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

Unknown-3Last 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 last of four posts.


Cincinnati’s reforms won’t be easy to replicate in other cities. Each time I asked a participant in the Collaborative about whether other police departments could follow Cincinnati’s lead, I got the same answer: Probably not without a Justice Department order to do so.

“Police departments may adopt some principles of problem-oriented policing, but it’s much easier to just continue policing as they always have. Without a document like the Collaborative to refer to whenever an issue arises, departments will likely move onto the next fad. And without city money to train police officers, hold community meetings and pay an independent monitor, it will be difficult for police to change.

Reality tells us that it does not occur without this federal intervention… You can very easily slide back into the same problems and issues you had in the past, unless your feet are held to the fire and the person you’re answering to is a federal judge.

“A Justice Department investigation also brings with it a mandate for resources. The city spent more than $20 million to implement reforms and in an era of cash-strapped municipalities, it’s very unlikely that any city would spend that much on police reforms without a legal requirement to do so…

“[One person] remembers feeling furious when a monitor told her change would take 10 years. He ended up being right.

“It’s unclear whether some of the state-wide mandates could be enough incentive for departments… [Such as] when police departments meet those standards, which include training officers in problem-oriented policing, they’ll get certified by the state. Whether that will be enough to mend relationships with torn communities remains to be seen…

“In Cincinnati, the city seems determined to continue on the problem-solving path, 14 years after the shooting of Timothy Thomas. Other cities that implemented problem-oriented policing, including San Diego and Charlotte, later abandoned it when new leadership came into the police department…

“The Mayor… says that as long as he’s around, he’ll make sure the police adhere to community problem-oriented policing… He had been the head of the public-safety subcommittee on the City Council at the time of the riots…

“If Cincinnati is unique in its decision to adopt problem-oriented policing on a citywide basis, it is even more unique in its dedication to maintaining the strategy more than a decade after the riots. People there have pushed hard for the Collaborative through three mayors and three police chiefs

“There’s inequality throughout the country still, and there’s still police brutality and a growing problem with incarceration. But in Cincinnati, a diverse group of people, including police officers and citizens, are trying to understand one another. That’s led to fewer arrests, fewer people in jail, less crime, and more dialogue between police and the community that pays them to do their job.

“For a great many other cities, Cincinnati’s imperfect present provides a glimpse of a much better future.”

  • Some lessons learned: Reforms were slow to take hold, but when they did, they drove down crime and reduced arrests.