Friday, May 25, 2001

City could learn from Pittsburgh experience

Investigation of Cincinnati's police might bring conflict with change

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PITTSBURGH — Five years ago, Pittsburgh became the first U.S. city to undergo the kind of civil rights investigation that Cincinnati faces today.

        The Pittsburgh case ended with a court settlement that forced the city to change the way it runs its police department.

        The federal investigation lasted nearly a year and included an exhaustive review of nearly every police file, training manual and personnel record in Pittsburgh.

[photo] Officer Mark Davis patrols in downtown Pittsburgh. He's on a police team that explains the benefits of a consent decree to officers and helps monitor compliance.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        City and police officials say the investigators from the Justice Department were aggressive and secretive, creating a contentious atmosphere that made the process more difficult than it needed to be.

        And that, they say, made the changes harder to swallow.

        “It's been a very hard sell because of the process,” says Police Chief Robert McNeilly. “It should have been easier.”

        In a series of interviews, city attorneys, police officers and community leaders described a long, painful process that stirred resentment in the community even as it brought needed reforms to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

        Some of Pittsburgh's problems do not exist in Cincinnati. But Pittsburgh's experience shows how investigators may pursue their case in Cincinnati, and how that pursuit can sometimes alienate police and disappoint a community with high expectations.

        As in Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh investigation began amid accusations that police were racist and that city hall was doing nothing about police misconduct.

[photo] Vic Walczak, director of the ACLU in Pittsburgh, collected about 300 complaints against the police and gave them to Justice Department investigators.
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        Mayor Charlie Luken requested the federal investigation after the April 7 shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by Officer Stephen Roach sparked three days of rioting, a dusk-to-dawn curfew and more than 600 arrests.

        Justice Department lawyers arrived in Pittsburgh in 1996 with a Ryder rental truck filled with several copying machines. They set up an office at City Hall and began poring over thousands of documents.

        “They came in like gangbusters,” Chief McNeilly recalls.

        What they found, according to the Justice Department, was a police department lacking the most basic policies and procedures. No reports on routine traffic stops. No performance evaluations. No written record when police used force on suspects.

        The Cincinnati Police division already has many of those things, and Justice Department officials have said their main interest in Cincinnati is in how police use force.

        But the investigators will not be limited to any one area of police practices.

        As the investigation begins this week, Pittsburgh's history with the Justice Department offers some insights into what the city can expect:

    Population: 340,520 (18 percent African-American)
    Police department: 1,000 officers
    Geography: 55.6 square miles
    Per capita income: $26,243
    The city agreed in 1997 to a consent decree with the Justice Department to avoid a federal civil-rights lawsuit. The agreement required Pittsburgh to:
    • Increase training for officers with multiple complaints filed against them.
    • Monitor all lawsuits involving officers by the Office of Municipal Investigations.
    • Implement an automated early warning system to identify and track potential problem officers and to alert managers to other possible patterns of misconduct.
    • Require officers to complete a report whenever they use force against an individual or conduct a search or seizure, including traffic stops.
    • Hire an independent auditor to monitor complaint investigations and compliance with the consent decree, and issue regular reports to the court, the city, and the Justice Department.
    • The consent decree also outlines steps to increase community awareness of police policies.
        • Federal investigators can examine, without explanation, almost any record related to police operations. They will seek interviews with key players but will not necessarily talk to everyone city officials want them to.

        • As in an IRS audit, the investigation can lead to animosity and an “us versus them” mentality.

        • Rank-and-file police officers and their critics in the community may both feel unsatisfied with the process. The investigation is, at heart, an audit of paperwork and procedures. The police may not get the vindication they want, and community activists may not get the firings or criminal charges they want.

        “Things are better than they were,” says Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman, a police detective who supports most of the reforms in Pittsburgh. “But this is not the end all be all.”

Not a two-way street

        The first lesson Pittsburgh learned was that a Justice Department investigation is not a two-way street. The federal lawyers can pursue the investigation in any way they see fit, with or without the city's cooperation.

        Cincinnati can expect no different.

        The Justice Department lawyers arrived in Pittsburgh with less warning than they gave Cincinnati.

        They announced they were coming for their first-ever “patterns and practices” investigation and arrived a few weeks later with their Ryder truck. They headed straight for the city's Office of Municipal Investigations.

        The OMI office, like the one in Cincinnati, is home to thousands of records and citizen complaints.

        “They essentially asked for the entire office, every piece of paper,” recalls Susan Malie, the assistant city solicitor who dealt with the federal investigators. “That's a lot of information.”

        In the days and weeks that followed, the investigators regularly sent Ms. Malie written requests for more documents, boxes of them. Policy papers. Training manuals. Citizen complaints.

        The investigators rarely limited their requests. When they asked for complaints, they wanted every one on file. When they asked for training records, they wanted everything from books to instructor lesson plans.

        The citizen complaints were a top priority in Pittsburgh because the American Civil Liberties Union filed nearly 50 lawsuits against police in 1995 and 1996. Those suits got the Justice Department's attention and prompted the investigation.

        “You had a lawless police department here,” says Vic Walczak, director of the Pittsburgh ACLU. He shared more than 300 citizen comlaints with federal investigators.

        Although Justice officials declined comment, it's clear the complaints provided a road map for the Pittsburgh investigation.

        The complaints ranged from unnecessary use of force to racial profiling. In response, the city's final settlement, or consent decree, called for more than 50 changes in police procedures.

        Cincinnati's investigation is supposed to focus on use of force, but the Justice Department can expand the probe at any time. The Pittsburgh investigation seemed to grow almost daily.

        Ms. Malie says the investigators jumped from one file to another without explanation. They refused to meet with some officials but called others into hours-long meetings with little notice.

        “They took copious notes,” Ms. Malie says. “There was not really much in the way of give and take. They were very good poker players.”

        Those meetings helped the investigators narrow their focus to several specific problems.

        The problems included no written reports on routine traffic stops, no annual performance reviews and no “early warning” system to identify problem officers.

        Facing the threat of a lawsuit, the city agreed to establish these and other procedures that the investigators felt were necessary.

        Cincinnati has given performance reviews for years and this month began tracking traffic stops. Cincinnati does not have the kind of early warning system established in Pittsburgh.

        Ms. Malie says her first instinct as a city solicitor was to fight the federal intervention, but she was told by her supervisors to “play nice.”

        “It just didn't make sense to get into expensive litigation with the U.S. government,” she says. “We decided to sign a consent decree and move on.”

Tension and mistrust

        While the city did not formally put up a fight, Pittsburgh officials say there was definitely a contentious atmosphere.

        Throughout the investigation, the federal lawyers offered little explanation as they asked for volumes of paperwork and interviewed dozens of people.

        City officials say the approach created tension and mistrust.

        “What's actually in the consent decree is not bad at all,” Chief McNeilly says. “It's just the way they did it. Everyone felt they were being forced into something.”

        After the consent decree was signed, the chief went to a Fraternal Order of Police meeting to explain the changes in police policy to the rank-and-file. He was greeted by boos and blunt questions.

        “You're either against the consent decree or against us!” one officer shouted.

        New Attorney General John Ashcroft has promised a more cooperative approach in Cincinnati, but the city isn't taking any chances. City officials hired a top Washington lawyer this week to protect their interests during the federal probe.

        Pittsburgh found no one willing to help, in large part because no city had ever gone through a patterns and practices investigation before.

        Ms. Malie says the investigators didn't explain their concerns about police conduct until they were ready to threaten legal action. “It was a very stealthy kind of thing,” she says.

        Cincinnati officials already are taking steps to keep investigators from running roughshod over them. They postponed several meetings this week and have tried to exert more control over the Justice Department's access to officials and files.

        In Pittsburgh, tension grew as the investigators imposed their schedule on city officials. Chief McNeilly had just been promoted to the top job and wanted time to make changes on his own.

        But the investigators came anyway.

        “They kicked in the front door instead of sitting down and discussing things,” he says.

        The result, he says, is resentment among rank-and-file police officers that still lingers today.

        And that's a shame, he says, because many of the changes are good for officers. He says the new use of force reports help officers fend off bogus complaints with a detailed, written record of their actions.

        It's Officer Mark Davis' job to explain the benefits of the consent decree to fellow cops. He's on the police team that monitors compliance with the decree.

        He says the investigation remains a touchy subject with many officers, but most have learned to live with the reforms it left behind.

        “There was a lot of negativity,” Officer Davis says. “But it's here. It's part of the job now.”

Conduct "horrendous'

        Although cops feared federal intervention, many in the community welcomed it as a solution to long-simmering problems in Pittsburgh.

        The federal investigation generated high expectations, especially among African-Americans.

        “I came up in the 1960s, the era when the federal government was the final word,” says Tim Stevens, director of the NAACP in Pittsburgh. “Many African-Americans look to the federal government to be the corrector of wrongs.”

        But federal investigators may not deliver what the community expects. Harvey Adams, a former cop who's now active with the NAACP, says the Justice Department did not go far enough.

        “Police conduct was horrendous before,” he says, “and I don't know that that's changed much today.”

        He says all the reports and documentation in the world will not change an officer's attitude about the people he deals with every day on the job.

        The Justice Department investigation made officers more accountable, but it did not lead to firings or criminal charges. It changed the job, but not the people doing the job.

        In Cincinnati, as in Pittsburgh five years ago, hopes are high among those who have protested police conduct here in recent weeks. Many activists have sought federal intervention for years.

        But the investigators in Cincinnati will focus on many of the same topics as those in Pittsburgh. No matter how many files they read, activists in Pittsburgh say, the investigators cannot cure Cincinnati of deep-rooted problems like racism.

        “We're talking about a culture that needs to change,” Mr. Adams says. “A piece of paper can't do that.”

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