Fixing a Broken Police Department: The Cincinnati Experience — Part 2 of 4

imagesLast 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 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 second of four posts.


“The scope of that civil unrest [in 2001] convinced many people in the city that it wouldn’t be possible—or wise—to just settle the lawsuit and going on with policing as it had been done. The mayor asked the Department of Justice to review the police department’s use-of-force policy, and the Department of Justice then opened a “pattern or practice” inquiry.

“After months of negotiations, the Department of Justice entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the city and the police… It required that police use community problem-oriented policing and laid out metrics for how they would be held accountable for adopting it.

“That broke with precedent. Department of Justice consent decrees typically involve the city and the federal government, but the Collaborative also brought in the community and the police union. And it also attempted to change not just specific practices, but the city’s entire approach to policing…

“Justice Department agreements typically do not attempt to directly address policing strategies used by the department under investigation. The differences are so significant that the Monitor Team believed from the start that if the Cincinnati effort proved successful, Cincinnati could serve as an important model for police reform throughout the United States.

“[Problem-oriented policing] requires that police intimately know members of the community and listen to their concerns, even if doing so doesn’t lead to arrests. It requires that they get out of their cars and walk the streets, and it requires that they reach out to partners they traditionally would battle, such as the owners of buildings in high-crime spots, or community groups like Legal Aid…

“Most cops, in any organization, have seen the reform du jour come through, and it varies from wearing your hats in a certain way to something more sophisticated. Police chiefs come, police chiefs go…

“Recent criticisms of police have focused on how conscious and unconscious biases may influence the ways in which individual officers act. But problem-oriented policing is also the best approach to reducing biases because it forces police to interact constantly with different members of the community…

“Still, no matter the policing approach leaders are trying to implement, officers are often skeptical that an outsider can really tell them the best way to do their job. It’s a natural human reaction to being criticized so publicly by people who don’t actually have to do policing…

“What’s more, police thought they had been doing a good job in the community. Yes, there were a few troubled officers, but 10 out of the 15 people who had been shot by police had pointed guns or shot at police themselves, police said. There were 50 community patrol officers in certain districts who knew what was happening on the ground, something that wasn’t done in most cities at the time…

“In the first few years after the Collaborative, the police pushed back against change. A survey of police conducted in 2004 found that one-third of police wanted to leave the department, and that 85 percent thought that the collaborative agreement to micromanage their jobs has been a waste of time

“In 2005, the city and the police department had to reaffirm their commitment to the Collaborative. Also in 2005, a RAND study on policing in Cincinnati found that residents of black neighborhoods were still subject to aggressive policing, traffic enforcement and pat-downs.

“Meetings between the parties in the Collaborative were ‘unbelievably rancorous…’ A boycott organized by community members who thought the reforms were moving too slowly caused more tensions in the city.

“After the Collaborative, Cincinnati initially experienced a plague of ‘de-policing,’ in which patrols stayed out of certain neighborhoods to avoid trouble, Baker said. Homicide and violent crime rates began to climb in 2002, and in 2006, the city had 85 homicides, which was the highest murder rate on record. Frustration seemed to be creeping into the report by the city’s independent monitor, too… ‘Clearly there is a lack of oversight, guidance, coaching, and perhaps adequate training since the majority of the efforts should not be of this quality after four years of stated commitment’ from the police department…

“Just a few years ago, this [neighborhood] was one of the most violent areas in the city, a place where police sometimes had to respond 15 times a day, and where drug deals and murders were not uncommon. Across the street stood one of the city’s oldest public housing complexes, which was dilapidated and also a center of crime. On this very lot, at a store called Jack’s Carry Out, a man was shot a year ago, and later died from his injuries…

This… is an example of how problem-oriented policing can change a city. When members of the [neighborhood] started to complain about crime in the vicinity of the store, police officers were at the meeting to listen. The data showed that the location was a place where disputes often turned fatal. They decided to minimize the number of people hanging out in front of the store, not by arresting people, but by moving a bus stop down the street and moving a phone booth further away. Then, when the store’s owner didn’t respond to requests by police to stop allowing drug deals to take place on his property, the city went after his liquor license, said Dunn, who was involved with the process. The city bought the building and tore it down, and is now seeking a developer to build a grocery store. The formerly violent corner is now transformed, because of the involvement of the community and a number of city departments, and, of course, the police…

“Many people in Cincinnati say the police finally started to buy into these reforms in 2006, after a new mayor had been elected and a new city manager was appointed..


“Fixing a Broken Police Department” continues tomorrow with Part 3 of 4. Click on “Follow this blog” to receive an email notice.