Saturday, April 21, 2001

Court battle could follow federal inquiry




By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The fate of Cincinnati's police division is now in the hands of a few government lawyers hundreds of miles away.

        The lawyers are from the U.S. Department of Justice, and they have the power to recommend changes that could affect the way police officers in Cincinnati do their jobs.

        Justice Department lawyers have visited Cincinnati before, but only to help mediate disputes between the police division and community leaders.

        This time, they will do more than talk.

        The lawyers' mission is to determine whether the Justice Department should launch a full-scale civil-rights investigation into the “patterns and practices” of Cincinnati's police division.

        If the lawyers make such a recommendation, Cincinnati will move a step closer to a court battle that could dramatically change the way the police division does business.

        Cities that have gone through similar investigations — from Pittsburgh to Steubenville, Ohio — have endured months and even years of difficult negotiations over the future of their police departments.

        Some officials in those cities say the process was worth the trouble in the long run, but others still have mixed feelings about federal intervention.

        “There was a lot of bitter weeping and gnashing of teeth at first,” said S. Gary Repella, Steubenville's law director. “But we're happy with it now. It's a huge success story.”

        In Pittsburgh, as in Steubenville, city officials signed a consent decree that required the police department to make significant changes in the way it trains officers, evaluates performance and tracks allegations of police misconduct.

        “The mayor wanted to do this without the incursion by people from Washington,” said Doug Root, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

        Despite the mayor's misgivings, Mr. Root said the end result has been good: “There are clear signs of improvement.”

        A federal auditor makes sure cities such as Steubenville and Pittsburgh follow the rules. If they don't, the cities could be forced into court for a long, expensive legal battle.

Asking questions
       
        Cincinnati still is far from reaching that point. But the city is a lot closer than it was just two weeks ago, when the police shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American man, in Over-the-Rhine triggered days of rioting.

        The rioting was in full force last week when the Justice Department lawyers arrived to begin their preliminary investigation. They spent three days here gathering stacks of reports, copying police records and interviewing top city officials.

        They asked questions about police conduct and about allegations that some officers routinely violate the civil rights of citizens, especially African-Americans.

        “They were fully informed of the history here,” said former U.S. Attorney Sharon Zealey, who worked with the lawyers for several days.

        The history here is crucial because the Justice Department team must decide if the city's problems run so deep that the only remedy is a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

        A preliminary investigation, like the one going on now in Cincinnati's case, is the first stage of the process. The lawyers then review the evidence and decide whether it warrants a full investigation, which happens in only about one-third of the cases.

        After that, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft must decide whether to drop the case or go forward with a lawsuit. Then it's up to city officials to either fight the lawsuit in court or sign a consent decree.

        At least 12 cities are under investigation and three others have signed consent decrees. One city, Columbus, is fighting the allegations in court.

        Like the Cincinnati investigation, most of the Justice Department probes began after a series of incidents stirred outrage in the community.        

Tracking officers' jobs

        In Steubenville, federal investigators began an investigation in 1997 after learning the city had paid more than $1 million in claims to settle police misconduct lawsuits during the previous 20 years.

        The eastern Ohio city eventually entered into a consent decree that required it to expand training programs, create a new internal affairs unit and build a database to track officer performance.

        Mr. Repella said the database acts as an “early warning system” because it reveals which officers generate the most complaints and which ones give traffic citations to a disproportionate number of minorities.

        “If a type of behavior is encouraged or ignored, then nothing will change,” Mr. Repella said. “If you know a guy is going to be caught, then that changes behavior.”

        He said the best measure of change is the number of lawsuits filed against police officers. Fifty-four suits were filed from 1976 to 1997, but none has been filed since the consent decree began four years ago.

        “I think the fact we haven't been sued tells you something,” Mr. Repella said.

        He said he's not sure if the changes in Steubenville — population 22,000 — would be as effective in a city as large as Cincinnati.        

Avoid legal fights

        But Pittsburgh's population of 340,000 is slightly larger than Cincinnati's, and officials there report some early successes. Mr. Root said a “climate of distrust” between the police and the community prompted federal involvement there in 1998.

        The Justice Department found that police record keeping was “in the Dark Ages.” No records were kept on the use of force and officers did not receive performance reviews.

        Mr. Root said the mayor, who had just begun his term, had hoped to address the problems without oversight from the Justice Department.

        But when the Attorney General's Office sent a letter warning that a lawsuit was imminent, city officials reluctantly agreed to a consent decree.

        “The mayor clearly did not like it, but he did not want to see the city embroiled in a long lawsuit,” Mr. Root said.

        Now, police must document every use of force and every allegation of misconduct. The new record keeping improves accountability, Mr. Root said, but it also creates paperwork that sometimes detracts from more important tasks.

        Under terms of their consent decrees, Steubenville and Pittsburgh will remain under federal scrutiny until they are in “substantial compliance” with the agreement for two years.

        Neither city has yet reached that level of compliance.

        In the coming weeks and months, the Justice Department lawyers will decide whether Cincinnati should also fall under those kinds of federal guidelines.

        “They are taking their time,” said Cristine Romano, a Justice Department spokeswoman. “They are gathering facts.”

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