Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Police under scrutiny

Feds pledge cooperation, but carry a big stick

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two federal lawyers arrive from Washington, D.C., today to start an unprecedented civil-rights investigation of the Cincinnati Police Division.

        Their presence signals the start of a process that, as in other cities, may result in a consent decree, a court-supervised list of changes the police division has to follow.

        Less likely is Cincinnati ending up like Columbus where the city has refused to accept a consent decree and is fighting in federal court.

        “We're not resisting it,” said Greg Baker, acting safety director, who oversees the police division. “We're looking forward to it. We're just trying to see exactly what they want to accomplish so we can try to accommodate them.”

    Cities and counties where the U.S. Justice Department is investigating police agencies:
   • Detroit
   • Buffalo
   • Charleston, W.Va.
   • Cleveland
   • East Pointe, Mich.
   • Los Angeles
   • New Orleans
   • New York City
   • Orange County, Fla.
   • Prince George's County, Md.
   • Riverside, Calif.
   • Washington, D.C.
   • Tulsa, Okla.
    Cities and agencies where there are court-enforced settlements that required significant police management changes:
   • Pittsburgh
   • Steubenville, Ohio
   • New Jersey State Police
    The Justice Department is in court against the city of Columbus, where officials decided to fight the imposition of a consent decree. The department accuses officers of racial profiling and of abusing African-Americans' civil rights by filing false charges, using excessive force and conducting illegal searches.
        The lawyers, who would not discuss the Cincinnati case, are from the U.S. Department of Justice's Special Litigation Section, a division of the Office of Civil Rights. Although they have insisted that they don't want to be adversarial and plan to cooperate with police, they carry a big stick — the threat of a federal lawsuit.

        The Justice Department team will examine whether Cincinnati officers have engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates residents' civil rights. They're also expected to look at discipline, training and policies.

        Fifteen African-Americans have died in confrontations with officers here since February 1995. Six were armed with guns, another took away an officer's gun. One was armed with a knife, one wielded a brick and another held a board with nails in it. Two involved suspects in cars. Three were not armed.

        Other officials have asked for federal help before — at least twice since 1999, when the black police officers' group released a report urging changes in training, discipline and investigation of officer misconduct.

        But federal officials did not agree to review Cincinnati's police division until Mayor Charlie Luken called the Justice Department after the three days of rioting that spun out of the April 7 fatal police shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man. Officer Stephen Roach faces charges of negligent homicide and obstruction of official business.

        Mr. Luken will speak to the federal investigators again this morning. The lawyers are expected to meet over the next three days with community leaders, police and city officials.

        U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the full “patterns and practices” investigation three weeks ago, saying his focus would be to help the city “solve its problems” and rebuild community trust.

        Those words angered some Cincinnati police officials, who hoped the investigators would start with more of an open mind — looking to see if there are problems, rather than assuming they exist.

Watching Cincinnati

        The Cincinnati investigation could have national implications. It will be the first under the Bush administration, which has promised to work more cooperatively with targeted cities. Police chiefs around the country are said to be watching what unfolds here with much interest.

        Under Mr. Ashcroft's predecessor, Janet Reno, investigations were opened in 13 other cities, including Cleveland. Those remain pending. Consent decrees were agreed upon in Steubenville, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, and with the New Jersey State Police.

        Civil-rights investigations are a relatively new tool for the Justice Department, authorized under The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That's the same crime bill under which President Clinton vowed to put 100,000 more cops on the streets.

        Chief Tom Streicher and his four assistant chiefs hope they can believe Mr. Ashcroft's promise of cooperation. But they're also keenly aware that a Justice Department investigation is akin to an IRS audit — it's somewhat adversarial, no matter what.

        Chief Streicher expected the scrutiny, particularly after the riots brought days of national media attention to his hometown.

        “It should serve as a benefit to us, if it's done in that (cooperative) fashion,” he said. “It'll serve to vindicate us on allegations that are out there.”

        But he's also aware that the lawyers work for the conservative Mr. Ashcroft, whose appointment was blasted by critics who accused him of insensitivity to civil rights. The attorney general has made a conscious effort to meet with groups of gay people and African-Americans to negate the criticisms.

        “I really don't know what the agenda is,” said Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman, who planned to meet with the Justice Department team Thursday. “I'm going to keep an open mind and just see what they have to say.”

        How the Justice Department team will go about its work is unknown. Officials have been tight-lipped about this week's trip and aspects of investigations in other cities. Appointments with local officials were still being finalized Tuesday. Neither Justice nor the city would provide a schedule.

        The Justice Department also would not provide resumes for the two lawyers involved — Shanetta Brown Cutlar and Jim Eichner — or the three consultants local officials say they've been told will advise the lawyers.

        The consultants are Dennis Nowicki, former police chief in Charlotte, N.C.; Charles Gruber, police chief in South Barrington, Ill.; and Rachel Burgess, former deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County.

        The lawyers did not ask for any documents. However, the city planned to hand over such items as the police division's policies regarding use of force, said Peter Heile, the assistant city solicitor preparing for the visit.

        “What you want to do here is be well-prepared,” he said. “You want to give them the complete picture. If they get snippets and snapshots, it won't work as well.”

        Mr. Heile said he hopes the lawyers eventually will meet with many more police officers.

        “The more people they talk to, the more complete picture they'll get. We think that's what they need is a complete picture,” he said.

        The city also is considering hiring outside lawyers to help handle the case.
Seeking changes

        Some hope the investigation results in widespread change in police operations. Among them: Keith Borders, volunteer chairman of the Citizens Police Review Panel, who has for months insisted that the panel can't be effective without the ability to investigate and issue subpoenas.

        “I guess my view of this is, ultimately, I don't see how they can't look at our reports and talk to us,” Mr. Borders said. “I guess right now, my view is this has got to happen.”

        Norma Holt Davis, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, who will meet with the lawyers, said she'd “just be playing that meeting by ear.”

        Cecil Thomas, director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission and a former police officer, said he hoped the Justice Department would bring the city guidance.

        “I hope we can connect up as a team and do this,” he said. “As long as we have everyone at the table — the FOP, the Sentinels, the police division and the community — we'll be fine.”

        The investigation will be watched by police departments across the country. Chiefs of the country's 50 largest departments — Chief Streicher among them — have been asking for months through an organization called Major City Chiefs (MCC) for guidelines that could help them avoid the situation Cincinnati faces.

        Jerry Keller, MCC president and sheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.wants to make sure the investigations are based on fact, not community outcry.

        “We're trying to start a dialogue,” Sheriff Keller said. “John Ashcroft doesn't want to be the internal affairs division of the nation for police departments.”

- Police under scrutiny
Civil rights procedures
Experts reviewing the case
The federal investigation

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