I-Team: Can Cleveland Learn From Cincinnati Police Reforms?

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CINCINNATI, Ohio-- To hear people tell the two stories, it's hard to believe they are talking about one city.

Everyone the I-Team spoke with - from the mayor to the police chief, from community activists to the president of the police union - everyone spoke about how well Cincinnati's police force now works with people in the city.

And everyone spoke of how bad that relationship used to be and how much change was needed.

As Cleveland continues under the watchful eye of a Justice Department probe that's looking at whether its police force has a pattern of using excessive force, leaders in Cincinnati say there is a lot to learn from their experience.

The Justice Department is not in the habit of looking into a city's police force because of any one incident.

But it is something of an open secret that the probe is tied to the tragic police chase through Cleveland in November of 2012.

More than 60 police cars chased two unarmed people, 43 year-old Timothy Russell, and his passenger, 30-year-old Malissa Williams, for almost half an hour before killing them in a hail of 137 police-fired bullets in East Cleveland.

Since Russell died, no one will know for sure why he drove away from police and did not stop.

But the attorney for Williams' family, David Malik, says "There's a penalty for running from the police; it's not death."

The chase began when an officer heard what he thought was a gunshot coming from Russell's older model car. It may have been a backfire.

"I'm so troubled that our officers were involved in it," Cleveland Police Chief Mike McGrath said the day after the chase. "And I'm so troubled that those people died."

The Justice Department has been involved with allegations against police departments in many cities over many years.

But perhaps none were more serious than what was occurring in Cincinnati in April of 2001.

In terms of making changes, John Cranley, now Cincinnati's mayor, remembers what he thought as a member of council in 2001. "It really wasn't an option," Mayor Cranley tells us. "It was there, you know? The Justice Department was there."

In April of 2001, leaders in Cincinnati were trying to end three days of civil unrest. Sixteen African-Americans, men or teens, had been killed by Cincinnati police in five years.

Some of them were unarmed, including 19-year-old Timothy Thomas. Thomas was the sixteenth person killed, and his death set off the unrest.

Timothy Thomas's funeral was held in the New Prospect Baptist Church.

The pastor of New Prospect, Damon Lynch, remembers all sides in the community feeling like there had to be real and meaningful change.

"We wanted to do something that, at the end of the day, brought Cincinnati together," Pastor Lynch says, "Some type of 'collaborative' attempt so that, whether you were a police officer, a police officer's wife, a young black male... whoever you were, let's all come to the table."

Out of the tragedy was born the Cincinnati Collaborative, which made sweeping changes to how police do their jobs in Cincinnati - changes agreed to, and sometimes suggested by, the police.

The Collaborative's highlights include:

  "All-parties" meetings (police, community members, the police union, lawyers) where all sides look to hammer out police issues;
  "Problem Solving Policing" where the community helps police search for ways to reduce crime without necessarily making a large number of arrests;
"Citizens Complaints Authority" - an outside agency that has real power to investigate complaints against the police;
"Transparency" when it comes to most police issues, so the community can really see what's going on.

The Justice Department has reportedly used Cincinnati's Collaborative as a model for other cities facing policing issues, including New Orleans and Seattle.

Jeffrey Blackwell, Cincinnati's new police chief, says the community is perfectly capable of telling his department how they want policing done.

"Our style of policing is an agreed-upon style," says Chief Blackwell.

The chief attended Case Western for college, and has an affinity for, and strong opinions about, policing in his college town.

"They've got some policing styles in Cleveland that are old-school and very traditional," Chief Blackwell says.

"The community in Cleveland... has been asking for change for a long time," according to the chief.

"And I will just say," he adds, "changes are necessary. For our field, and our profession, Cleveland has to do it better."

Change wasn't easy in Cincinnati, and it took years to build the trust necessary to make the Collaborative work as well as it does today.

Kathy Harrell, president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police, voted against having her organization become part of the collaborative.

It did so anyway, in part out of concern that a federal judge would order sweeping changes whether the union was at the table or not.

Now, Harrell says joining the Collaborative was "one of the best things we ever did."

A critical element in the success of the Collaborative is that Cincinnati police officers see their jobs as better and easier than they were without it.

"It is easier because we have better relationships with the community, and they work with us," Harrell says.

Not only easier, but some officers say they are safer as well. "If you ask any police officer, " says Specialist Scotty Johnson, a long-time veteran of the Cincinnati Police Department, 'would you rather come and scuffle and fight and have friction every time you make a radio run?', they'll tell you we want to be respected, we want to be appreciated."

"What makes it work is constant engagement," says Al Gerhardstein, the Cincinnati civil rights attorney who helped develop The Collaborative.

A federal judge oversaw The Collaborative at the start, but it now continues on its own.

Several people we interviewed saw the judge as critical because she had the power to order change if the parties could not agree to changes on their own.

"What was good for us is that we had a federal judge who would not allow us to think small," says Iris Roley, one of the leading voices in the Cincinnati community for The Collaborative.

"She instructed us to think bigger, go deeper, and hammer this thing out," Roley says.

"Now, there's a growing sense that the police are partners," Gerhardstein adds, "in trying to build a stable environment where we can work, earn money, and live safely."

Everyone we interviewed in Cincinnati agreed that their city was better because of The Collaborative, and the police officers thought their jobs were better because of it as well.

The changes were slow and tough, and involved a lot of hard work building trust that was not there in the beginning.

What happened in Cincinnati is not a tale of two cities. It's a tale of one city that made real changes.

Watch a web extra of extended interviews below. CLICK HERE to read more about the Cleveland police chase investigation.

Tuesday night on FOX 8 News at 10 p.m., we'll hear from the U.S. Attorney and the NAACP. We also made the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Union and Mayor Jackson's office aware of the story and will see if they wish to comment, as well.

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