Tuesday, January 7, 2003

New police oversight agency meets

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Monday morning, city workers changed the sign outside suite 150 of the Centennial Two office building, from "Office of Municipal Investigation" to "Citizen Complaint Authority."

The name change for Cincinnati's new police watchdog agency isn't just semantic, city officials said.

"We are engaged in an experiment that we hope will be a model for the city, and we hope for the country," Mayor Charlie Luken told members of the authority's board, which held its first formal meeting Monday night.

But he also added a slight note of apprehension, saying, "We don't know how all this is going to play out."

City Council created the Citizen Complaint Authority as part of a package of police reforms following the shooting of Timothy Thomas by a police officer in Over-the-Rhine in 2001. A U.S. Justice Department investigation and the settlement of a racial profiling lawsuit, known as the collaborative agreement, recommended a stronger, more independent police oversight agency.

Mr. Luken called the CCA the "cornerstone of the collaborative."

Civil rights activists, too, have high hopes in the agency's ability to restore public confidence in the city's capacity to police its officers.

"There will be another police shooting. It will happen," said Scott Greenwood, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Cincinnati Black United Front. "I will judge success - and the community will judge success - when there is a justified shooting and this panel will say so."

The panel will have jurisdiction over all serious allegations of police misconduct, including discrimination, excessive use of force, unlawful searches and improper use of firearms.

City officials hope the Citizen Complaint Authority will combine the best features of two previous agencies - the Office of Municipal Investigation and the Citizens Police Review Panel. Many viewed the former as lacking independence, and the latter as lacking the investigative muscle to probe complaints of police misconduct.

A seven-member board, chaired by mental health advocate Nancy Minson, will oversee the agency and make final recommendations on police discipline and policy changes. An executive director - to be named by City Manager Valerie Lemmie - will oversee a staff of professional investigators.

The panel will have access to all city records and may interview city employees. Subpoena power to compel nonemployee witnesses will come from City Council.

Unlike other cities, where police have resisted civilian oversight, police in Cincinnati pledged their "full cooperation" with the new agency.

"Part of the role the Police Department will have here will be to educate you about what officers do and why they do what they do," Police Chief Tom Streicher told the CCA board Monday night. "Police officers are human beings, and as human beings they make mistakes. But we feel that the overwhelming majority of the time, they've got their hearts in the right place.

"All we ask is that you be fair and honest with us, and in return, we'll be fair and honest with you," the chief said.

The police union also signed off on the structure of the new agency.

The new agency will follow up on 15 allegations of police misconduct investigated by OMI. Beginning Monday, new complaints may be submitted to the Citizen Complaint Authority, 805 Central Ave., suite 150, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com

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