Thursday, January 8, 2004

Debate over halting killings splits council

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati City Council's 5-4 vote Wednesday to reject a "Black on Black Crime Initiative" exposed a growing divide about how to deal with escalating homicides.

As it happened, that divide split along racial lines. The result was a debate tinged with personal attacks, accusations, and the most bitter rhetoric on the floor of City Council in two years.

"Right now, we're the most divisive group in the city, and that's got to change soon," said Councilman David Pepper at the end of the three-hour meeting.

Four council members - Laketa Cole, Sam Malone, Alicia Reece and Christopher Smitherman - proposed the crime initiative on New Year's Eve in response to two killings in Bond Hill that week. They were the 74th and 75th homicides of 2003, a 25-year high.

Their proposal would have cut $100,000 from the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission and earmarked that money toward unspecified programs targeting crime in the African-American community.

But opponents of the plan said there were too few specifics, and too little accountability for how the money would be spent.

The commission's director, Cecil L. Thomas, said Wednesday the cuts would all but shut down his agency. Programs that would be affected include Study Circles, which bring police and residents into small groups to discuss police-community relations and crime prevention, the 30 youth "unity ambassadors," and the "Do It Right" campaign, which teaches public school students what to do if police stop them.

"We don't have program dollars," he said. "because we are the program."

The agency has traditionally had solid support from Democrats and Charterites on City Council. But Smitherman said the agency had become too top heavy, with 74 percent of its budget going to employee salaries. "We had 75 homicides last year. That means the CHRC was around - it existed - and it didn't work."

Two alternative plans targeting crime in the black community were referred to committee. David Crowley would seek more input from the commission to develop more specific programs, and a proposal by Pepper would have cut $78,000 from a program dear to Reece - the "Cincinnati - We're on the Move" tourism campaign.

Reece, who as vice mayor presided over the meeting while Mayor Charlie Luken recovered from a leg injury, said the 5-4 vote was part of a pattern of council rejecting ideas based on who's proposing them.

"There are some people in the community saying, 'When are the African-American council members going to speak out about crime, and black-on-black crime," she said. "Unfortunately, I have seen a pattern - and I hope the pattern ends - where you don't see us working together all the time. It all depends on whose idea it is."

Race is often a factor in city politics, but rarely is it as explicit as it was Wednesday.

In fact, City Council rarely votes strictly along racial lines. In 1,415 recorded votes in the last session, it happened only six times.

The election of Smitherman and Malone in November increased African-American representation on City Council to four. But the two have very different political philosophies. Smitherman is a Charterite, and Malone is a Republican; Reece and Cole are Democrats.

Since the new council was sworn in, two issues have galvanized the black members of City Council into a more cohesive block. The death of Nathaniel Jones after a struggle with police Nov. 30, and the escalating homicide rate - with 84 percent of the victims last year being black - brought them to the Bond Hill Recreation Center Dec. 31 to announce their initiative.

Part of the divide is philosophical. The initiative's co-sponsors - who have taken on the nickname of the "Fab Four" - see prevention as the cure. They would reinstate the police gang unit, enlist preachers for a "Stop the Violence Sunday" and start a job-training program for convicted felons.

More conservative councilmen - like Cranley and Republican Pat DeWine - believe the answer is more aggressive policing. They'd rather use the $100,000 for police visibility overtime.

The mayor said the answer is somewhere in between.

"At its base level, it's just politics," Luken said. "When it becomes counterproductive is when it becomes I-me-mine, when people become more concerned with authorship than results."


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