Thursday, January 30, 2003

Crime's up and arrests down


Officials beginning to discuss slowdown by police

By Sharon Turco
and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Cincinnati police officers still are making thousands fewer arrests than they did before federal scrutiny gutted their morale nearly two years ago.

Cincinnati officers arrested almost 30 percent fewer suspects - about 18,000 people - last year, compared with 2000. That was the last full year before three officers were indicted in the deaths of suspects, riots broke out on the streets, the Justice Department came to town and the ACLU accused police of decades of discrimination against blacks.

In the months after the 2001 riots, Cincinnati police acknowledged they became less active.

And they're still not fully back to work, records show - even though serious crime rose 11 percent from 2001 to 2002 and the city's homicide rate hit a 15-year high last year.

Today, Mayor Charlie Luken will make crime the centerpiece of his State of the City address. He has already demanded a conference with prosecutors and judges about getting tougher sentences for drug dealers.

Residents gathered Saturday in a citywide "summit" to talk about neighborhood issues, chiefly crime. A close look at key crime statistics shows they have a right to be concerned:

TEXT OF LETTER
The letter Roger Webster, FOP president, wrote to Cincinnati police officers.
Criminal cases in Hamilton County courts declined 20 percent between 2000 and last year. Arrests by city police drive the county court workload.

City police DUI arrests and citations for traffic violations were off by 50 percent in the same time period.

The county lost more than $1.5 million in court fines over the last three years due to fewer arrests and tickets. A portion of that money would have gone to the city, which had to chop its budget by $35 million last year.

The decline in court cases is "the most conclusive proof I've seen" of a police work slowdown, said Hamilton County Court Administrator Mike Walton. "The police were not making arrests."

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The police work slowdown doesn't surprise Stefanie Sunderland, a Northside resident who has been crusading on behalf of her neighborhood. She sees it every day.

Officers are reluctant to go after big groups of African-Americans, fearing they'll be charged with racial profiling in the wake of a Justice Department civil rights investigation, Sunderland said. She barely sees a neighborhood officer who used to be the most aggressive cop she knew.

"I think what's happening is just appalling," Sunderland said. "Basically we have given people license to commit criminal acts in our neighborhood without repercussion.

"We might as well put up a sign in the neighborhood and say, "Welcome criminals."

Police Chief Tom Streicher has become concerned enough about the decline in arrests to start making personal visits to his 1,030 officers. He goes to training sessions to tell them it's their safety they're compromising - that they're endangering themselves the most by failing to write traffic tickets because officers drive around-the-clock and are more likely than citizens to come into contact with problem drivers.

Publicly, he stresses their good work last year: arrests for violent crime up 0.5 percent; drug arrests up 27 percent; crack cocaine seizures up 25 percent. At the same time, emergency calls increased more than 17 percent and violent crimes - murders, rapes and aggravated assaults, for example - jumped 40 percent.

The Justice Department finished its year-long investigation of police in April 2002, ordering changes in training, use-of-force techniques and record-keeping.

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Several months later, the ACLU and black activists settled their federal racial-profiling lawsuit with the city. All three cops accused in the deaths of suspects were found not guilty.

"These cops have been through the toughest time in the history of this department," Streicher said. "And they've made the decision that enough's enough."

"Guys are frustrated'

But officers might be getting a different message from Roger Webster, the Fraternal Order of Police president. His January newsletter included an open letter to colleagues saying: "If you are called to the scene of a crime, find a legal place to park your vehicle and walk to the scene... When responding in an emergency mode, remember do not drive overly fast, stop at all intersections and stop signs."

Webster said he didn't mean for the newsletter, written in response to City Council's vote last month to reject a new contract for police supervisors, to suggest a slowdown. But he said he knows officers might interpret it that way.

"Guys are frustrated,'' the union president said, pointing out Councilman David Pepper's proposal to crack down on loiterers who appear to be dealing drugs. "They're saying, `That's what I was doing. And I got my hand smacked for it and people called me a racist. So now what do you want me to do?'"

In a prelude to today's speech, Luken spoke Tuesday to District 4 officers at a roll call. He emphasized his support for them. Lt. Michael Neville, the only one of more than 20 officers to ask a question, reminded the mayor that officers perceive a lack of support from City Hall.

"They're really fearful that if an incident happens," the lieutenant said, "we're going to be right back where we were."

Luken said: "What I want to tell you is that for 2003, crime is not an issue - it's the issue," adding that it's difficult for him to find answers for residents who want to know what he's going to do about the violence.

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Hamilton County Municipal Court's caseload is a measure for how hard city police are working. This is where prostitution, traffic and minor drug cases are heard.

Statistics show new Municipal Court criminal and traffic cases have dropped 22 percent since 1998. Cases steadily increased from 1998 to 2000, then plummeted.

Between 2000 and 2002, Municipal criminal/traffic cases were down 23 percent:

Traffic cases dropped 26 percent.

Criminal cases dropped 20 percent.

The presiding judge for Hamilton County Municipal Court, Elizabeth Mattingly, said the reduced caseload isn't felt in the courtrooms, which are often wall-to-wall with people in the morning.

She said a lot of variables affect the docket, but she would not say whether one of those factors was fewer arrests.

"The court's role is to take what's brought to us," said Mattingly, who has been a judge since 1996. "Not to say whether there should be more or less cases."

Capt. Richard Schmalz, who has been with the department 37 years, says some of the decrease has to be attributed to officers doing more work that doesn't result in arrests.

"Just listen to our radio runs - sometimes we're holding 16, 17, 18 runs a night," Schmalz said. "We're filling out contact cards every time we stop somebody. I'm not complaining, but we're just more multi-tasked than we've ever been before."

Raising the bar

City officers won't step up their arrests until they feel it's in their best interest, said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based organization dedicated to improving police service.

He declined to speak specifically about Cincinnati, but is aware of the police department's past problems.

"Others may be motivated by higher principles, but there will be those who need motivation," Williams said.

"It is up to city leaders and department administrators to make it clear that officers must meet certain expectations."

In Prince George's County, Md., arrests and traffic stops fell by more than 35 percent in the first six months of 2001. Officers initiated a slowdown because they said police administration was not responding to public criticism of officers.

FOP Vice President Keith Fangman admits aggressive enforcement "almost ceased to exist'' in 2001 after two officers were indicted in the asphyxiation death of Roger Owensby Jr.

But he says now he's talking to officers at work and at union meetings, telling them that "many leaders, black and white, have tacitly admitted their accusations of widespread racial profiling were wrong."

Other police supervisors are trying to encourage more work, too. They're pointing out a variety of things, including: officers just got 5 percent raises when other city employees are being laid off; city officials have been riding with officers to learn and show support; and another safety message, that the more that arrogant criminals are allowed free reign through the decline in arrests, the more dangerous the streets are for officers.

Capt. Schmalz in District 4 said he's making a conscious effort to highlight more good work with commendations - "although the negative incentives are there, if need be.

Chief Streicher promises change in 2003.

"What's my plan? Personal motivation," he said. "There are certainly signs that cops are re-energizing and doing a good job. It takes constant effort to turn the pattern of more criminal conduct into less criminal conduct. And we're going to keep the pressure on.''

Fangman is more direct: "I'm saying, `Let's get back to proactive policing and see what happens.' Let's test it. It's like the chief has been saying the past few weeks, that it's time to come out of the bunker.''

E-mail sturco@enquirer.com and jprendergast@enquirer.com




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