Sunday, June 02, 2002

City manager's support surprises
chief's critics

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        More than a year after the riots and amid boycotters' calls for his ouster, Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher has a stronger hold on his job than ever. Valerie Lemmie is one reason.

To the dismay of his critics, Police Chief Tom Streicher and City Manager Valerie Lemmie have forged a strong relationship.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Since the new city manager arrived in April, Ms. Lemmie has astounded the chief's critics and squelched all but the most strident complaints with her unqualified support.

        The chief's “honor and integrity” are evident, she says. “An outsider just won't know what the issues are,” she adds.

        And: “A person like Chief Streicher, who knows the culture, is the best person to lead and change that culture.”

        City Hall staffers and street cops still joke that Chief Streicher and Ms. Lemmie looked more like newlyweds than embattled top cop and boss, as they walked hand-in-hand down City Hall steps following her swearing-in.

Streicher escorts Lemmie to her car after she was sworn in at City Hall in April.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Privately, the relationship was guarded at first. But in the eight weeks since, it's grown with increasing respect for each other.

        “It's the oddest thing I've ever seen,” says Juleana Frierson, chief of staff for the Black United Front, a boycott group that wants Chief Streicher out.

        Ms. Lemmie can't possibly have such faith in someone she's known for just two months — and yet she does, Ms. Frierson says.

        “Everyone's noticed it,” she says. “It's being discussed. People are saying, "Why is that happening?'”

        The answer, say those who know them both, lies in candid initial conversations, similar no-nonsense styles — and even new electronic gadgets that keep them in close touch.

        “I don't appreciate people who don't do their homework, who expect me to do it for them,” Chief Streicher says. “I guess maybe (Ms. Lemmie and I) are alike in that way.”

Police culture

        Chief Streicher's detractors were optimistic when Ms. Lemmie arrived, hoping she would see the wisdom in letting him go.

        Last year's riots were the result of a police department gone bad, they say. Officers routinely stop black citizens because of the color of their skin, and African-Americans are routinely treated worse than whites.

        Chief Streicher, they say, is impotent to change a department too immersed in practices of the past.

        Detractors knew, too, of Ms. Lemmie's reputation in Dayton, where she was city manager for six years before coming here.

        In Dayton, she launched a nationwide search for a new police chief when the old chief with whom she'd had a contentious relationship quit abruptly in 2000. Dayton city workers said that while their former boss likes to hug people, she's also “tough as nails.”

        But here, Ms. Lemmie is showing no signs of wanting anybody but Chief Streicher. To the contrary, she says there are 1,020 reasons why he should stay — his rank-and-file officers.

        Police culture, she says, “is very different than a routine bureaucracy.”

        Reforms required in a post-riot settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice — including changes in the way police use and report force — are best led by a chief who knows the people and operations here, Ms. Lemmie says.

        “These are people who come on together, serve together, train together and work 30 years together. They risk their lives,” she says. “An outsider just won't know what the issues are.”

        Even before Ms. Lemmie arrived in town, she had met with Chief Streicher — at least once when he was summoned to Dayton and several times here. Now, he and other department heads brief her at weekly staff meetings.

        After she rallied the troops at roll call before the anniversary march marking Timothy Thomas' death, Ms. Lemmie and the chief drove around the city. He described city neighborhoods and gave her the tour of the police department's horse patrol facilities near Lunken Airport.

        The more she knows about the jobs his officers do and the places they do them, the better, he says.

        Knowing that Ms. Lemmie also hates surprises, Chief Streicher keeps in close contact via a new instant text-messager.

        Two weeks ago during a council meeting, he let her know a SWAT call had ended peacefully with the arrest of a man barricaded inside a house.

Challenge by dissidents

        One of the first things Ms. Lemmie learned when she began considering the Cincinnati job was that some activist groups would push her to force Chief Streicher out.

        Even two weeks ago, the Rev. Damon Lynch III, leader of the Black United Front, told City Council members that their support for the chief, in part, will cause the boycott of downtown tourism and entertainment to continue: “If you don't have the courage to chastize the chief and your administration, there is no justice.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch cites pending internal investigations of two officers involved in the November 2000 death of suspect Roger Owensby Jr. The department promises results of those probes will be released soon.

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch cites, too, an April 2001 incident in which officers fired bean-bag pellets to disperse a crowd in Over-the-Rhine. Federal prosecutors presented evidence to a grand jury, but decided there wasn't enough evidence of civil-rights violations to let jurors decide whether to indict.

        Many saw Ms. Lemmie as the new influence that might shake things up. Now they're frustrated at the city manager's support of a chief whom they deem an obstruction to justice.

        Ms. Lemmie, however, says any frustrations with the pace of change inside the police department should not be blamed on Chief Streicher.

        It's only been a month, she says, since the department signed agreements to settle a federal racial-profiling suit and yearlong Justice Department investigation.

        “With all bureaucracies, it takes time,” she says.

        Ms. Lemmie also knows that he's respected by his troops.

        Under new city rules approved by voters in November, any new chief will serve at the will of Ms. Lemmie. Those rules don't apply to Chief Streicher, however, because he was in the job before the changes took effect.

        He's still covered by an old civil service system, which means the city manager can let him go only if she determines he committed serious misconduct. Then he can appeal to the civil service commission.

        That doesn't seem likely.

        “I genuinely like and respect the chief,” Ms. Lemmie says, “and I think he's committed to the change we want to see.”

"I'm still happy'

        On paper, Chief Streicher looks like a prime candidate for retirement. He has the required age and tenure — he's 48 and has been with the police department more than the requisite 25 years, since 1974. That combination allows officers to retire and be paid 72 percent of the average of their top three years of salary. He currently earns $135,000 a year.

        But he continues to say he has no plans to go.

        “I'm still happy,” he says. “We've got a lot of work to do now.”

        When rumors swirled before Ms. Lemmie's arrival that she might want to fire him immediately to demonstrate her power, Chief Streicher kept any concerns private.

        “People kept saying that,” he says. “I tried to keep an open mind about it.”

        Now, he describes his new boss in terms similar to those his subordinates use about him — fair and direct, but demanding and intolerant of mistakes.

        “I can tell you exactly what I think of her — she's an extremely demanding leader,” he says. “She expects a lot. She's been very straightforward and very honest with me. And she's allowed me to be the same way. I can't ask for more than that.”

        Officers, he says, are surprised and a little concerned when Ms. Lemmie shows up at SWAT and roll calls. That's something veteran officers say they don't remember any other city manager ever doing, including Ms. Lemmie's predecessor, John Shirey.

        “They ask me, "What's she doing here?'” Chief Streicher says. “I say, "She wants to see what you do. It's OK. Show her.'”

        Enquirer reporter Gregory Korte contributed to this story.

        Chief reinforces support of council, black officers

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