4 min read
Posted on 01.21.15
  • 4 min read
  • Posted on 01.21.15

Some commentators have drawn comparisons between protests in parts of the St. Louis region precipitated by the August 9, 2014 police shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and public unrest the Cincinnati sparked by the April 7, 2001 police shooting of 19 year old Timothy Thomas.

There are obvious similarities.

Cincinnati and St. Louis have roughly the same population and geographic area. They have comparably diverse, near 50-50, black/white populations. They have high concentrations of people living in poverty, including children. The crime rates of each exceed national averages - with St. Louis', until recently, considerably higher than Cincinnati's.

Both also have significant and profound histories of racial prejudice and division, as well as historic complaints of disparate police and criminal justice practices based on race.

Use of deadly force by white police officers against unarmed black teenagers precipitated dramatic protest in both communities. Public anger became more heated in both because of perceived demonization of the young men.

There is one condition arising out of the 2001 Cincinnati riots, though, that has received less attention but is worthy of sustained focus of St. Louis citizens, policy makers, and political leaders:

Some in Cincinnati argue that the most destructive long-term result of the Cincinnati riots - especially in aggrieved communities - was an immediate spike in violent crime. These elevated crime rates did not return to pre-riot levels for nearly a decade.

In July 2001, the Los Angeles Times reported, under headline of "Police Slow Down After Cincinnati Riots," that "after riots convulsed this city three months ago, there was much earnest talk about healing. But instead, violent crime has surged and arrests have plummeted as some police openly admit to slacking off on their jobs for fear aggressive patrol work will set this tense city aflame once more.

"The result: Arrests in Cincinnati and its suburbs plunged by 55 percent in April and May, compared with the same period a year ago. Violent crime in the city, meanwhile, surged by 29% in May compared with statistics from a year ago.

".... June and July statistics have not yet been compiled, but police commanders expect more of the same. 'A free-for-all,' Jennifer Erns said. 'There's no respect toward police. It's definitely a more hostile vibe. It seems like there's been an open door for bad behavior since the riots. It's going to be a long, hot summer.'"

Critics argued that police were "cry-babies" refusing to do their jobs, that they slowed down to strike back against criticisms. Defenders countered that indisputably good cops feared aggressive policing could spark more riots, and felt that antipathy toward police was so high in many communities they simply did not have citizens' consent to engage in the level of policing required.

Problems persisted well past the summer. On the first anniversary of the riots, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported in a Page One story headlined "Violence up, arrests down" that:

"Cincinnati police are making fewer arrests and writing fewer tickets, indicating that a work slowdown begun after last April's riots continues today. At the same time, violent crime in the city is way up - a 39 percent increase in the first two months of this year compared to the same time last year."

The story continues: "Some say the diminished police presence created a void that criminals easily stepped into. And the violence hasn't subsided.

"Meanwhile, Cincinnati officers say they've been frustrated by public disdain in some parts of the city and exhausted by scrutiny from everyone from the U.S. Department of Justice to the Cincinnati Black United Front."

Crime persisted at stubbornly high rates for years to come, and did not return to pre-riot levels until 10 years later.

Richard Biehl, was assistant chief of police in Cincinnati at the time of April 2001 riots. He retired from the department when he was offered the position of executive director of the Cincinnati Community Police Partnering Center - an enterprise created as part of the collaborative agreement between police and the local community. (Today he serves as Chief of Police in Dayton, Ohio.)

Looking back nearly 14 years, he said "one of the points I underscore is the significant increase in serious crime (+20%) and violent crime (+30%) that occurred in 2001 (in Cincinnati) and continued at elevated levels for several years. While there was need for some change and reform of police practices, the significant elevation of crime and violence that accompanied this process was much too high of a price to pay, particularly for the community and those most impacted by crime."

A major turning point, according to Mr. Biehl and Charlie Luken, Mayor of Cincinnati from 1999-2005, was when consensus was reached in the community that genuine support of police - represented in part by widely supported public calls for hiring 70 additional police officers. There was a broad realization, they say, that police-community partnership and crime reduction were essential to the future of the city and to stability and justice in its neighborhoods and on its streets.

The Cincinnati experience suggests that police, social and criminal justice reforms, alone, may not bring stability and progress and justice to the community. The community also must work to restore strong partnerships with a well-trained and well-supervised and well-staffed police department, with officers and citizens working together to control and reduce crime in city neighborhoods.

(Image courtesy of Brian, titled "Cincinnati 1," taken in 2001 and edited for size and color. Original here: http://bit.ly/1ChbK4F)