Monday, December 11, 2000

Police chief stresses integrity

Criticism comes with the top job, Streicher believes

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Chief Tom Streicher is reflected in the glass covering a drawing of him and his late father.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher sits in the front row of City Council chambers, his white police hat in his lap, listening to accusations from council members that he's covering up the details of a violent death involving his officers. Protesters wave signs nearby and call him a liar.

        In almost 30 years with the police division, Chief Streicher has made hundreds of arrests, investigated bad cops and once killed a man to protect his partner.

        But this controversy may be the hardest kind for a guy who says he values honesty over most anything.

        Want to really get under his skin? Question his integrity.

        “I believe in what I do,” Chief Streicher says. “And I believe in making the right decisions. People want to criticize me, OK. But I'll be back in here the next day, making decisions.”

        His integrity has been under fire lately.

        It started in May, when he used the word “nigger” while role-playing during a training session. He says he was trying to make the scenario as real as possible. He was promptly labeled a racist.

        Then a month ago, an African-American man, Roger Owensby Jr., suffocated while five officers were trying to subdue him. Because the chief is unwilling to lay out all the details during the investigation process, people accuse him of covering up.

        Chief Streicher endures the blistering council meetings, the bad press, the angry crowds with an unshakeable confidence. In his first extensive interview since Mr. Owensby's death, Chief Streicher talked for more than two hours last week about his 21 months in the top office, about allegations of racial profiling, about his vision of the division's future.

        Each time, no matter the question, his answer came back to integrity. All he can do, he says, is be honest.

        And he thinks that's all anybody should expect.

A lonely job
               The 47-year-old chief has been tested before.

        The traffic stop that ended in the fatal shooting of motorist Michael Carpenter by two of his officers — just days after the chief took the top job. The September death of Officer Kevin Crayon in an incident that also took the life of a 12-year-old boy. Tear gas and bean-bag guns aimed at trade protesters on downtown streets last month on live TV.

        Yet Chief Streicher can't act rattled — 1,000 people who work for him watch his behavior for guidance, says his predecessor, former Chief Mike Snowden.

        “This is a time when nobody else can be there for you,” Mr. Snowden says. “This is when you really know who and what you are.”

        Chief Streicher's matter-of-fact about it: He never thought being a cop would be rosy or overly publicly appreciated. No cop does, he says. He didn't expect working in the chief's office to be any different.

        “It's real simple for me to settle inside myself,” he says of the criticism. “People want to criticize me? Come on over. Because I believe in myself and I believe I'm making the right decisions.”

        Co-workers and friends describe him as demanding to work for, decisive, insistent on preparedness and loyalty. Don't bring him a half-baked idea.

        He declines to tick off a list of his accomplishments since he became chief in March 1999 — he doesn't like self-praise, he says.

        His friends mention a few, such as how he held court at Officer Crayon's funeral, delivered a moving speech without notes and ended up in a group hug with the choir.

        The community's lack of confidence in the division “must be a struggle for him,” says Ted Schoch, the interim chief before Chief Streicher who now runs the division's training academy. “He knows that's where our importance is. He's very big on it.”

        Whether his earnestness carries him successfully through the controversy remains to be seen. But even potential detractors in the black community are willing to wait.

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III, leader of Cincinnati Black United Front, an activist group preparing a lawsuit with the ACLU against racial profiling, says the community appreciates the chief's acknowledgment that racial profiling exists. But they want more, too.

        “Police-community relations cannot deteriorate any further,” he says. “I think that Chief Streicher is in a tough position. At this point, he has a chance to really make some great strides. But he has to take that step.

        “The community will be looking to see if he has the courage.”

        Chief Streicher says he does.

        “We'll open the doors to this police division,” he says.

Lessons from father
               He didn't start out aspiring to be chief. Initially, he didn't want to be a supervisor at all. He wanted to be a street cop even though his dad, Sgt. Thomas H. Streicher Sr., always told him he was smart enough to move up.

        When his father died in 1985, the son felt guilty — he hadn't taken his father's career advice. Seven months later, the younger Streicher was a sergeant, too.

        Since then, the chief's career path has wound through many parts of the division — internal affairs, most of the five districts, SWAT, event planning, inspections. He was a lieutenant colonel less than two years before getting the top job in March 1999. He's still a little surprised at his chief's exam score: perfect.

        He says he still loves the job. And though he can retire in August, he doesn't plan to.

        Although he's wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, he says he's more comfortable in the uniform he's worn for nearly three decades.

        But the job can wear on him.

        When that happens, Chief Streicher goes for mileage. He runs almost every morning around his Price Hill neighborhood, sometimes as much as nine miles. And he drives - his usual route is to southern Indiana, where he can tell you exactly where to watch for deer and red-tailed hawk.

Unforgettable moment
               Chief Streicher says he feels for the officers involved in the Nov. 7 death of Mr. Owensby in Roselawn and the next day's shooting death of shoplifting suspect Jeffrey Irons in Pleasant Ridge.

        He has stood exactly where they do now — under investigation, his name on the news, his gun taken for evidence.

        It was a February night in 1980 at a car wash in Westwood. He and a partner were undercover, buying Quaaludes. He drew his weapon and fired when he thought the suspect was about to shoot his partner.

        He was exonerated. But he still remembers being stripped of his weapon, feeling exhausted after the adrenaline rush subsided, seeing his name in the news, hearing the same rights he read to criminals directed at him.

        “It stays with you all the time,” he says. “I can be on vacation, on a beach and it'll flash through my mind again. But I've learned to live with what occurred.”

        That experience, too, helps put the current backlash into perspective. When police work goes bad — and it does — it happens quickly and, sometimes, fatally.

        What comes next is key — that the investigation is thorough and fair and that it results in lessons for the officers involved as well as the rest of the division.

        That insistence on making everything a learning experience made some officers angry early in his tenure as chief.

        Chief Streicher added another level of review into use-of-force cases that included pointing out in writing the officers' tactical errors. He didn't consider it finger-pointing; officers did.

        “We take a lot of risks in this business,” he says. “But we need to take only the necessary ones. And when we don't, we need to think about why.”

        That's the kind of honest exploration the chief's talking about with the Owensby incident, the getting-at-the-truth he says is the best way to foster a better relationship among police officers and African-American residents.

        Better handling of situations by officers will lead, he says, to fewer tragic outcomes.


               • Personal: 47. Father of two daughters. Lifelong west-sider, now living in Price Hill.

        • Education: Graduated from Elder High School in 1971, earned bachelor's degree in criminal justice from University of Cincinnati.

        • Career: After considering attending the Naval Academy, he decided instead to follow his dad into police work. Started as a police cadet after high school. Promoted to sergeant, 1985; lieutenant, 1988; captain, 1993; assistant chief, 1998; chief, March 1999.

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