On August 5, 2014, just four days before Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, Cincinnati police killed Donyale Rowe after a traffic stop in the Walnut Hills neighborhood. Officers Mark Bode and Thomas Weigand pulled over the vehicle, driven by Jonathan Johnson. Rowe, who was on parole, tried to make a run for it.
The fight took place on the right side of the police car, out of view from the dash cam. In the video, one can hear scuffling, an officer shouting, “He’s got a gun! Shoot him! Shoot him!” and finally gunshots ringing through the air. Rowe was armed and allegedly held his gun to the cheek of one of the officers.
Unlike the Ferguson killing, the shooting of Donyale Rowe didn’t make national headlines. Instead, the very next day, Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell held a press conference and released the personnel files of the officers involved in the shooting. Both Weigand and Bode were placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation; there were no allegations of a cover-up, and no protests.
Between 1995 and 2001, members of the Cincinnati Police Department killed 15 black males. But since the city began cleaning up its act in 2001, Cincinnati has demonstrated what can be achieved when local officials get serious about reform. In May 2015, newly minted United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch visited Cincinnati and declared the city a nationwide model for policing.
Death at the hands of police is, of course, a grimly familiar phenomenon for the black community. But thanks to technology, social media, and tireless organizing by activists across the country, the killing in Ferguson of unarmed 18-year-old Brown by white police officer Wilson set off a shockwave and started a movement to rival the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Cincinnati in 2001, like Ferguson today, was nobody’s candidate for a policing role model. The southern Ohio city of just under 300,000 has a population that is about 49 percent white and 45 percent black, with gentrifying neighborhoods intersecting impoverished ones. Of the 15 males killed by police during that six-year period, one was a 12-year-old boy and another was mentally ill—yet only one police officer received even a reprimand.
Lorenzo Collins had been in and out of the Hamilton County mental health system six times in the last three months of his life. On February 23, 1997, wielding a brick, he told the 15 police officers surrounding him to shoot him. It took police officers 60 seconds to do just that. He died five days later at the age of 25.
Protests after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man turned into four days of violent rioting in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of downtown Cincinnati in April 2001.
Around two o’clock in the morning on April 7, 2001, white officer Stephen Roach shot 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in the historic neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. Roach’s gunshot ended a police chase—and Thomas’s life. Police had attempted to arrest the teenager for a litany of misdemeanors, most of them traffic violations. Thomas took off on foot and was shot by Roach in an alley. Thomas was unarmed.
Fed up with the violence inflicted on their community at the hands of police, protesters took to the streets two days later. Hundreds converged in front of Cincinnati City Hall demanding answers. Later that evening, protesters headed down to the Cincinnati police headquarters in District 1.
The crowd of people threw rocks and bottles while police used tear gas, beanbags, and rubber bullets. In what would become an iconic moment, protesters took down the flag outside the building and turned it upside down. This would mark the beginning of four days of rioting. The Cincinnati riots cost the city millions of dollars and further strained the relationship between police and the black community.
In September 2001, Officer Roach was tried for negligent homicide—and acquitted. But then, Mayor Charles Luken asked the Department of Justice for help. A 1994 law grants the department authority to investigate abusive police practices and initiate remedies that may be voluntary or court-ordered.
DOJ began with an investigation of the use of force in Cincinnati. Its experts spoke with police officers, city officials, civil rights activists, and community members. They reviewed all firearm investigations between 1995 and June 2001, as well as excessive-force complaints against the police department between January 1998 and June 2001, and reviewed all uses of force from June 2000 to June 2001. The investigation ended in a Memorandum of Agreement that required drastic changes in police practices. The DOJ also sent in an independent monitor to assess progress being made.
The police department was required to create a team of specially trained police officers to respond to all incidents that involved mentally ill persons. The DOJ also required development of a foot pursuit policy, including alternatives to foot pursuit, such as surveillance or calling for reinforcements. The agreement with the DOJ also prohibited the chokehold. Police officers were instructed to limit their use of chemical spray, and the department was required to improve its canine operations, including tracking dog bites.
The memorandum revised permissible usage of police weapons intended to stun, such as beanbag shotguns and high-powered 40-millimeter foam rounds, only to be deployed to subdue or incapacitate someone in danger of inflicting imminent physical harm to police or other people. The department was required to extensively document uses of force and critical firearm discharges.
Police in Cincinnati were required to develop a program to inform the public on how to file a complaint against a police officer, which would then be followed by a thorough investigation of the complaint. The department created a new computerized database for supervision and management of the agreement.
Six years after the riots, in April 2007, the agreement was terminated, with the Cincinnati Police Department being in full compliance with 93 percent of the terms and conditions. Police-community relations dramatically improved.
Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, who joined the department in September 2013 after serving with distinction for 26 years in Columbus, is candid on the subject of race. A black man, he blames police violence on the reluctance of police officers to own up to their history. “Throughout slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights era, to today,” explains Blackwell, “police officers have been right in the middle of a lot of the bad things that have been happening in our country.”
The history of police brutality has left generations of black communities wary of police. Blackwell says he tells his officers, “Don’t take it personally when you get met with aggression and mistrust. It’s not personal. It’s generational.” In short, generations of blacks have come to expect the worst—and this apprehension will change only slowly as police conduct changes.
At the time of the Department of Justice’s investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio had partnered with the Cincinnati Black United Front to file a parallel lawsuit with the DOJ against the Cincinnati Police Department. This lawsuit resulted in the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, which complemented the Department of Justice’s Memorandum. The city is formally no longer subject to DOJ monitoring, but the Cincinnati Police Department still adheres to the rest of the agreement that settled the ACLU/Black United Front lawsuit.
“I always talk about community engagement being the most important thing in police work,” Blackwell tells me as we sit in the conference room at department headquarters. The agreement between police and the community outlines five goals, with police officers and citizens becoming proactive partners in problem-solving.
In the aftermath of the riots, police stepped up walking patrols, talking with Over-the-Rhine residents in July 2001 (above). Chief Jeffrey Blackwell has continued to encourage this kind of community engagement.
A key goal is to build “relationships of respect, cooperation, and trust within and between” the police and local communities. To this end, Blackwell created the Quality of Life Enhancement Team. This unit patrols neighborhoods and talks to residents, with the hope that its presence will reduce crime. In the past, police officers would come into neighborhoods with heavy-handed tactics—even if the residents were the ones who asked for their help.
Blackwell rejects the zero-tolerance approach to crime-riddled neighborhoods. “Anyone jay-walks, anyone spits on the sidewalk, or ride your bikes on the sidewalk—we’re just going to write everybody a ticket. That’s how some agencies do it. That’s not good policing.”
A number of programs promoting education and community relations make the Cincinnati Police Department stand out. Blackwell stresses service as an integral part of policing. After police officers get their badge for the first time, he has the new officers participate in a weeklong service immersion program. “They are going to remember what’s most important, and that is to serve people, to worry about not just crime and criminality, but life and livability,” he says. As part of service immersion, new cops feed the homeless, and volunteer in schools, soup kitchens, and nursing homes.
“Hoops Heart Hope,” or H3, is a leadership and basketball program for Cincinnati youth ages 10 to 19. They meet at designated recreational centers throughout the city every Friday night. First the attendees are fed a meal, attend a character and integrity workshop, and then play basketball with one another and police officers.
Another program Blackwell touts is called Get the Groceries. “I grew up in a single-parent home, in the projects, very poor,” he says, so as a poor-child-turned-police-chief, he knows what it’s like to go without proper food during the holidays. Over winter school break, the police department awards kids with $100 gift cards to Kroger grocery stores. Blackwell plans to expand the program in the coming years. “This year we have 200, next year we’re going to do 500 kids.”
To fund this program, Blackwell explains that his department uses asset seizures. “I’m one of those chiefs that believes money that we take from criminals should be invested back in our young people,” he says. “Not that we should buy helicopters or bullets.”
Another goal of the collaborative agreement stresses education improvement. The department has a full-time educational liaison officer, who works with third graders in elementary schools across the city. The Ohio Department of Education’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee stipulates that any third grader who does not pass the comprehensive exam at the end of the year will not be promoted to fourth grade. Police officers in the schools tutor children alongside students from the University of Cincinnati.
“After one year at one of our inner-city schools, we took the third-grade reading level from 56 percent to 77 percent,” Blackwell says. “And every kid passed except one.” This is a big improvement from the prior year, when about 30 students did not pass.
Blackwell believes that police officers and members of the community actually want the same thing—justice and respect. “You can’t arrest your way out of crime,” he says pointedly.
THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE didn’t always have the authority to investigate rogue police departments. Ironically, the department got that power in the context of a tough-on-crime bill that many politicians have come to regret. In 1993, newly elected President Bill Clinton was determined to overcome Republican charges that Democrats were soft on crime. He signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which included long prison terms for low-level drug offenders. But as part of the bill, liberals in Congress demanded and got inclusion of a measure called the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute, which originated in public revulsion to the Rodney King case.
After the 1991 video of King’s beating made national news, the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights convened hearings to discuss police brutality, and subcommittee chair Representative Don Edwards, along with several prominent black members of Congress, sponsored the Police Accountability Act of 1991. A Republican filibuster thwarted this first attempt at police reform, but in 1994, Democratic legislators managed to get the first two sections of the act into the crime bill. The statute allows the DOJ to review the practices of law enforcement agencies that may be violating people’s constitutional rights.
If the law enforcement agency in question receives federal funding, the DOJ may also invoke the antidiscrimination provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; both of these laws forbid discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin by agencies that receive federal funding.
Typically, when the DOJ opens an investigation against a police department, they speak to police officers and members of the community; police practice experts are hired to help review incidents, documents, and the policies and practices of the agencies in question, and to recommend remedies.
The law enforcement agency in question and the DOJ can enter into a memorandum of agreement, which calls for an independent monitor to step in and analyze and oversee policing practices for a set period of time. Another option is the consent decree, which can be enforced by law, unlike the memorandum. The consent decree allows DOJ monitoring for a minimum of five years. The DOJ also has the option of issuing a technical assistance letter, with recommendations that do not have the force of law. Some investigations are closed without any type of agreement.
In the last 21 years, the DOJ has investigated approximately 55 police departments. Because of its own limited resources, it must focus on the worst cases. In late 2000, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Department of Justice approved a consent decree, requiring federal oversight of police reforms in the city. Under the agreement, the LAPD was required to create a database with information on police officers, including lethal and non-lethal use of force, all officer-involved shootings and firearm discharges, incidents in which a complaint has been filed against a police officer, and all arrest reports and citations made by the officer.
The L.A. database includes information on the race, ethnicity, gender, and age of people stopped by police. Supervisors were required to review the information in the database periodically, to assess whether any officers were engaging in at-risk behavior. After increasing the diversity in their police force and decreasing the number of police-involved shootings, police reforms in the LAPD have been heralded as a success.
While these agreements have worked in some cities, not every police department cooperates. In December 2014, the DOJ released findings of their investigation into the Cleveland Police Department, which detailed use of excessive and deadly force. The problem: DOJ had already investigated the Cleveland police in 2004 and had issued the department a technical assistance letter, which evidently had little impact.
“One of the big pushbacks is that they cost a lot of money,” says Simone Weichselbaum of the Marshall Project. The city usually has to foot the bill for independent monitors and any of the required reforms. “If the consent decree requires body cams or dash cams or new training, these are all things that cities have to pay for,” Weichselbaum explains.
Although on paper the Justice Department has ample power, in practice it depends on the collaboration of police departments. The DOJ does not have subpoena power to enforce its investigations. “If they want to investigate a police department, it’s easier for them to have full cooperation,” Weichselbaum says. “If they don’t [receive full cooperation], until there is a lawsuit, they can’t get records or do ride-alongs or do interviews.”
As Stephen Rushin writes in the Fordham Law Review, the DOJ lacks the resources to formally investigate every case of apparent systemic abuse at the hands of police. The high price tag of a lengthy investigation means that the DOJ can only investigate a minuscule number of police departments in the country.
Out of 17,985 state and local police agencies in the United States, the fact that only 55 have been investigated since 1994 means that the DOJ has investigated about three departments each year and only has the resources to investigate less than 0.02 percent of all departments each year. For example, Rushin notes, if patterns of abuse exist in only one out of every hundred law enforcement agencies, then the DOJ will only be able to investigate less than 2 percent of them every year.
The DOJ’s enforcement of the law varies by presidential administration. Under the George W. Bush administration, no consent decrees were issued. Between 2004 and 2009, throughout Bush’s second term, not one single negotiation was settled between the DOJ and a police department. That number dramatically increased to eight during Barack Obama’s first term.
IN 2003, AS A RESULT OF the Memorandum of Agreement and Collaborative Agreement, Cincinnati established the Citizen Complaint Authority. The CCA is composed of a board of six citizens appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council, with professional investigators and a full-time director with staff. Complaints are assigned for investigation by the CCA office or referred to the Citizen Complaint Resolution Process, which is under the Cincinnati Police Department.
The boarded-up storefronts of Vine Street in 2003 have given way to upscale shops and eateries.
The CCA’s mission is to “investigate serious interventions by police officers including, but not limited to discharging of firearms, deaths in custody, use of excessive force, improper pointing of firearms, improper search and seizures, and to resolve all citizen complaints in a fair and efficient manner.”
The same year the CCA was established, police were again embroiled in a brutality case. On November 30, 2003, 41-year-old Nathaniel Jones was stumbling around a fast-food restaurant and behaving bizarrely. Police were called. Video shows Jones lunging at police officers and his subsequent beating. Jones later died at the hospital and the coroner ruled his death a homicide. His death “must be regarded as a direct and immediate consequence, in part, of the struggle, plus his obesity, heart disease, and drug intoxication,” said Dr. Carl Parrott. “Absent the struggle, however, Mr. Jones would not have died at that precise moment of time.” In March 2004, the county prosecutor declined to indict the six officers involved in Jones’s death.
The CCA issues a status report every year. In 2014, there were 320 complaints. Allegations included 8 attributed to discharge of a firearm; 65 claiming excessive use of force; 22 asserting discrimination; 5 objecting to improper pointing of a firearm; and 17 allegations of improper searches, seizures, or entries. Since 2009, the annual number of complaints has fluctuated between 285 and 348. On their face, the CCA statistics do not show dramatic improvement. But the existence of a transparent complaint and investigation process has contributed to an improved climate of police and community relations.
The Citizen Complaint Authority also keeps track of police officers with repeat complaints. The criterion is any police officer with ten or more complaints against him or her in a three-year period. That number decreased from ten in 2013 to just four in 2014. A substantial majority of the complaints—65 percent—lodged against police in 2014 were from black residents.
AT THE CINCINNATI INTERFAITH Workers Center, “Know Your Rights” is just one of the many trainings they offer to immigrant workers living in the city. With this training, the organization aims to teach immigrants what to do when and if they are stopped by police at work, at home, while driving, and while walking in public. To Manuel Perez, the membership coordinator at the worker center, the relationship between the police and the Latino immigrant community is slowly improving. “I think that the relationship has been getting better, little by little,” he says.
Vine Street today, in Cincinnati's rapidly gentrifying Over-the-Rhine neighborhood
Pam Dixon, who is white, has worked and lived with the Latino community for years in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Price Hill. In 2012, after a neighbor told Dixon that she had been violently assaulted, Dixon took the opportunity to talk to her neighbors about their experiences. Many of them told her that they had been mugged, robbed, or assaulted, and she realized that something needed to change.
Dixon organized a group of leaders from various churches and from different apartment complexes and started holding meetings with Captain Mike Neville, who at the time was the captain of District 3, which Dixon says is the “the busiest and most dangerous” district in Cincinnati. According to Dixon, the relationship forged between Neville and the community also improved the overall relationship with the police department. The Cincinnati Police Department also works within Price Hill by holding a “clean-up” event, where community members as well as police officers pick up litter throughout the neighborhood. Afterward, both groups attend a picnic together.
Dixon also had praise for Lieutenant John Cordova of the police department. He was “absolutely wonderful,” she says. “He was very sincere and really cared about the Latino people.” Cordova made regular visits to the Autumn Woods apartments where many of the Latino residents are poor. He would ask residents about any crimes they had suffered; as a result, according to Dixon, his presence brought down the crime rate.
While some communities of color feel that the Cincinnati Police Department has improved its relationship with them, that sentiment is not universal, especially among activists. The Black Lives Matter protest movement was started by three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, as a response to the violence inflicted upon black people at the hands of police. The movement has expanded to include many communities of color and LGBT people, and as it has grown and gained traction, dozens of cities organized local counterparts. Cincinnati is no exception.
Despite police reforms that have been more successful than those in Cleveland, Cincinnati is not completely free of police shootings or citizen complaints. In 2014, police officers shot and killed three people—all black males. And in June of 2015, two blacks were killed by police in Cincinnati—the first two such deaths this year.
On June 19, there was a police-involved shooting in Cincinnati, but this one left both the responding officer and the suspect dead. Trepierre Hummons, 21, called 911 to report a black man being threatening with a gun. When Officer Sonny Kim arrived, Hummons began firing at Kim, 48, who later died. When other officers arrived at the scene, Hummons began firing at them as well, and was killed in the gunfight. In a news conference about the shooting that same day, Blackwell did not identify who fired the shot that killed Hummons, but he did reveal that Hummons had called 911 on himself, indicating that he had planned to commit suicide by cop.
Less than two weeks earlier, the Black Lives Matter Cincinnati group held a rally after 22-year-old QuanDavier Hicks was shot and killed by Officer Doris Scott on June 9. Scott and another officer (unnamed as of print time) were answering a complaint call when Hicks allegedly pointed a rifle at them. Witnesses dispute the account given by Blackwell at the subsequent news conference, and demanded more answers.
Brian Taylor organizes Black Lives Matter Cincinnati protests and is a spokesman for the local group. In his view, the Cincinnati Police Department still has work to do. “I don’t believe policing has strategically changed much at all,” he says. “I think tactically, as a result of an uprising in the city and mass discontent, the city moved to soften the face of the police force.”
Taylor recently canvassed more than 500 houses in Bond Hill, a predominantly black community. “The overwhelming majority was very distrusting of the police,” he says. The residents to whom Taylor talked didn’t have confidence in their safety in the presence of police. Many said they knew of someone who had a recent negative run-in with the Cincinnati police.
“I think the changes made, but even more so the media propaganda about Cincinnati being a model for policing, have convinced a small layer of blacks, and perhaps a wider segment of others, that the police are better than they were in 2001,” says Taylor.
Like most cities, Cincinnati has seen a number of protests against police violence. “Our rallies are organized in a disciplined way, designed to maximize participation and comfortability so families can raise their voices,” says Taylor. There haven’t been any reports of excessive force used by police at rallies in Cincinnati.
“Police here—for now—have made a tactical decision to limit aggression towards protests,” Taylor says. “These tactics can change overnight as numbers swell, or as the severity of an injustice and the public response is calculated.”
Taylor describes being routinely profiled by police. “I get followed by cops regularly as I ride through some of the better-off neighborhoods surrounding mine.”
“Because I have no prior offenses and my license is clean, often I just get an escort in and out of those areas with no siren.” Taylor believes he’s just one outstanding ticket or broken taillight away from a siren going off. For this resident, “Cincy is not the shining example it’s portrayed to be.”
RECENT POLICE KILLINGS in Cincinnati, the city touted as a national model of police reform, suggest just how hard it will be to make durable progress, even when local leadership is sincerely committed to reform. Police violence is part of a much more intractable pattern of institutional racism, and reform of one aspect of the system does not by itself alter the broader reality. Police can only do so much when a young black man, in despair, calls 911 on himself intending to commit “suicide by cop.”
Reliable data for police killings are still brand new; MappingPoliceViolence.org, launched in 2015, offers statistics on people killed by police in 2014. The Guardian’s “The Counted” project also provides valuable data about those killed by police. The data from both these projects are unsurprising, but sobering. Police killed 101 unarmed black people in 2014. The three black men killed by police in Cincinnati is a small decrease from the police violence that took place from 1995 to 2001 and sparked the 2001 riots.The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was the epicenter of the riots and was home to a number of blacks and poor residents. Today, it’s a center of gentrification.
The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was the epicenter of the riots and was home to a number of blacks and poor residents. Today, it’s a center of gentrification. The neighborhood is dotted with hip boutiques, restaurants geared toward millennials, and bars with craft cocktails serving young working professionals who fill the sidewalk cafes during the week. It’s a far cry from the poverty and violence-ridden neighborhood it was in 2001.
As Blackwell mentions, the vast majority of police departments have fewer than 50 officers and little diversity, little training, and little incentive to change, spelling bad news for black people and other people of color who are forced to move.
To Brian Taylor, the rapid gentrification of Cincinnati plays a large role in how the black community and poor whites and Latinos are policed. “If you don’t look like you belong on Vine Street,” a major thoroughfare that runs through Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati’s business district, “and do anything that can be seen as a disturbance, it is highly possible that you will face harassment.” To police, it’s clear who belongs and who doesn’t, Taylor adds. “It is made abundantly clear you are not welcome, even if you live a block away.”
Thanks to social media, better data, and advanced technology, a new light has been shed on the brutality of police violence. While some police departments can be branded as worse than others with a higher rate of police-involved shootings and other forms of violence, it is clear that most, if not all, have work to do to ensure equitable treatment of communities across America. The Cincinnati Police Department is not yet what ideal policing should look like, but their steps toward community engagement, transparency, and diversity are goals that all police departments should work toward.