How to Fix a Broken Police Department


CINCINNATI — Citizens were throwing stones and beer bottles at police officers in front of City Hall, and Maris Herold didn’t understand what they wanted.

She was a police officer herself, and knew that her department had made some missteps. Most recently, an officer gunned down a 19-year-old unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas—the fifteenth black man to die at the hands of police in five years.

But, Herold knew, the police were investigating the incident. They were listening to the community. They were working 12-hour shifts to protect the city from looting and fires, though the disturbance would soon turn into the worst riots in the U.S. in a decade.

“I was like, ‘We’re doing everything right, obviously the police officers made mistakes and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it,'” she told me recently. Herold, who joined the police force after a career in social work, couldn’t understand what more the police could do to make amends with the community.

That was in 2001. “In the police department, we thought we had great relationships with the majority of our communities,” Tom Streicher, who was police chief from 1999 to 2011, told me. “The reality was that we found out we had superficial relationships.”

Herold now sees how little she understood about policing, transparency, and the community back then. She’s now a District Commander in the Cincinnati Police Department, where more than a decade of negotiations have led to significant reforms. Herold believes that the changes made in the department are the best way to guarantee a good relationship between a city and its police force.

“I had all of these things running through my mind, but I had only half the picture at that point,” she told me.

It took a long time for Cincinnati police to get the other half of the picture. The public commitment to reform came in the immediate aftermath of the riots, but five years elapsed before the police started making meaningful changes. Though they were required by the Justice Department to reform their procedures, police still chafed at being told to fix a problem they didn’t think existed. Even now, police reform in Cincinnati remains a delicate issue. The various stakeholders, including the African American community, elected officials, civil-rights lawyers and law-enforcement leaders, constantly discuss and evaluate their progress. As part of the reforms, police agreed to adopt a strategy that required them to interact frequently with members of the community, and continually re-affirmed their commitment to that strategy.

The city that once served as a prime example of broken policing now stands as a model of effective reform. Cincinnati’s lessons seem newly relevant as officials call for police reform in the aftermath of the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Indeed, the recently released report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommends that departments adopt some of the strategies used by Cincinnati. A task force convened by Ohio Governor John Kasich cited Cincinnati as a model for community-oriented policing and recommended that other law-enforcement agencies in that state develop similar reforms.

And on Tuesday, when the Justice Department and the city of Cleveland announced they’d entered into an agreement over how to resolve policing problems, their consent decree looked very similar to what had been drawn up in Cincinnati. Both documents stress the need for deep community involvement in policing as part of the reforms.

“The central component is the community policing,” Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said at a news conference Tuesday. “If we don’t ensure that our officers and our community have a better relationship, then a lot of what we’re trying to implement now in terms of this agreement is going to be hard to do.”

But the lessons of Cincinnati are complicated. Success required not just the adoption of a new method of policing, but also sustained pressure from federal officials, active support by the mayor, and the participation of local communities. If Cincinnati is a model of reform, then it is equally a sobering reminder of how difficult it can be to change entrenched systems.

This story originally written by Alana Semuels for The Atlantic.

Read the rest of the story at The Atlantic.