Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Police sergeant at vanguard of change

Steve Saunders has his work cut out for him.

He runs the Cincinnati Police Department's Character Committee.

Any time a Cincinnati officer has a problem in the character department, he takes it hard.

"One problem can tarnish the whole department," he said. "So, when it happens, it hurts in my heart."

He also knows how those problems can be solved. Each member of the force must say: "I'm committed to doing the best job I can." And back those words with deeds.

The 36-year-old sergeant in District 1's Neighborhood Squad did not volunteer for this assignment. He was drafted. By universal acclamation.

That happens when you have the respect of both beat cops and department brass.

To some, Sgt. Saunders' task as the committee's chairman may seem thankless. And futile. Instead of spending his spare time on the committee, he'd be better off going home to his wife, Kim, and their little ones, Jacob and Gabrielle.

Cincinnati's police have so many problems that fall under the heading: Lack of Character.

Two officers take a woman home from a bar and have sex with her. While on duty.

Another pair picks up a man and deposits him after midnight in Mount Airy Forest.

Two investigations accuse eight officers of not coming to the aid of a dying man.

A cop with a checkered past utters the N-word on tape in his cruiser.

A lieutenant retires and is cleared of charges of taking funds meant for poor kids.

An assistant chief chooses retirement and pleads no contest over a damaged police cruiser.

Sadly, that's just a partial list.

Character building

Monday morning, Sgt. Saunders stood in a crowded classroom at Cincinnati's police academy.

Touching his hand to his chest, he said:

"I know in my heart this is a department of character."

Good character.

He wants it to be even better.

"It is of paramount importance," he told me later, "to have the best character you can to deal with the people you serve."

That's why the room was full. Everyone there worked for the department.

This mix of 53 civilians and officers was painfully aware of the department's character problems. Everyone was trying to do something about them.

They were attending a day-long, mandatory, department-wide character-building seminar led by Sheriff Ray Nash. The lawman from Dorchester County, S.C. has been on the character beat for six years. He speaks to national and international law enforcement agencies.

"You got a good group here," he said during a break. "They just need a fire lit under them."

The sheriff's seminar may have sparked the flame. But it's up to Sgt. Saunders and his committee to keep it burning.

Signs exist, literally and figuratively, that they will.

To reach the classroom, everyone had to walk under signs declaring: "Through these doors pass our nation's finest police officers."

They walked by a framed Life magazine cover extolling "Cincinnati's model police force."

The date: 1957.

A lot has changed since then.

Hope for tomorrow

Sgt. Saunders believes Cincinnati's department can be a model force again.

Seminars, individual assessments and a personal character contract are on the agenda.

"We could become a national role model for character development," he said.

"We'd offer tools anyone can use at work and in their personal lives."

They just have to follow his lead. Swear they are going to improve their character. Then, take it to heart.

Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail: cradel@enquirer.com.