The chaos in Cincinnati started, in earnest, at a budget hearing three weeks after the murder of George Floyd. The topic was a million-dollar bump for the Cincinnati Police Department, a hugely controversial proposition amid nationwide calls for drastically cutting police budgets.
Residents filed into the Duke Energy Convention Center on a Thursday night in June 2020. One by one, people took the floor, using their two minutes of allotted time to shout down the increase. “To know as a taxpayer that CPD is receiving my hard-earned money to continue and consistently oppress my brothers and sisters is sickening,” said a woman named Mecca, joining via Zoom. “At this point we are paying slave masters with badges.” Cincinnati police had killed nine people, most of them Black, in the past five years. In 2018, a video of an officer using a Taser on an 11-year-old Black girl in a Kroger supermarket went viral. Applause periodically swelled into “No Justice, No Peace” chants.
Almost three hours in, a middle-aged White man in a plaid button-down short-sleeved shirt walked up to the microphone. He introduced himself as Carl Beckman, thanked the committee, and began reading a prepared speech. “You should give priority to the funding of the police department … .” As soon as his allegiances became clear, an unrelenting two minutes of booing began. He soldiered on as “Black Lives Matter” chants started to drown him out.
After his time was up, the room didn’t settle. David Mann, the council member running the meeting, explained that this was a forum for all sides of the debate. That didn’t calm things down much. Mann grabbed his gavel, slammed it down, and adjourned the forum five hours earlier than planned. Protesters poured into the streets. They burned an American flag and painted graffiti on the convention center. “This went from an emotionally charged evening to close to a mob,” Mann told a local Fox TV affiliate that night.
Until recently, Queen City had been heralded as a model for community policing. After the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., news outlets across the country lauded the CPD as a case study in how police departments could work with and better serve Black residents. Bloomberg Businessweek ran a profile of the department called “Building a Better Police Department.”
Cincinnati hadn’t gotten to this place voluntarily. In April 2001, a CPD officer shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas—the sixth such violent act in almost as many months. His death was the last straw for Black Cincinnatians, who make up more than 40% of the city’s residents. They ran into the streets and barely left for days. There was a reported $3.6 million in property damage. Hundreds were arrested.
Already facing an economic boycott from local activists and a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit, then-Mayor Charlie Luken asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the police department’s use of force. Ultimately, a federal judge settled the lawsuit and the inquiry by imposing what would become known as the Collaborative Agreement, or simply “the Collaborative.” It mandated a series of reforms to the CPD, the most important of which was an order for officers to move away from arresting petty thieves and low-level drug dealers in favor of “community problem-oriented policing” (CPOP). That meant addressing issues that cause people to commit crimes in the first place.
The reforms didn’t come without resistance and took years to be fully implemented, but for a time the arrangement worked. From 2008 to 2014, felony arrests declined 41.9%, according to a University of Cincinnati study. From 2000 to 2014, the department’s use of force fell 70%, according to city-data. Perhaps the biggest improvement, though, was residents’ relationship with the police. In 2015, amid a tour of police departments across the U.S., then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised “the determination from residents and law enforcement officers to improve their city together.”
In recent years, however, city officials seem to have become complacent, and the police department, according to critics, has fallen into old habits. A 2017 report commissioned by the city found that the CPD had essentially walked away from the Collaborative Agreement. Now, many local activists would rather focus on defunding the department instead. After last June’s contentious city council meeting, the committee nixed the extra million for the CPD, leaving its budget at $151 million for fiscal 2021.
The rise and fall of the Collaborative in Cincinnati shows how easily local leaders and police departments can abandon reforms—even when they’re working. Still, President Joe Biden, who has said he doesn’t support the defund movement, is betting on the Cincinnati model. In April, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments—much like the one Mayor Luken had requested. Their findings may lead to reforms that are similar or even identical to those that were imposed on Cincinnati two decades ago.
The city’s experience should be instructive for reformers. The conditions that led to its success were remarkable—but ultimately temporary. What made it work required vigilance, and once that went away, the will to comply among police and the city government did, too. “People celebrated the Cincinnati collaborative for 10 years,” says Saul Green, a federal monitor who for years oversaw the reforms. “Nobody in those celebrations pulled back the layers and really checked to see what was going on.”
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