Cincinnati’s 2001 riots offer lessons for today: Pat DeWine
Posted Jun 12, 2020
By Guest Columnist, cleveland.com
CINCINNATI — On April 9, 2001, I sat in Cincinnati City Council chambers as a group of irate citizens pressed in demanding answers following the shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer. It was the latest in a series of 15 deaths of black males in Cincinnati police encounters over the past six years. Council provided few answers — certainly not the ones the audience was looking for.
After the group left City Hall, riots broke out that continued for another four days. Ultimately, a curfew was instituted and the National Guard called in. It was, at the time, the largest urban disturbance in the United States since the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Of course, today all this sounds unsettlingly familiar — some might even see it as a reminder of our country’s lack of progress in the area of police-community relations.
But the reality is that Cincinnati did take steps following the riots — many of which worked a real improvement. At the same time, it made mistakes that had unfortunate consequences.
What worked: increased accountability, transparency and collaboration.
After the riots, there was a huge push for reform — certainly from those who had been protesting but also from corporate types and others who had previously shied away from the messy world of city politics. It wasn’t easy, but Cincinnati made some lasting reforms.
A longstanding criticism of the police force was that it was too insular, that it was led by a small clique that fostered a culture often at odds with the city it protected, and that it was unaccountable. Part of the problem were rigid civil service rules, which mandated that promotions to the upper echelons of the police force, including the chief, could only come from within.
To remedy this, we placed a charter amendment on the ballot that reformed civil service rules to allow the best person to be hired for top city positions. The police union and chief waged a vigorous campaign against the measure — but, ultimately, it passed. As a result, the city has hired chiefs from outside the city, the culture inside the force has improved, and the level of accountability has increased.
At the same time, the city entered into a Collaborative Agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police, the ACLU, and the Black United Front. The agreement forced the police and longtime critics of the department to work together to develop strategies to protect public safety. This led to a significant revamping of use-of-force policies, greater transparency and accountability for police conduct, and a more community-oriented policing philosophy.
What didn’t work: not enforcing the law.
But there was a downside. The period following the riots was an incredibly contentious time. Police officers, who were risking their lives every day, often felt unsupported by the politicians. Not surprisingly, law enforcement activities dropped dramatically after the riots; arrests fell by over 50%. City leaders were reluctant to do, or say, anything. Crime soared. In a two-year period, Cincinnati’s homicide rate leapt from below the national average to three times the national average.
And as crime spiked, the neighborhoods that were hit hardest by the riots were victimized again. The historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was at the center of the unrest. Before the riots, that neighborhood was revitalizing itself with new businesses and homeowners. But the damage done first by the riots and then by the crime surge brought that renaissance to an abrupt stop.
The Cincinnati experience offers obvious lessons. Smart city leaders will focus on collaborative efforts that increase accountability and transparency. But the objective has to be better policing, not less policing. To succeed, our cities must master the difficult task of creating an environment in which citizens both trust their police and live and work in safe neighborhoods.
Justice Pat DeWine is currently a member of the Ohio Supreme Court. Prior to becoming a judge, he served as a member of Cincinnati City Council from 1999 to 2005 and was chairman of council’s law committee following the Cincinnati riots.