CINCINNATI – Three years ago, after riots rocked the city, the mayor stood with the nation's attorney general and promised to tighten police procedures and improve relations with blacks. Last week, a federal judge ordered police to stop butting heads with the monitor overseeing the reforms — or else.
Among other things, the monitor has complained that police are not documenting in full detail all instances in which they stopped people or used pepper spray, dogs or stun guns. Also, the police chief has clashed with one of the monitor's staff members, questioning her competence, refusing to let her ride along to observe drug trafficking and escorting her out of police headquarters.
The city and the police department have characterized the paperwork as so burdensome that it takes away from police officers' time on the street. And in court papers, the city said the confrontation with the staffer was "a candid expression of each party's views."
But U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott said the police officials were rude and disrespectful toward the staffer and were being obstructionist. Ultimately, the judge could fine or jail any city official who violates her order to cooperate.
Police Chief Thomas Streicher, Mayor Charlie Luken (search) and monitor Saul Green (search) did not return calls seeking comment. But the mayor has said the disputes were minor. "Common sense is taking a hike on this one," he told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Civil rights activists accused the city of violating the agreement and dragging its feet.
"I think the problem is one of extreme arrogance on the part of people in power," said the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of the inner-city New Prospect Baptist Church. "They were forced into the agreement and never really believed that they had to comply."
Cincinnati signed the five-year agreement with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft a year after the slaying of a fleeing, unarmed black man by a white officer in 2001 touched off three days of rioting in which store windows were broken and fires set.
To many, the shooting of Timothy Thomas (search), 19, was more evidence of an arrogant, out-of-control police department that ran roughshod over blacks. He was the 15th black man in six years to die while being arrested by Cincinnati police. Police said at least 11 had threatened or shot at officers.
Last October, the mayor asked the Justice Department to free the police force from oversight, saying the arrangement was burdensome and counterproductive. But the Justice Department has not responded.
The mayor argued that the city has made progress on many fronts, saying wider use of stun guns has reduced the use of physical force, chemical spray and shotgun-fired bean bags; dog bites have been brought under control; and complaints against officers have declined.
Critics say the police department is slow to change because until recently it was a tight group of white men from the same part of town, with the same outlook on the world.
New hiring practices over the past decade have increased the number of women and minorities, but the department continues to oppose outside recruiting for leadership positions.
Forty-three percent of the city's 330,000 residents are black. So are four of the nine City Council members, the city manager and fire chief. The Police Department is 68 percent white and 79 percent male.
Merrick Bobb, president of a research center on police practices and monitor for the Los Angeles County sheriff's department, said he was unaware of other cases in which judge had to get tough to enforce an agreement by a police department to change its ways.
"In each city I am aware of, there have been issues that needed to be resolved," he said. "I believe Cincinnati is exceptional in terms of the number of those issues and the apparent inability to resolve them."
Civil rights leader Cecil Thomas, who is executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission (search) and was a Cincinnati police officer for 27 years, said officers cling to a tradition that emphasizes law enforcement over community relations.
"But let's be real," he said. "Our world is changing very fast. You can't just be a hard-nosed cop who says, `The law is the law.'"