Cincinnati reveals harrowing road – and limits – in reforming the police

City endured riots and overhauled police, but relationship between African-Americans and cops is work in progress

A Cincinnati police officer listens to family about a domestic dispute in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in September 2014.
Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post / Getty Images

CINCINNATI — From his perch at the griddle at Tucker’s Restaurant, Joe Tucker has watched multiple waves of transformation wash through Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine.

He witnessed the neighborhood go from a working-class enclave for displaced black families and whites who had migrated north from Appalachia in the 1950s and 1960s to a place where crime, drug use and violence skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s. These days, Tucker’s modest diner, opened by his parents in 1946, finds itself in the midst of Over-the-Rhine’s latest metamorphosis, newly populated by the trendy bars, boutiques and coffee shops that cater to incoming urban professionals alongside longtime residents trying to keep up with the rent.

In 2001, when three nights of riots broke out after a police officer shot unarmed black teenager Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine, Tucker, 57, who is white, says there was a feeling that the fierce flash of outrage was a long time coming. Thomas was the 15th black man to be killed by the Cincinnati police in six years.

“You felt the tension leading up to that, you know. The police, they kind of made their own rules,” he says as he fries eggs and goetta sausage. “Enough was enough.”

But in the intervening 13 years, Tucker and some of his regulars say they have seen not only seen the rebirth of Over-the-Rhine but also dramatic changes in how the Cincinnati police conducts its business. “I don’t see them as being too aggressive, not like the old days,” he says. 

Jerry Colbert, 47, who is black and grew up in the neighborhood, agrees, saying the police and the city have managed a remarkable turnaround since the dark days of the early 2000s. “When I was a kid, when I was my son’s age, we used to get a whooping for just being in Washington Park, and I never understood it, because I was just a kid playing,” he says. “We’ve come a long way since then. The city has made awesome change.”

As a recent spate of high-profile police killings of unarmed African-American men in New York City, ClevelandFerguson, Missouri, and elsewhere have prompted nationwide soul searching about race and policing, many have turned to Cincinnati as an example of a city that navigated those treacherous crosscurrents more than a decade ago and came out on the other side. The 13-year recovery — still in progress, local leaders and activists caution — reveals the long, uneven path to repairing the broken relationship between police and community as well as the durability of some old wounds. 

Guardians of the city

On a recent Friday afternoon, Officers Christine Barry and Jennett Vaughn climb into their squad car and head over to Avondale, a neighborhood in Cincinnati that has surpassed Over-the-Rhine to lead the city in violent crime, shootings, poverty and unemployment.

The soft chatter of their radios fills the car, but for the last several months, Barry and Vaughn, both with Cincinnati police for 11 years, have been freed from having to respond to emergency calls. The pair is a part of the recently created quality of life enhancement team, serving as a kind of dedicated social services unit within the Cincinnati Police Department.  

For months at a time, Barry, 45, and Vaughn, 41, are assigned to focus on a targeted area — a problematic apartment building or a few blocks along a stretch of road — where in addition to traditional policing, they are charged with responding to the broader needs of the community and building relationships with residents.

Officers Christine Barry and Jennett Vaughn, part of the quality of life enhancement team, chat with a resident of a subsidized housing unit in Avondale, Dec. 19, 2014.
Naureen Khan

On this afternoon, they do walk-throughs of two apartment buildings, fixing the locks on doors that have been propped open, chatting about holiday plans with residents they have gotten to know by their first names and dropping into the adjoining strip malls to pop their heads into stores to check in with owners.

Barry and Vaughn say their job now entails not only being on guard against illegal activity and making arrests but also cajoling absent landlords into doing repairs and maintaining the units, connecting families with homeless shelters when they’re occupying vacant buildings and generally trying to get residents assistance when they need it.

“It’s a totally different way of policing,” Vaughn says. “You can be more engaged and more involved to get to know the people in neighborhood, get to know the juveniles and talk to them and let them get to know you, versus them seeing you as, ‘Oh, OK, you’re a police officer. You’re here to come and arrest me and take me off to jail.’”

The quality of life enhancement team is just one of a battery of programs launched by Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell since he took over the department in late 2013 and intended to address the social ills that can be among the causes of crime.

Blackwell has dispatched his officers to schools to read with third-graders, to recreation centers to run basketball programs for teenagers, to Boys and Girls Clubs to conduct gang prevention programs and to grapple with problems like poverty, lack of health care and education that usually fall outside the purview of police.

“One of the things I’m trying to get police officers to understand is that we’re not warriors. We’re guardians. We’re guardians of our city, of our communities, of our neighborhoods, of our young people,” he says. “If you really want to impact your neighborhoods, if you really want to impact your community, you have to worry less about cops and robbers and more about engagement and people.”

Community outreach in many police departments is little more than a public relations maneuver with police officers occasionally dropping by a school or a community center, but Blackwell says he is striving for “authentic engagement” and durable relationships with Cincinnatians. Then if a crisis should occur, like recent ones in Ferguson and Cleveland, there’s at least a base level of trust to work from.

“Most cities spend 99 percent of their time, money and energy chasing one-half of 1 percent of the people in their cities that are criminals,” he says. “Make no mistake, we have a laser focus on the criminals. That little sliver of people, we’re going to go after them as well, but we’re not going to do zero tolerance on communities and these heavy-handed police tactics in an effort to find that small sliver of people and then we piss off everyone in the neighborhood. We focus on our criminals succinctly but our larger focus is on the big picture.”

A protester faces off with Cincinnati police in riot gear in Over-the-Rhine in 2001 during demonstrations sparked by the police shooting of an unarmed black youth.
Mike Simons / Newsmakers / Getty Images

‘Had the city by the throat’

That nuanced approach to policing and a change in mentality in the force started long before Blackwell’s reign, in 2002, with the signing of the Collaborative Agreement. The negotiated settlement overhauling Cincinnati’s police procedures was the result of a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Black United Front, a local organization, which alleged 30-year pattern of police harassment of black Cincinnatians.  

Those involved with crafting the settlement between the police and the community under the purview of a federal judge say it was a painful, 18-month process that had activists, community leaders, city officials and the police at loggerheads and sometimes near fisticuffs.

City officials agreed to negotiate only after three nights of riots after Thomas’ death and a subsequent tourism boycott succeeded in spooking the business community.

“We had the city by the throat, and we were not letting up,” says Damon Lynch, a former president of the Black United Front and the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church. “Black people felt like they were occupied by the police. They felt like in white communities, they were there to protect and serve and in black communities, they were there to police and arrest. And it was just time for change.” 

Iris Roley, a black businesswoman involved in crafting the Collaborative Agreement, says that as fraught the process was, the aims of the black community in Cincinnati were simple and prescient of the conversation happening today across the country.

Protesters during the 2001 demonstrations.
David Maxwell / AFP / Getty Images

“I don’t know how the stars aligned that summer in 2001. We were in the right place in the right time. It’s almost like we traveled into the future. We were hell bent on trying to save as many black lives as we could,” she says. “[Police] now view black people as human beings, and they see that our lives do matter.”

In the end, the Collaborative Agreement, finalized by a judge in August 2002, in tandem with a separate settlement signed with the Department of Justice the same year, led to an overhaul of police procedures.

The two documents together rewrote use of force policies, empowered a citizen-complaint authority to handle allegations of police misconduct, changed the way officers dealt with mentally ill suspects, adopted an early-warning intervention system to flag patterns of inappropriate behavior from specific officers and instituted community problem-oriented policing, an approach that ensures Cincinnati residents have a say in how problems of crime and disorder are addressed in their neighborhoods.

All police officers in Cincinnati must undergo racial bias and diversity training, Blackwell says. Central to good policing, he notes, was acknowledging the central role racial bias has always played in law enforcement. Other police departments are just now coming to grips with that fact.

“You know that pink elephant in the room that no one wants to act like they see? The elephant’s dancing now,” Blackwell says. “You have to be honest about it. You have to admit that there is validity in what people feel. People in America are condemning or crying out about our entire criminal justice system, and we’re just one part of it.”

Lynch says the work of reforming the police is ongoing and that to this day, there are disagreements between the department and the community.

The 2013 annual report of Citizen Complaint Authority provides a snapshot of the friction. Of the 113 allegations of police misconduct investigated by the body that year, 44 percent were for the excessive use of force, and 10 percent alleged discrimination.

Since 2002, there have been 12 fatal shootings by police, according to statistics provided by the Cincinnati police, most notably an officer’s killing a black teenager after a struggle in which the 16-year-old pulled a gun. But there have been no killings of unarmed suspects.

Most violent crime in Cincinnati, as in many other metropolises, has declined since 2001, with aggravated assaults dropping by 50 percent, rapes by 31 percent and robberies by 35 percent. Homicides, however, have seen a slight uptick, from 55 in 2001 to 62 so far this year.  

The state of affairs is a far cry from the toxic atmosphere of distrust and unease that prevailed more than a decade ago, Lynch says.

“We’re still working from it. Policing here is a lot better than it was then,” he says. “It’s not perfect, and could it blow up? Yeah. But we continue to be at the table.”

Families relaxing in Over-the-Rhine in September 2014.
Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Old wounds heal slowly

Nate Gordon, 26, a lifelong Cincinnatian, remembers the first time he encountered the police.

He was 15, running down the street in a game of basketball when, he says, he was abruptly grabbed by a police officer and slammed on top of the hood of a car. The officer was looking for a suspect in a nearby robbery and asked why he was running at all.

“I was like, ‘You don’t have to do this to me,’” Gordon says. “When he let me go, I went in the house, and I cried.”

Gordon, who estimates that he has been stopped by the police at least eight times in his life, mostly for minor traffic violations, says the interactions have not gotten much better since he was a teenager. He is among the black Cincinnatians who say they have heard about the much-hyped changes in the police but haven’t felt them.

“After the Cincinnati riots, I don’t think it did anything but made it worse,” he says. “They teach us to run from them. They teach us to always panic when they pull up.”

He says that instead of expecting the police to change their ways, he has educated himself on his rights. “If I know I ain’t done nothing wrong, I walk with my head up high and think, ‘You’re not going to grab me or ask me those type of questions,’” he says.

Jerome Patton, 38, also says he still sees systemic harassment of black people in Over-the-Rhine, where he lives. He adds that he has been hassled by the police on numerous occasions, with police still operating from a place of fear and intimidation.

“They just found a different way to target us and a different way to abuse us. Instead of jumping out at us and beating us and shooting us, they’re just locking us all up now,” he says. “This is a war on the hood, the poor black communities.”

Patton and Gordon’s perceptions are no doubt complicated by the fact that both of them have criminal records. Gordon was charged with a felony for passing bad checks six years ago, and Patton has done two stints in prison, once for a drug-related offense and another on a weapons charge. The two men say they have put those mistakes behind them and are committed to building better lives — a task made all the harder because they feel as if they are constantly under a cloud of police suspicion.

Mike Murphy, Catholic priest who runs a ministry for mostly black ex-offenders in Cincinnati, says that for many of the men he works with, it’s simply too late to bridge the divide. 

“We’ve lost a whole generation of young men who would have a positive relationship with law enforcement,” he says. “They’re gone. It’s not going to happen. There’s too much negative experience and mistrust that’s out there, and I hear about it daily in terms of ‘I’m not going to do that. You handle that with that cop.’”

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