By Dylan Deprey
The 397 miles of infrastructure that connects Milwaukee and Cincinnati are far from separating issues of policing within the two Midwest cities.
Cincinnati, back in 2001, and Milwaukee today are eerily similar. The Black community was stuck, fending to find work. The quick cash available in front of the corner stores drew young men to drug dealing, and many were too young to think of the consequences before being cuffed and sent to sit behind bars.
Young girls were lured from their dysfunctional homes into the underbelly of prostitution, cars were swiped left and right from law abiding citizens, and an understaffed police department attempted to do the one job they were sworn to do: Serve and Protect.
There was a city council and police department that said Police engagement in the Black Community was growing and getting better.
Moves were being made to better policing and public safety. Every African American Cincinnati was vouched for after the Black United Front and ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the Police Department for over 30 years of racial profiling in their communities. In Milwaukee, the Common Council passed a Public Safety Plan to bridge the gap between MPD and the community.
Like déjà vu, oppression and anger reared its ugly head.
In Cincinnati an unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot at close-range in the chest after a police chase stemming from multiple traffic citations.
“It was like the walls came tumbling down because we didn’t stop another baby from being murdered,” said Iris Roley, project manager for Black United Front.
In Milwaukee, Sylville Smith had a longer more serious rap sheet. MPD reported he was said to be holding a gun, and aiming at former MPD officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown during the pursuit.
The world watched as cities attempting to better its citizens through the proper form of actions (lawsuit/safety plan) instead saw peaceful protest turn into riots, engulfing the cities in fear and flames.
After fifteen years and a lot of hard work and understanding, the Cincinnati Police Department and the communities it works to protect have united to rebuild a better working relationship.
The Cincinnati that erupted in chaos in 2001, which mirrors Milwaukee today, is not the same Cincinnati today.
In 2014, there was a 69 percent reduction in police use-of-force incidents, 42 percent reduction in citizen complaints and 56 percent reduction in citizen injuries during encounters with police.
The Community Coalition for Quality Policing (CC4QP) hosted Civil Rights Attorney Alfonse Gerhardstein, past Frateral Order of Police President Kathy Harrell and Roley who all sat at the table and worked firsthand in creating problem oriented policing practices in Cincinnati.
The CC4QP is an eclectic group of advocacy, faith and service organizations working to reduce crime, build relationships between community and police department and improve police officer morale.
The pending lawsuit prior the 4 day riot in Cincinnati, later turned into the Collaborative Agreement as well as a Department of Justice Memorandum of Understanding. The Collaborative Agreement between the ACLU, Cincinnati Black United Front, city and police union required the CPD to adopt a community oriented policing policy.
As the speakers spoke in hindsight and relived the 15-year uphill battle they have been fighting, the consensus was that everybody from the bureaucrats writing legislation, to the police risking their lives everyday and the community members they were willing to protect all had to be at the table.
“The real process was to make sure that everybody was heard,” Gerhardstein said.
Harrell said that after serving for 14 years on the CPD she was appalled that her police force was even being questioned. She knew there was some major hiccups following the number of police involve shootings, which climbed into the double digits.
After becoming President of the police union she began to meet with Roley and Gerhardstein and realized the need for change, even if they clashed on some ideas.
“Trust me there were a lot of officers who wanted change,” Harrell said.
Problem Oriented Policing (POP) challenged the outdated system where arrests equaled safety. An example of POP could be instead of consistently arresting prostitutes in a high human trafficking area, instead send them to rehabilitation centers for help in drug addiction and other underlying problems.
MPD Assistant Chief James Harpole said that there has been a lot of work involving POP in Milwaukee, including the recent expansion of the Safe & Sound initiative in District 4, but the mistrust that Cincinnati has been fighting to mend is still dominant in Milwaukee in its primarily African American neighborhoods.
“If I were to walk into a neighborhood with a group of cops and say ‘Hi were here to help,’ I’m probably going to get a lot of doors slammed in my face,” Harpole said.
He also said that MPD community engagement is most times shadowed by media attention involving the stemming violence in Milwaukee.
NAACP president Fred Royal said that although there has been some work done in community engagement and strides in POP, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Folks have to actually see implementation of change in the police department,” Royal said. “Then the police department has to see a sense of caring from the community to jointly develop our own safety plan that we can take ownership of.”
Roley said that it is a rocky road and a lot of hard work and dedication to improve policing, but Milwaukee is on the right track.
“You can do it, community you can do it.” Roley said. “We had to remove blame and get on with the work, but we hold police accountable as well as ourselves, as well as these other partial systems. It is not just about policing.”