Police Slow Down After Cincinnati Riots


After riots convulsed this city three months ago, there was much earnest talk about healing. But instead, violent crime has surged and arrests have plummeted as some police officers openly admit to slacking off on their jobs for fear that aggressive patrol work will set this tense city aflame once more.

Police, who were widely blamed for triggering the riots, say they still answer every radio call, still help every citizen in need. Yet they are refusing to do the little things that help keep a city safe, from ticketing bad drivers to initiating drug busts to stopping shady-looking characters on the street.

The result: Arrests in Cincinnati and its suburbs plunged by more than 55% in April and May, compared with the same period a year ago. Violent crime in the city, meanwhile, surged by 29% in May compared with statistics from a year ago.

In the six-week period following the riots, there were 25 felonious assaults with a firearm. During the same stretch last year, there were two. In a single night last week, officers responded to six separate shootings--unprecedented for Cincinnati. And four officers have been shot at in the last two weeks. One took a bullet through the crease of his pants.


An Open Door for Bad Behavior

June and July statistics have not yet been compiled, but police commanders expect more of the same.

“A free-for-all,” Officer Jennifer Ernst said. “There’s no respect toward the police. It’s definitely a more hostile vibe. It seems like there’s been an open door for bad behavior since the riots. It’s going to be a long, hot summer.”

The riots--three days of lootings, beatings and arson attacks downtown--started April 9, two days after a white officer shot an unarmed black man fleeing arrest on foot.

Timothy Thomas, 19, was the 15th black suspect killed by white officers since 1995. The police repeatedly pointed out that most of those killed had been brandishing weapons. But the public, especially the African American community, was not willing to let the cops off the hook. This is a highly segregated city; blacks have long complained of fierce discrimination in housing, employment, political power and, above all, from police. When Thomas was killed, he was wanted on 12 misdemeanor traffic violations, for offenses such as driving with tinted windows or without a seat belt. Many African American men say police stop them on any pretext to search for drugs or just to harass them. Blacks make up 46% of the city’s population of 331,000, but they make up only 26% of the police force.

“They come out with a line like, ‘Whatcha doing there?’ and then they get you and search you, and there ain’t too much you can do about it,” said Andrew Tomkins, 18.

Thomas’ death stoked that simmering frustration into outright fury. On the streets, in the media, in churches and City Hall, the cops were tarred as bigots and murderers, as an occupying army oppressing black neighborhoods. Federal probes were launched. Lawsuits were filed. The young patrol officer who killed Thomas was indicted and is on desk duty pending a September trial.

The work slowdown is the cops’ way of fighting back.

Take Officer Matt Latzy. Just the other day, he was called to break up a fight. One of the combatants was swinging a baseball bat. He calmed her down and told her to leave. In the old days, he probably would have arrested her. This time, though, he didn’t. He is white. She is black.

“I didn’t want to fool with it,” Latzy said. “Being proactive no longer has its advantages. It only puts you in harm’s way.”

Under a new policy mandated by the City Council, every officer must note the race of every citizen he pulls over. The media get those records and report them: Cops who stop blacks at particularly high rates have heard their names uttered with venom on talk radio. Latzy doesn’t want to go there. Last fall, he was writing 10 traffic tickets a month. He has written none this year.

With racial tension in the city so high--and anti-cop anger so intense--even a simple stop of a driver who runs a red light could spiral into trouble, some officers contend. Say they run a license plate check and find out the car is stolen. They might have a chase on their hands. They might have to use force. They could spark another riot, even face indictment.

“Do I go out of my way to pursue violations? No. I have no desire to,” Latzy said. “Why would I want to risk my life, my family, my house, my cars? It becomes a matter of putting blinders on. The only things you see are the runs [the dispatcher puts] in front of you. You answer your radio, and that’s it.”

Slowdown Eroding Fragile Trust

Snapping and unsnapping her gun holster as she waited for a vagrant to be booked into jail, Officer Helen Fangman agreed: “They’re doing criminal acts in front of our faces, and we’re turning our heads.”

To be sure, there are officers who deplore the pullback as unethical. And there are critics who blast it as pathetic. “They know how to do their job without violating people’s civil rights, and they don’t need a slowdown to do it,” said attorney Kenneth Lawson, who has made a career of fighting police brutality. “This is their way of paying the city back for criticizing them. They’re just a bunch of crybabies.”

Officer Eric Smoot, a 21-year veteran of the force, warns that the slowdown is sending the wrong message to a community already leery of police. “The message it sends, if you don’t care about us, we don’t care about you,” said Smoot. Indeed, he’s already seen a new “us-versus-them” mentality spring up between cops and citizens. That scares him. “It’s the trust that the community has in police that keeps crime down,” he said, “and [the slowdown] is eroding that.”

Rev. Damon Lynch III, an African American leader, agreed: “The leaders of this community should stand up and say to the police, ‘You will do your job.’ ”

Politicians and police commanders, however, are sympathetic to the slowdown. Mayor Charlie Luken recently held a news conference to urge the public to be nice to officers because they’re under so much pressure. And Lt. Col. Richard Biehl, an assistant chief, said he understood patrol officers’ new caution: “With all that’s going on, it would be amazing if they didn’t have trepidation,” he said.

In this volatile atmosphere, civic leaders are urgently seeking answers to the pain that spurred the April riots.

Luken has set up a commission to develop plans for easing the housing, employment and education woes that plague many mostly black neighborhoods. There are interracial dialogues popping up all over the city. And a new program has launched at least 1,500 disadvantaged teens into summer jobs.

Some police officers are reaching out on their own as well, trying to win back the respect that keeps a city safe.

As she circled the ragged streets of Cincinnati’s most troubled neighborhood one recent evening, Officer Melissa Cummins kept one hand out the window of her police cruiser, raised in a perpetual wave.

She stopped to admire a young boy’s bike. She chatted with a girl about swimming. She saw a crack addict she had arrested several times and pulled up, just to talk: “Hey, Kim,” she called. The woman walked over, smiling. “Where were you the other night? You were making me worried about you.”

Through the evening, Officer Cummins, who is white, spotted a few violations she could have cited in the heavily black neighborhood. There was a car with expired license plates. Another was parked on the sidewalk. A group of kids had ignored warnings against hanging out at a gas station. Cummins chose not to ticket any of them. Instead, she talked to the offenders, joking as she gave oral warnings. They responded in good cheer, friendly and relaxed.

Mission to Change Perception of Police

To Cummins, this was not a slowdown. This was good police work: Building relationships and trust.

Even before the riots, she often relied on warnings rather than writing tickets, she said. She might be doing that more these days. But the way she looked at it, she is still doing her job the best she can.

“I was raised to think that the police are good, that you should talk to them, that they’ll help you,” she said.

She sees her mission to bring that message to the seething streets of Cincinnati.