Saturday, June 30, 2001

Police frustration brings slowdown

Arrests plummet from 2000; officers seek jobs in suburbs

By Sheila McLaughlin and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nearly two months after an officer was indicted for killing an unarmed black suspect, Cincinnati police are so demoralized that they are ignoring some minor crimes and looking for jobs in the suburbs.

        Arrests are down 35 percent compared with May and June a year ago. Revenue from traffic tickets is down significantly — drivers paid $25,000 during May, compared with more than $90,000 in fines the same time last year. Judges and lawyers report lighter dockets as fewer defendants appear in court.

        All are a result of an unofficial work slowdown by Cincinnati officers angry about what they see as a lack of support from City Hall and concerned about the increasing scrutiny brought by a new evaluation system the administration is testing.

        They're making a lot of inquiries about jobs with suburban departments, where chiefs say officers feel more support from residents.

        And they're increasingly reluctant to look for minor crimes in progress.

        No one is accusing officers of failing to respond to emergencies. But when it comes to discretionary or self-initiated work, some acknowledge they're not going out of their way.

        “Since everything with the riots, it doesn't make sense to go out and chase some knucklehead who wants to fight with you for whatever reason,” said Officer Eric Vogelpohl, who works in Over-the-Rhine.

        Cincinnati's riots were sparked by an incident that began with self-initiated activity.

        Officer Stephen Roach was indicted May 7 for the fatal shooting a month earlier of Timothy Thomas, 19, a man sought on 14 misdemeanors who was not armed. The pursuit began when another officer, David Damico, who was off-duty, recognized Mr. Thomas and chased him.

        The indictment — the third of a Cincinnati police officer this year involving a suspect's death — has had a chilling effect on officers' willingness to jump into proactive police work.

        They're also upset about the fallout from the shooting, including the days of rioting that ensued, the investigation of possible civil-rights violations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the police administration's development of a new point system to monitor their behavior.

        This week, officers found this cautionary message in their Fraternal Order of Police newsletter, written by President Keith Fangman:

        “If you want to make 20 traffic stops a shift and chase every dope dealer you see, you go right ahead,” he wrote. “Just remember that if something goes wrong, or you make the slightest mistake in that split second, it could result in having your worst nightmare come true for you and your family, and City Hall will sell you out.”

        Mr. Fangman said the slowdown is not an official job action, but rather “simply symptomatic of a shell-shocked police department.”        

Slowdown worries residents

        Cincinnati Chief Tom Streicher said he continues to stress to his officers that he supports them. His wish: They should continue to be the good officers he thinks they are.

        “It's a tough time right now,” he said. “They're just not feeling a lot of support.”

        Residents are trying to be understanding. Still, they are critical.

        “It concerns me, but in a way I see where they are coming from. It's a two-way street. They figure we lost confidence in them so they think why should they break their necks for us,” said Carrie Johnson, community council president in Over-the-Rhine. The historic neighborhood north of downtown's business district took the brunt of the riots in April.

        “We still need the policing, regardless. If that's the way they're going to be, they need to give up their jobs.”

        Veteran officers predict morale problems will continue until officers begin feeling more support from City Hall and from the community.

        “I think the current climate will have long-term ramifications on recruiting, hiring and on people searching for other jobs, and people evaluating their retirement options in the next six months to a year,” said Capt. Greg Snider, on the force 30 years.        

Moving to the 'burbs

        Fourteen officers — not an unusual number — have been forced to leave because of criminal wrongdoing, resigned or retired in the past three months, said Sgt. Chris Ruehmer, personnel relations officer.

        However, officers are starting to show up in greater-than-usual numbers to sit for police exams in other communities that have comparable wage scales.

        “The only time I remember something like this was in the mid-'70s when there were layoffs in Cincinnati,” said Al Ledbetter, safety service director in Sharonville. Twelve Cincinnati officers took Sharonville's test in May.

        Two city officers — Kenneth Schrand and John Connolly — started work this week with Blue Ash. Both are 33 years old, with more than a decade left in their careers. They took the Blue Ash test in October, a month after Officer Kevin Crayon — the third officer to die on duty since 1997 — was dragged to his death while trying to apprehend a 12-year-old driver.

        The departing officers' new chief, Mike Allen, would not let them discuss their reasons for leaving, saying they were probationary employees in Blue Ash and shouldn't be criticizing their former employer.

        In Loveland, Police Chief Dennis Rees, a former district commander in Cincinnati, has fielded calls from another dozen city officers looking for jobs in the aftermath of Mr. Thomas' death.

        Chief Rees has nothing to offer them until sometime next year. He said he expects “quite a few” Cincinnati officers to take a civil service exam next spring.

        “It's a pretty serious thing,” Chief Rees said of the frustration he's hearing from city officers. “People out here appreciate the police and they show it.”

       Staff reporters Kristina Goetz and Karen Samples contributed to this report.

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