the Cincinnati Black United Front, the City of Cincinnati and the Fraternal Order of Police. It called for police officers and community members to become proactive partners in community problem solving.
The Collaborative Agreement set up a Citizen Complaint Authority to investigate complaints of police misconduct. The citizen board’s televised hearings are held monthly at city hall. The board can subpoena officers to testify. Most officers come willingly and have been cleared of wrongdoing. But problem officers have been identified and disciplined through the process.
CPD conducts a parallel investigation into all complaints of police misconduct. The Cincinnati city manager has the final say on discipline.
As for police use of force in Cincinnati ... it’s gone down.
“The big thing is, people aren’t getting hurt; people aren’t getting killed,” said Capt. Bailey.
The reforms didn’t come cheap. For nearly seven years, Cincinnati operated under Department of Justice oversight, which included paying a federal monitor to make sure all of the changes were implemented according to the agreements.
Councilman Thomas said it cost the city approximately $13 million. He said federal grants paid for equipment like tasers and cameras. He also said that no police officers lost their jobs to pay for the reforms.
As the relationship between police and citizens improved, so did Cincinnati's crime rate. Violent crime has fallen since the Department of Justice stepped in ten years ago.
Councilmember Laure Quinlivan said Vine Street was once the scariest place in the city--rife with drug dealers and other criminals. Many buildings had been abandoned.
Today, Vine Street is the heart of Cincinnati’s revitalization, with outdoor cafes replacing crack houses.
Quinlivan believes Seattle can learn from what Cincinnati went through. “I would say, unless you think you’re perfect, you should embrace this (DOJ reforms) as an opportunity to get better,” Quinlivan said.
Cincinnati’s long been known for its baseball team and its riverboat paddle wheelers. Now it’s known for something else—a model for how police and citizens coming together to make the streets safer for everyone.
Watch Laure Quinlivan's documentary about revitalization of Cincinnati:
Background on DOJ investigation into Seattle Police Dept.:
What the DOJ report on Seattle says (Dec. 16, 2011)
Seattle mayor, police unveil 20-part reform plan (March 29, 2012)
Feds to seek court order for Seattle police reforms (March 30, 2012)
SPD reforms could cost the city $41 million, mayor says (May 14, 2012)