America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Pt. 3

Cincinnati’s Unique Model for Police Reforms

Timothy Thomas was 19 when he was shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer in 2001. He was unarmed, and was shot while running away from the officer. Thomas had over a dozen open arrest warrants when he was killed; most of them for failure to pay traffic tickets. After the incident became public, black residents of Cincinnati took to the streets and riots broke out, prompting strong and heavy reaction from the police.

As is now standard procedure after one of these fatal police shootings, the Department of Justice (DOJ) came to Cincinnati to investigate, and subsequently, reform the Cincinnati Police Department. What wasn’t standard was how the DOJ approached police reform in Cincinnati. Instead of relying solely on mandates decided and enforced by the courts, the DOJ also implemented a collaborative model that engaged civil and community agencies that would not normally be party to a court case.

In Cincinnati, a legally binding collaborative agreement (CA) was established between the City, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Cincinnati Black United Front (CBUF). The CA required the CPD to adopt a community problem oriented policing model (CPOP) and it set out specific goals that the CPD was to achieve. It left the ‘how’ of achieving those goals up to the newly formed collaborative.

“The parties… transformed the CPD’s practices by adopting a decentralized, goal-oriented approach to institutional reform and by applying pressure through various enforcement mechanisms. No DOJ pattern or practice intervention before or since Cincinnati has taken this approach, and consequently, no law enforcement agency… in comparably sized metropolitan area has achieved similar success.”

Yet, even with the CA that made local community organizations legally-bound participants in the police department’s reform process, it took almost 10 years before Cincinnati was able to really make meaningful progress with its reform goals. The department was plagued with the same issues that have prevented other police departments from achieving significant or long-lasting success, namely:

1. Resistance from Police Officers and Police Unions

2. Weak or Poor Leadership of Police Chiefs and City Representatives

3. Lax Enforcement by Court-Appointed Monitors of the Collaborative Agreement

It wasn’t until Cincinnati had addressed each of these issues — beating the union at its own game; replacing the mayor and city manager, and giving teeth to the monitor’s role — that the department and the city it served began to report real progress.

“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.”
— from “Reforming Police Use-of-Force Practices: A Case Study of the Cincinnati Police Department

In stark contrast, and perhaps the most fitting example of what happens when a police department does little to nothing in the way of reform, is the University of Cincinnati Police Department (UC PD). The smaller police force that only serves the area within and immediately surrounding the university, was not subject to any of the departmental reforms that took place in the CPD after the Timothy Thomas shooting. In 2015, the UC PD found itself at the center of its own high-profile case involving the shooting of an unarmed black man, Samuel Dubose. And in keeping with the narrative, the University engaged an external agency to come in and review the department’s practices and recommend reforms.

The same reforms that the Cincinnati Police Department had undertaken a decade earlier.

READ: America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Part 1 & Part 2, Part 4 & Part 5.