How Progress Against Police Racial Violence Was Undone in Cincinnati
If you believe steady moderate reform can eliminate police violence against blacks in America,
This story will depress you.
I believe in steady moderate reform of the police.
The story depressed me.
1. Cincinnati like most other American cities had a long history of police violence against blacks.
2. It also has a history of sophisticated intelligent civil rights organizing.
3. 2001: Six police shootings of black teenagers in six months.
4. The black community riots. And riots again. And riots again. And organizes boycotts against local businesses. And files a class-action lawsuit. The combined-tactics campaign is planned, strategic and effective.
5. The mayor calls in the Justice Department to investigate the Cincinnati police’s use of force.
6. The lawsuit and the Justice Department investigation are jointly settled by a “Collaborative Agreement”. The key feature of the collaborative agreement is a reduction of arrests over minor crimes such as petty theft and drug dealing. Escalations of force in precisely that type of arrest is what tends to lead to police shootings. There is also improved mental health training and a banning of the use of chokeholds.
7. The police formally agree to the Collaborative Agreement but passively resist it to the maximum of their ability.
8. The police are forced to obey and cooperate by a new black mayor and the judge administering the settlement of the class-action lawsuit.
9. To everyone’s surprise – including the police – the new non-violent methods are amazingly effective. Felony arrests are down. Police violence is down. Crime is also down. Trouble spots that used to require constant police visits and constant arrests are now being handled by social workers and conflict resolution specialists. The social workers and conflict resolution specialists are good at what they do. The hot spots start cooling off. Surveys of the general public show widespread satisfaction with the new professionalism of the police.
10. Cincinnati becomes a national example of successful police reform. There is widespread favorable media coverage. The program becomes a point of substantial civic pride.
The story has a happy ending if it ends here.
But it doesn’t.
11. The police never totally bought into the plan. Police are not social workers. They are coercive agents who like arresting people. Police are also not particularly trusting or positive people. Police are trained to view people as potential perpetrators. They like to find bad people and haul them in. Often, their pay and promotions are based on how many people they can arrest and bring in. Passivity does not sit well with them. Trust does not sit well with them. And yes, more than one or two of them are racist. The cops do think black teenagers are likely to be perps. So, the police are chafing at the bit waiting for this new “peace and love” system to come to an end.
12. The system relied on the close monitoring of police interactions with the public. No worker likes to be monitored. Workers like being monitored even less if they want to do things that would not be allowed if these were seen by the monitors. Even if the police had bought into non-violent policing (which they didn’t), police disliked being monitored by their supervisors. They were eager to get rid of that part of the system.
13. The key politicians and administrators responsible for establishing the Collaborative Agreement move on. Their successors are not as committed to the original program.
14. Non-violent policing systems are expensive. Monitoring is labor intensive and is not cheap. Social workers and maintaining non-police officers in police-like functions is not cheap.
15. Budgetary concerns led to a relaxation of both supervision efforts and staffing standards for non-conflictual intervention.
16. Relaxed supervision meant the police could go back to their old games.
17. Lower staff support meant that non-violent methods were going to become less effective.
18. By 2015, all the old bad police habits were back. As of 2021, levels of police violence in Cincinnati are back at 2001 levels.
* * *
A gloomy story by all accounts.
But does this mean that police reform does not work?
Consider this alternative story.
1. Doctor tells patient she is too fat and out of shape. Her mirror tells her the same story.
2. Patient gets all noble and full of good intentions. She goes down to the gym and buys an expensive one-year membership. The same day, she also enrolls in “Low-Calorie-Meals-Through-the-Mail”.
3. The patient works out every single solitary day. The patient sticks to her meal plan. The patient tells the world how much weight she is going to lose.
4. The effects at the three-month mark are dramatic. She has lost twelve pounds. Her muscle tone is looking good. Her stamina is way up. She likes her new looks.
5. Something stressful and distracting happens. There is a crisis at work. The latest romance goes sour. Or maybe she just moves apartments.
6. Budget concerns begin to get real. Meals through the mail are expensive. The gym is not that much of a bargain either.
7. Time concerns begin to get real. Those gym visits take forever.
8. Pizza is fun. So is ice cream. The call of both become harder to resist.
9. Everyone knows how this story ends … right? At the eighteen-month mark, our heroine is just as fat and flabby as she ever was.
Does this mean that having a healthy diet and going to the gym are bad ideas?
Of course not.
But it does mean that positive change is something that has to occur in the long term.
One big victory with a feel-good moment and a ton of photo ops is not the same as permanent behavior transition.
Racism is hard to root out.
Getting police (or anybody) to do something they don’t want to do is hard to pull off.
Winning the big collaborative program with the police is like winning the first baseball game in the season. There are still 161 games left to play this year … plus there is the post-season.
And next year and the year after that, there will be more 162 game seasons yet to be played.
Police reform (and just about any other type of reform) requires constant vigilance.
The minute a reform gets taken for granted – is the minute all the good work starts to unravel.
For More Information
My account of the events in Cincinnati is taken from Fola Akinnibi’s coverage of Cincinnati in Business Week “Cincinnati: What Happened to That Police Reform Success Story?” September 6, 2021.