Fixing a Broken Police Department: The Cincinnati Experience — Part 1 of 4

Unknown-1Last Spring, The Atlantic magazine did an extensive story on Cincinnati’s experience of signing a consent decree in order to “fix” things that were apparently broken. The following is a 4-part series of posts excerpting what I believe to be the primary learnings regarding U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) method of using consent decrees through the federal court to improve police operations. The original article was written by Alana Semuels on May 28, 2015. This is the first of four posts.

“Citizens were throwing stones and beer bottles at police officers in front of City Hall, and [Police Officer] Maris Herold didn’t understand what they wanted…

“That was in 2001. ‘In the police department, we thought we had great relationships with the majority of our communities,’ Tom Streicher, who was police chief from 1999 to 2011, told me. ‘The reality was that we found out we had superficial relationships.’

“[Officer, now District Commander] Herold now sees how little she understood about policing, transparency, and the community back then… More than a decade of negotiations have led to significant reforms. Herold believes that the changes made in the department are the best way to guarantee a good relationship between a city and its police force

“The public commitment to reform came in the immediate aftermath of the riots, but five years elapsed before the police started making meaningful changes. Though they were required by the Justice Department to reform their procedures, police still chafed at being told to fix a problem they didn’t think existed.

Even now, police reform in Cincinnati remains a delicate issue. The various stakeholders, including the African American community, elected officials, civil-rights lawyers and law-enforcement leaders, constantly discuss and evaluate their progress. As part of the reforms, police agreed to adopt a strategy that required them to interact frequently with members of the community, and continually re-affirmed their commitment to that strategy.

“The city that once served as a prime example of broken policing now stands as a model of effective reform…

“But the lessons of Cincinnati are complicated. Success required not just the adoption of a new method of policing, but also sustained pressure from federal officials, active support by the mayor, and the participation of local communities. If Cincinnati is a model of reform, then it is equally a sobering reminder of how difficult it can be to change entrenched systems.

“Looking back, the results of Cincinnati’s reform efforts are startling. Between 1999 and 2014, Cincinnati saw a 69 percent reduction in police use-of-force incidents, a 42 percent reduction in citizen complaints and a 56 percent reduction in citizen injuries during encounters with police… Violent crimes dropped from a high of 4,137 in the year after the riots, to 2,352 last year.  Misdemeanor arrests dropped from 41,708 in 2000 to 17,913 last year.

“Yet it might not be so simple to adopt Cincinnati’s changes in other cities. It took a long time—five to ten years, by some counts—to get police to actually buy into the reforms. Nobody likes it when somebody comes into their workplace and tells them how to do their job.

“The changes Cincinnati adopted were nothing short of a complete turnaround in how the city approached incarceration, crime and its relationship with its residents. And to make sure they were adopted, the federal government had to apply constant pressure, reminding all parties involved about the need to stay vigilant about reform…

“Some of the changes were small: The police department vowed to hold a press conference within 12 hours of any officer-involved shooting and to provide information as well as camera footage from the event. It agreed to track officers who received an inordinate number of complaints or who violated policies, and take disciplinary action if needed. It established a Citizen Complaint Authority with investigative and subpoena powers over police. It adopted new use-of-force policies, changed guidelines on when to use chemical spray, and established a mental-health response team to deal with incidents in which a suspect may have mental-health problems.

“But those changes were tiny in contrast to what Herold and others say completely altered the department over the course of a decade: the adoption of a new strategy for how to police. The settlement agreement for the ACLU lawsuit, dubbed the Collaborative, required Cincinnati police to adopt community problem-oriented policing, or CPOP. The strategy required them to do fewer out-and-out arrests, and instead focus on solving the problems that cause people to commit crimes in the first place…

“Though the city was only required to adopt the strategy for five years, police have constantly re-affirmed their commitment to it, and still attend meetings every six weeks to update the community on their progress…

“There were certain things that were expected of [Officer] Maris Herold when she first became a cop. She was expected to write a few traffic tickets a month, issue some parking tickets, and get a misdemeanor arrest, a felony arrest, and a DUI arrest. If police were out making arrests, the thinking went, they were proactively preventing crime. So Herold followed the guidelines, got positive evaluations, and was seen by supervisors as a good cop.

“Even before the riots, though, community members could see that this approach wasn’t working... The effort to prevent crime led police to arrest all sorts of innocent people, souring the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

“’What we did horribly wrong was we engaged in zero tolerance sweeps—that was our primary response when we’d have flare-ups in neighborhoods,’ Herold told me. ‘That, I think, stretched any foundation that we had built with the community’…


“Fixing a Broken Police Department” continues tomorrow Part 2 of 4. Click on “Follow this blog” to receive an email notice.


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