Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell is Fired

Blackwell facebook

Jeffrey Blackwell

I first heard about the firing of Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell at the delegates meeting of MARCC (Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati).  Among this group of faith based community activists, this news was greeted with cry of dismay.

Over the past year, I have posted several times about Chief Blackwell and the department: Constitutional PolicingCincinnati’s Ferguson Protest: a Personal View, and Cincinnati Deals with a Police Shooting.  I have the greatest respect for Blackwell’s vision for how policing should be done in this country. I had heard some grumblings about his self-promotion, but I was pleased that his ideas were getting more attention. He was often away, but I had assumed that a well run organization like the Cincinnati Police Department did not need baby sitting by its chief.

At a MARCC meeting (12/10/2015), Blackwell spoke of the need to replace that old policing model, “Big Me, Little You”, with one that valued and respected the rights of the citizens, and built up the relationship between the police and the community. What I did not know, could not know from my position on the distant outside, was that Blackwell did not apply these principles to his own behavior within the department.

PoliceSurvey

I have read over the Cincinnati Police Department Climate Assessment.  I always view such reports with a grain of salt, especially when the outside organization confirms the point of view of the person that hired them. The organization, Make It Plain Consulting, has a good reputation, having been awarded “Emerging Business of the Year” by The South Central Ohio Minority Supplier Development Council. I find no evidence of bias in the report. It states that morale is low. It sites three areas of concern:

  • Communications. ““the department lacks effective communications up and down the chain of command”
  • LEADERSHIP: “the dissention and mistrust among the Police Chief and Assistant Chiefs (Patrol Bureau and Investigations Bureau) is the primary reason for the breakdown of flow of information and the perception of lack of leadership.
  • TECHNOLOGY: “Technology and equipment is outdated and/or redundant.”

Though this last point cannot be addressed without appropriate budgetary support, the other two clearly belong on Chief Blackwell’s plate.

The memo from Harry Black, City Manager, where he announced to city council that he fired Jefffrey Blackwell “for cause”, paints an even darker picture:

Blackwell uses verbal abuse and insult to convey authority. Individuals have been threatened and berated, in the presence of subordinate officers, superior officers, and members of the public.

….

Equally disturbing, a culture of hostility and retaliation instituted by Mr. Blackwell has put the integrity of the police department at risk.

Black provides supporting documents written by current Assistant Police Chiefs and others.  Here is a sample:

From Captain Paul Broxterman:

Unfortunately, I believe the chief has little regard for the opinions and suggestions of his commanders. Instead, he relies on the counsel of his inner circle. The chief’s inner circle, which includes non-supervisors and civilians, is often allowed to circumvent the chain of command, leaving middle managers and command officers powerless. I believe morale among command officers is the lowest I have seen in my 27 years with the Department.

There is no doubt Chief Blackwell has excelled in community outreach. He is passionate in reaching out to the youth in our city and he strives to provide them with guidance and hope. Sadly, he has failed to do the same within our Department.

From Assistant Chief  David Bailey:

From the onset, Chief Blackwell essentially ignored recommendations from his command staff and instead set up an alternative advisory team who he considered as “loyal”.… The reward for the Lieutenants’ loyalty was unsupervised overtime and on call status city owned cars, which was the subject of recent investigative media reports.

When the Inspection Section attempted to conduct an overtime audit of the Quality of Life Team, Lt. Barb Young was told by the Police Chief they did not have his authority to conduct the audit and were told to cease auditing functions until told otherwise. Their Inspections Section office was immediately moved from the Spinney Field complex to the second floor of 310 Ezzard Charles Drive presumably for control or humiliation purposes. The unit was then later reassigned to report directly to Chief Blackwell.

Ironically, Chief Blackwell was able to opine on a national platform on how other cities should be conducting their affairs, when he was unable to communicate even a most basic operational plan or strategy to his own department.

Eliot Isaac and Harry Black

Eliot Isaac and Harry Black

from Eliot K. Isaac, now acting Police Chief

I have attempted to mediate the relationship between the Chief and Assistant Chief Bailey with little success. It has clearly deteriorated over the past two years and is sadly beyond repair.

There is plenty more, from Blackwell’s constant self promotion to his search for free tickets to sporting events.   He comes off as an arrogant ass.

Even Blackwell’s former supporters have turned. Scotty Johnson, past president of the Sentinels, an organization for black police officers, said in an email, “I have never witnessed such hostility and lack of respect for employees.”

In response to all of this, Blackwell has claimed “I’ve had the support of the White House, the attorney general, the national media…all of the national think tanks of policing, but I could never get the support of John Cranley or Harry Black, and because I’ve never had their support — ever — I was never able to command the department the way it should have been led.”

All this might be true, but the problems described in the report had nothing to do with his relationship with Mayor Cranley and City Manager Black.  The toxic work environment was his own creation.

I have concluded that the firing was indeed justified. I find myself in agreement with City Councilman Chris Seelbach:

I have supported Chief Blackwell and his approach to community policing from day one.

That being said, the statements outlined in the City Manager’s memo by respected members of our police department are concerning and not reflective of the many positive stories from officers and community members I have heard from.

What is most clear is that this is a sad day for the City of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Deals with a Police Shooting

Samuel DuBose

Let me begin with a personal note.  My wife and I drive a car with no front license plate holder.  Over the past five years, we have frequently driven this car in or around the University of Cincinnati campus.  We have never been stopped or ticketed.  However, the missing front license plate became the pretext for pulling over Samuel DuBose.  It was yet another case of “driving while black”. Tragically, this one turned fatal.

On news of another death at the hands of police, commentators unfamiliar with Cincinnati assumed that the same thing would happen here as had happened in Cleveland and elsewhere in the nation.  They were a little surprised at what “even the police chief” thought of the video of the shooting, but they still expected the worst. [from alternet.org:]

“The video is not good,” [Cincinnati Chief of Police] Blackwell said. “I think the city manager has said that also publicly. I’ll leave it there.”

But here’s the thing.

All studies indicate that in nearly 99% of instances of police killing someone, even in the most egregious circumstances, “something appropriate” doesn’t actually happen and officers are let off.

police-killing-sam-dubose

When I read this, I expected Cincinnati to fall in the 1%.  Since the collaborative agreement that emerged after the killing of Timothy Thomas in 2001, the Cincinnati Police have worked hard to establish a culture of Constitutional Policing that has credibility with the black community.  This shooting was committed by a member of the university police, which apparently does not share this culture.  Normally, in the case of a shooting like this, the Cincinnati Police release the raw video right away. Given their delay this time and their public comments, I expected some unusual action.

The university, knowing the video would be released to the public Wednesday,expected trouble.  It shut itself down, canceling classes and evacuating students.  State police were brought to the scene.

Joe Deters
The video was released.  “Not good” turned out to be an understatement.  Ray Tensing was charged with murder.  In the press conference, the Hamilton County prosecutor, Jet Deters, made his position clear

:

It’s an absolute tragedy that anyone would behave in this manner …It was senseless. It’s just horrible. …

He purposefully killed him…

Some people want to believe Mr. DuBose did something violent toward the officer. He did not. He did not at all. …

[UC Policemen Ray Tensing] never should have been a police officer. …

He was dealing with someone without a front license plate, …chicken crap stuff.

I feel sorry for [DuBose’s] family. I feel sorry for the community, too. This should not happen. Ever.

<Cincinnati Enquirer>

Talk like this defuses the powder keg.

Bishop Bobby Hilton, a leader of the black community in Cincinnati,  “What more can you ask for? As terrible as it is, it should be a proud moment for our community. We can prove that we can take the most horrible incident and show the world how our community reacts and becomes better.”

It remains to be seen what is to be done with some other officers who arrived on the scene later and offered testimony corroborating Tensing’s original account, which is inconsistent with the video.  This issue has been raised by some of the protesters.

The protest itself, perhaps somewhat subdued by the heat and thunder showers, was peaceful.

The American system of justice does not work automatically.  Ferguson has shown us how it can fail.  The foundation of the failure is laid by a public largely uninvolved with the civic sphere.  It culminates with public officials who are callously unaware of the problems faced by the people they supposedly serve,  who use discriminatory policing as a way to extract revenue from its poorest citizens, who instinctively give the police the benefit of the doubt despite evidence to the contrary, and who think that deaths at the hands of police, tragic as they may be, are a normal part of keeping the peace when dealing with “those people”.  “Those people” are us, all of us.  Our system requires both a vigilant public and officials who are committed to providing security and justice for all.

There is plenty still to do, but our city can pause for a moment and take pride in how far we have come in this new century.  The lawyer for the DuBose family, Mark O’Mara, summed it up this way:   “Cincinnati is showing us how to do this right.”

Constitutional Policing

blackwell2   Policing in a democracy is difficult.

It is easier in a society where people share a common religion, a common culture, and a respect for those in authority.  There are places in rural and small town America where people think that their community is like that.  Here, the police are respected, admired and welcome.  However, even in these places, there is usually a neighborhood, perhaps on the other side of the tracks, where the police are viewed with suspicion, more feared than welcome.  In this neighborhood,  people realize that they are a part of a multi-cultural society, and they are fully aware of which group is in power.

In America, the problem often comes down to race.  Despite the real progress in civil rights over the last century, despite the prominence of African Americans in government, sports, and the media, most black people still feel the legacy, the stigma, of slavery, particularly in their interactions with the police.  Take, for example, the war on drugs.  Although the plague of drugs is a national problem affecting all areas of the society, the war falls most heavily on blacks.  So many young black men are being incarcerated that it is bound to have an impact on the community. Meanwhile, the popular culture lionizes gangsters, the only ones with money who continue to live in the poor communities.  Young, rebellious adolescent boys adopt the dress, the swagger, and sometimes the criminal behavior of the alluring, powerful men around them.  This leads to a vicious cycle, in which police, and indeed the general public, see blacks as likely perpetrators of crime, and blacks see police as a source of harassment, intimidation and repression.

Eric Garner  Recently, several deaths of black men at the hand of white police have become the focus of controversy.  Looking at the same facts, different groups of Americans come to starkly different conclusions.  One group, mostly white and “conservative”,  sees these as isolated incidents where good, brave policemen faced difficult situations.  Though these people usually acknowledge the tragedy of the unnecessary death, they emphasize that things could have been much worse, with policemen killed.  These people are satisfied with the investigations that followed and trust the ultimate conclusions that the police’s actions were justifiable in each case.  Others, particularly blacks, see these incidents as the tip of an iceberg of police harassment and intimidation.  These deaths are cases where the police bullying got out of control.  They want the perpetrators to be punished and the bullying to stop.

Today, things are escalating.  People are protesting, and the protests occasionally descend into riots.  Each time another young black man dies at the hands of police somewhere in America, the information gets splashed across the internet, providing fresh fuel for both the protest and the police reaction.

How can we break this cycle?  Can we maintain oder and enforce the law in a way that is fair to black Americans?

I have good news: the answer is embedded what that radical, Jesus, preached so long ago: “love thy neighbor as thyself”.  For those of us who are more moderate, for whom this seems an impossibly high ideal, simply start from the premise that we are in this together and that we should treat each other with respect.  Rather than intimidating people, partner with them.  Involve the community in providing order, and more order will follow.  Enable the community to hold the police accountable for their actions, just as the police require the community members to live within the law.  Police in a way that honors our democratic ideals.

Blackwell facebook  This might sound like impractical religious idealism from a peacenik with no experience in policing, but it comes from Jeffrey Blackwell, the Chief of Police in Cincinnati, in a talk given to MARCC (Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati) on December 10. What he sometimes refers to as “Constitutional Policing” comes out of the collaborative agreement that Cincinnati Police, the ACLU and the Cincinnati Black United Front reached after the protests that followed the police killing of an unarmed teenager in 2001.  At first, the police did not like the change in their procedures, the additional paper work, or the intrusion of outsiders looking over their shoulder.  However, with time, they adapted to the changes.  As this new approach proved successful, the police embraced these changes.  Now, even after the agreement is no longer binding, they are continuing most of the practices.  They use evidence, including input from the community, to determine how to deploy their resources.  Under the leadership of Blackwell, they are expanding their involvement in the community, with tutoring programs, summer basketball programs, and other activities to embed the police into the community.  Thus, there has been a major cultural shift in the police department since 2001.  And it is working.

Cincinnati Polie in action  Of course, there are still tragic incidents.  This August, white cops killed a black man in an incident that began with something petty.  The victim’s name was Donyale Rowe; he was a passenger in a car pulled over for a minor traffic violation.  Although this is superficially similar to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, in fact, it wasn’t.  To begin with, the Cincinnati Police Department hid nothing.  They quickly named the officers involved.  They released the video from the squad car to the public.  Because of the history with the collaborative agreement, the police department had a working relationship with independent people who were trusted by the black community; these people reviewed the evidence and concluded that the police had acted appropriately.  Donyale Rowe had a gun and intended to use it.  Although this death is tragic and Donyale Rowe’s life mattered, nobody protested. There was nothing to protest.

Thus, in almost every detail, this incident was entirely different from the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.  Rather than list all of the things that ham-handed Ferguson police did wrong, which was pretty much everything, I want to point to the larger picture.  There was no possibility that the Ferguson police could have handled the Michael Brown killing as smoothly as the Cincinnati police could handle a similar incident, because the Ferguson police have done nothing to establish trust with the community.  The difference is not just in how the one incident was handled, but in the entire approach that the police take toward their job.  In Ferguson, they adopt the antiquated approach that Blackwell calls “Big Me, Little You”, where the police intimidate people rather than listen to them.  In Cincinnati, the police engage with the community to solve their problems together.

In his talk to MARCC, Blackwell described the problem faced by towns like Ferguson.  Poor people live where the rent is low.  As the inner city gets revitalized and gentrified, the poor move out to suburban towns where they can afford to live.  In Ferguson, the once dominant group is being displaced.   Soon, the police force finds itself in charge of a different community, one it has neither the training or cultural background to serve.  Disasters like the Michael Brown shooting naturally result.

Ferguson-protest  Unfortunately, things in Ferguson are going to remain bad for a while.  Even now, the government is planning to make up for a budget shortfall by increased police ticketing.  In other words, rather than focusing on maintaining order, the police are raising money.  When combined with their archaic policing practices, this is a prescription for more resentment and conflict between the police and the black community.  Worse, Ferguson officials are ignoring the sometimes devastating effect these petty fines have on the lives of people struggling to get by.  Evidently, these officials have learned nothing from the protests.  Though they may give lip service to government for all, their actions show little concern for the lives of people outside their power base.

Because the new residents have not been showing up at the polls, the old group is still in power in Ferguson.  However, it’s very hard to suppress the majority for long in a democracy.  Soon, the majority black population will start to vote, and Ferguson will have a new government.  Let us hope they do not simply express their resentment by saying “Now it is our turn,”  providing government that is no better, just with a different group in charge.

Rather, let us hope that they implement the successful model of policing that we have in Cincinnati, “Constitutional Policing”, that can make things better for all.  Damon Lynch III, former president of the Cincinnati Black United Front, has visited Ferguson “to share Cincinnati’s story of struggle and success.”   In addition, similar approaches to policing have been put in place in Los Angeles and other major cities, and the president has appointed a new task force to promote community oriented policing.  Thus, there is reason to hope that in the long run, Cincinnati’s success will be replicated in Ferguson, and across the nation.