In 2001, when a Cincinnati cop shot and killed an unarmed man named Timothy Thomas in a narrow alley in a decrepit, dangerous part of town, he was the 15th black man to die at the hands of police in five years. The city erupted in three days of burning and looting, followed by an economic boycott, a federal intervention and the usual promises to improve relations between police and black residents.
Last month, when two city police officers shot Donyale Rowe to death after they had pulled him over for changing lanes without signaling, Cincinnati’s police chief immediately named the officers involved and published their performance reviews, described how Rowe had pulled a gun on the cops and released video of the incident from the squad car’s camera. The shooting resulted in minimal news coverage and no signs of anger on the streets. Leaders of the 2001 protests said the police had apparently acted appropriately.
Cincinnati police, black ministers and civic leaders have spent the past few weeks in close contact with residents and police in Ferguson, Mo., advising them about how a city can try to repair relations with black citizens. Thirteen years after riots that threatened to wreck Cincinnati’s reputation and economy, many here say the police have become gentler, smarter, more transparent and more targeted in how they go after bad guys.
But as officials in Ferguson face a federal investigation of their police practices, mistrust of police in Cincinnati — even after full-scale retraining and a 120-point catalogue of altered procedures — remains palpable in black neighborhoods.
“The cultural disconnect is very real; you have the weight of generations of abuse on African Americans,” says Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, who is black. “My father told me, ‘Put your hands up if you encounter a police officer.’ I have that same fear for my own son, unfortunately.”
The only way to build trust, says Blackwell, is to flip the police culture, putting social work ahead of law enforcement.
Blackwell and his top brass reel off a long list of mistakes they saw their counterparts in Ferguson make in the days after a white police officer in the town outside St. Louis shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen: Cops reluctant to release details of the incident, cops refusing to name the officer who shot Brown, cops responding to violence with military equipment and black gloves, which some police forces have banned because they seem intimidating.
“On Day 8, they still had dogs on the street,” Blackwell says, shaking his head. “You don’t take a dog to civil unrest. There are a lot of American cities where a Ferguson is just under the surface because of friction between black people and police. You only make it worse having cops in black gloves with military equipment.”
Everywhere Blackwell goes, he carries a copy of the Collaborative Agreement, a thick document that resulted from years of heated negotiations among city police, civic activists, corporate bosses, and residents black and white. To Blackwell, it’s a manual for change, evidence that the police and the policed can agree on a path to trust. But to some on the streets where Thomas died, it’s a bundle of empty promises, proof that centuries-old antagonisms cannot be negotiated away.
The alley where Thomas died is now sandwiched between a yuppie bar and a refurbished, upscale apartment complex. Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood that exploded in violence that night in 2001, has undergone gentrification on hyperdrive, with $400,000 condos and rows of trendy eateries popping up where boarded-up buildings, addicts and prostitutes dominated just five years ago.
Was that change the result of policing reforms that eased tensions in the neighborhood, or did investors simply take advantage of the riot’s damage to start fresh in an area of handsome 19th century rowhouses? Probably both, city fathers say.
Three blocks past the red-hot center of reinvestment, open-air drug deals flourish. Heroin has replaced crack as the drug of choice, but little else has changed: Jobs are scarce, young black men say they see no future and the police are still viewed as an alien, antagonistic force.
Quincy Moore, 37, was hanging out in front of the Pure Pleasure barbershop he owns on Race Street some months back when two white officers approached him. “They pulled up on me and gave me a ticket for blocking the sidewalk,” Moore says. “I told them I own this business. They said they were trying to clean up the street.”
Moore said the drug dealers who hang out up the block are indeed a problem — the air on the block is heavy with the smell of burning marijuana — but he was incensed that police would treat him like a criminal. A judge tossed out the ticket; Moore didn’t file a complaint because he thought it would be ignored.
“It’s hard to use the word ‘trust’ about the police when one minute you’re talking to them and the next they can slam you down on the ground — and they do,” the shop owner says. “Go three blocks down Vine Street and the white people sit in front of their businesses and nobody bothers them. Out here, the cops are pushing blacks around to make a more expensive environment, to make it safe for the people who can afford these new condos.”
The chief won’t defend the officers who issued that ticket: “Writing tickets indiscriminately, jump-out teams — that’s just like wearing black gloves,” Blackwell says. “It’s big me/little you policing, exactly what we have to eradicate. I want officers fighting crime the right way: pull back on enforcement and build up engagement. Know people on the beat, teach reading to third-graders, coach a basketball team.”
In Over-the-Rhine, attitudes toward the police blend with resentments and insecurity engendered by rapid economic change. The neighborhood feels safer, but longtime residents and patrol officers agree that has happened as much because of the shift in demographics as because of reformed police practices.
In the ungentrified northern edge of Over-the-Rhine, police have become more aggressive as nearby blocks have grown more upscale, says Marshesca Roley, who grew up in the neighborhood and can’t afford to live there anymore.
Her 15-year-old son was stopped recently by two officers who “felt all over him looking for drugs, and he had nothing on him, and they didn’t say a thing, no apology,” she says. “Then they wonder why we don’t give them the respect they want. We feel violated because these are our stomping grounds, and they’re coming in and taking over.”
When the 2001 riots broke out, Cincinnati was already in trouble over its policing of black neighborhoods. Ministers and community activists had joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and families of men who had been shot by police to sue the city, alleging racial profiling in law enforcement.
“The city was very tense even before the violence,” says Charlie Luken, who was mayor at the time. “People didn’t like to make eye contact with people of a different race. We were really concerned about the future of the city.”
Like many big cities, Cincinnati had been there before. In 1967, the arrest of a black man for loitering triggered violence that left one dead and 63 injured. Black neighborhoods erupted again the next year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. A federal consent decree led to a large increase in hiring of black officers — the department is now majority minority — but tension over police shootings only mounted. A city of 300,000 that is 44 percent black, Cincinnati remains a place of ingrained residential segregation, voting along racial lines, and bars and restaurants that tend to attract only one race.
In the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks blew every other story out of the national consciousness, the Cincinnati riots were as powerful a wake-up call on race relations as Ferguson has been in recent weeks.
“All of a sudden, the whole country’s looking at you, saying ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” says David Pepper, a former city council member. “We really couldn’t be that city that everyone talks about being terrible on race.”
Luken asked the U.S. Justice Department to look at the city’s police procedures. Pepper and others pressed police to join in the push for change. And black activists launched an economic boycott that led Bill Cosby, Wynton Marsalis, Smokey Robinson and the Urban League to cancel events in Cincinnati.
Luken called the boycott “economic terrorism” at the time, a comment he now regrets. “My approval rating went from 83 percent to 40 percent in four weeks,” he says. “It was clear that our police attitude of ‘us vs. them’ wasn’t working.”
It took several years to get police, black ministers and business leaders and others to sit together and hammer out the Collaborative Agreement.
“I was a ‘no’ vote on taking part in the Collaborative,” says Kathy Harrell, president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police. “I knew I did my job and treated everybody with respect. I thought this whole process was an attack on me.”
Police demonstrated their opposition by launching an extended slowdown in which they responded to calls for help, but otherwise did little.
“The term is de-policing,” says Gregory Baker, the city’s public safety director before he ran a federally funded, post-2001 reform agency called the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). “The guys got demoralized, tired of being beat up by everyone from the media to the federal government. They just backed all the way off. The city finance director came to me and said, ‘Look at these parking ticket revenues.’ They’d fallen off a cliff.” Crime soared.
Assistant police chief Dave Bailey, a 27-year veteran, says the resistance was natural: “It’s hard when outsiders come in and tell you how to do your job. We were still in that mode of: ‘We’re in charge, you stand back and do as you’re told.’ Our culture was, ‘Nobody talks.’ ”
Over many months, Collaborative leaders lured police into the fold. They invited officers’ spouses to meetings to describe the contempt their loved ones faced on the streets. Black activists and police zinged each other with stories about disrespect and danger.
The group drew up a long list of reforms: establishing a civilian complaint board to look into allegations of misconduct, equipping officers with tasers so they wouldn’t resort so quickly to lethal force, putting cameras in squad cars, training cops to deal with the mentally ill.
It took a few years, but Harrell, like many cops, came to believe that the reforms could help. Cameras in cars, for example, tend to exonerate police use of force. (Cincinnati police are now testing placing cameras on officers’ uniforms, too.) Documenting physical encounters with suspects can dissolve bogus allegations of abuse.
“There’s much less untrust on the street,” Harrell says. “We don’t go hands-on nearly as much.”
Before tasers, Bailey recalls, “you stopped somebody and if they fight, you mace him and he kicks and you go back and forth and he ends up with a bloody face. Looks terrible. Now there’s no contact.”
The reform many police disliked most was the immediate public naming of officers who shoot citizens. No more do police respond to a shooting by saying, “That’s under investigation.” Luken and beat cops say expanded transparency has been the most effective tool in building trust.
Many officers initially opposed CIRV. The drive to reduce violence uses street advocates — including ex-felons — to work with gang members, helping assign mentors, find education or job training, and deliver straight talk. Some officers called the program “Hug-A-Thug,” but many have come around, especially as crime rates subsided.
Last month, CIRV gathered 130 potential troublemakers for a two-day meeting at which police and prosecutors showed gang members what the authorities knew about their criminal activities, spelled out consequences they faced, and presented them with success stories of young people who had been helped into school and work.
“They keep the brothers cool,” says Kathy Y. Wilson, who for years wrote a column called “Your Negro Tour Guide” for City Beat, an alternative weekly. “The result is it doesn’t feel like a police state anymore. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but those riots were some of the best things that ever happened: They taught us who we are and what mattered.”
One end of this block of Vine Street faces bars offering $12 cocktails and rehabbed apartments selling for a quarter of a million dollars. At the other end of the block, signs plastered on vacant buildings in the weeks since the violence in Ferguson say “Stop Killing Us or Else.”
Mid-block, Officer Robert Grisby joshes with an emaciated woman. It looks like a chat with Officer Friendly, but it’s actually a domestic dispute call, a difficult situation in which the woman’s teenage daughter had refused to take her medication for mental illness and was acting out against her mother.
Grisby arrived at the scene with two advantages: He already knew the family from patrolling the streets of Over-the-Rhine, and the people hanging out in front of boarded-up buildings knew him. They weren’t all chummy, but neither did they hurl insults at him.
On the surface, the Cincinnati story is a breathtaking transformation. A block from where Thomas was killed, uniformed attendants supervise kids in Washington Park, a gleaming new oasis where exercise teachers lead racially mixed groups of sweating people. Young white people hang out deep into the night at bars on Vine Street. Young black people walk past those bars; some call the scene cool and others say it is exclusive, alienating, a painful reminder of what they do not have.
Just up Vine, officers point out heroin dealers hard by spiffed-up pottery shops and craft breweries. Just one neighborhood to the west, where some lifelong Over-the-Rhine residents have moved to find subsidized housing, crime is rampant in a landscape of abandoned school buildings and corner drug markets.
“We’re not spiking the football yet,” says P.G. Sittenfeld, a city councilman on redeveloping Over-the-Rhine. “We’ve created more shared public spaces, and that helps erode segregation. We changed how we police. But this was not a ‘Kumbaya’ moment. There is still mistrust and inequality. The $400,000 condos need to be accompanied by affordable housing. Everyone agrees on the goal of making better neighborhoods available to all; exactly how to do that is not clear.”
After all these years, Iris Roley still keeps a canvas bag full of laminated pages from the Cincinnati Enquirer’s coverage of the 2001 unrest. She brought it with her to Ferguson two weeks ago, laying the pages out on the sidewalk, showing Ferguson residents a yellowing chronicle of how the shooting of an unarmed young black man led to fire and rage.
The photos showed cops planting their knees on the backs of black people who were splayed across the pavement. They showed black protesters with signs painted with familiar words: “Stop Killing Us Or Else.”
She and Rev. Damon Lynch III, a pastor who led the protests in 2001, walked the streets of Ferguson handing out 100 copies of the Collaborative Agreement they made at Kinko’s when they got to Missouri.
Last week, people in Ferguson called Roley and asked her to come back to show step-by-step what Cincinnati had done.
Lynch will tell the people of Ferguson that they must involve everyone, that this is no time for “a soft, get-along approach,” but rather, for high expectations. Be ready to use tools such as boycotts if needed. Wield federal intervention as a hammer. Insist that police stop dressing up like the military.
But also recognize that the cops are afraid too, and that the process only works if everyone is brought to the table.
Lynch wants to help in Ferguson, but his work is not done in Cincinnati. When he sees a scowling young man on the corner, he sees someone “who’s got no job. The cops still roll by and mess with him. He’s in despair and he’s angry.”
Paper agreements do little to defuse that anger, Lynch says, but showing people respect can. Getting police and residents to nod at each other, maybe even to get to know each other, is no one-time fix. It requires constant training, daily attention, a change of culture.
“It’s been 13 years,” the minister says, “and we probably have to do the whole process all over again. It’s a work in progress; it always will be.”