Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Lemmie wants discipline studied

Chief Streicher says other factors could account for racial disparity

By Gregory Korte,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Faced with statistics that show African-American officers are disciplined more often and more severely than their white counterparts, Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher wasn't prepared to acknowledge a racial disparity in how his department punishes officers.

[photo] Police Chief Tom Streicher wouldn't acknowledge a disparity in punishments between black and white officers, but City Manager Valerie Lemmie wants a study.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        Still, City Manager Valerie Lemmie told City Council on Tuesday that the numbers raise enough questions that she wants to hire an outside expert to review discipline trends across city government.

        An analysis by The Cincinnati Enquirer, published Monday, found that black officers received 54 percent of all suspensions and terminations, though they comprise 29 percent of the force.

        “When I'm reading this, I get really upset,” said Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, who called the numbers “alarming.”

        She asked the city manager and the police chief to explain that discrepancy to a City Council committee Tuesday.

        Sitting side-by-side, Chief Streicher and Ms. Lemmie gave a double-barreled response. The chief said the discipline statistics didn't show a complete picture of police discipline, while the manager promised to provide council with a more complete accounting.

        “Perception becomes reality. If there is a perception by our employees — the Fraternal Order of Police or even the Sentinels — that there's a problem, then we have to deal with it,” she said.

        She said she would ask social scientists at the University of Cincinnati or Xavier University — “people who don't have a vested interest in the system” — to analyze discipline trends.

        Chief Streicher cautioned City Council “not to get wrapped up in statistics.” He said the department handles discipline case-by-case, on the basis of conduct and not skin color.

        “Each and every single incident has to be weighed and judged on its own merits. Period. There's no other way to do it,” he said.

        And while he was reluctant to use the word disparity (“I don't know how you want to define that word,” he said) the difference could be explained by factors other than racial bias, he said. For example:

        Officers with less than seven years of experience account for most discipline cases. And with an affirmative-action program that requires at least 34 percent of each incoming recruit class to be African-American, blacks are disproportionately represented among younger, less-experienced officers.

        The statistics spanned five years, from 1997 to 2001. Chief Streicher wasn't promoted until 1999, and the department adopted a “matrix” system of discipline in July 2000. That system, the chief said, has made the process more fair by outlining specific punishments for each violation, with adjustments for mitigating or aggravating factors.

        The city is limited in the analysis it can do because discipline records are purged after three years.

        Ms. Lemmie said that could hurt the city's ability to account for other factors. She wants to know, for example, the race of supervisors who recommend discipline.

        That kind of data will be available only after the city gets its computerized risk management system on-line. That system was required by the city's use-of-force agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

        Billy Martin, the city's special counsel in the Justice Department's “patterns and practices” investigation, told a separate City Council committee Tuesday that the city and the Justice Department still had “differences of opinion” about changes to the disciplinary matrix. He did not elaborate.

        The issue of discipline emerged last month after Chief Streicher put his assistant chief, Lt. Col. Ron Twitty, on administrative leave on suspicion of lying about damage to his city car. Col. Twitty is black, and African-American officers have alleged his case was handled unfairly.

        Ms. Reece has complained about “two sets of rules” for black and white employees, contractors and residents. She said the city's review should be expanded beyond the Police Department.

        Statistics from other city departments also show disparities. The city's 2001 affirmative action report shows that 33 percent of the city's workforce was black. They accounted for 55 percent of the 450 discipline cases last year.

        Those disparities could be explained in part by the disproportionate number of blacks in lower-skilled jobs. The Department of Public Services, for example, has 459 employees, 63 percent black.

        At 67, it accounted for the second-highest number of discipline cases, after the Police Department. Still, African-Americans accounted for 83.6 percent of discipline cases in the Department of Public Services last year.

        Ms. Reece has asked for an update on the administration's efforts to track discipline by Sept. 10.

        Monday's report: Police discipline unequal

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