Cincinnati offers Toledo a model in crime fight

Targeted effort cut gun violence

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    Two members of the Cincinnati Police Safe Streets Task Force question two men who emerged from a vacant building in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

    Special to the Blade/Thomas E. Smith
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  • A mural in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood serves up a plea. The area has undergone a transformation.
    A mural in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood serves up a plea. The area has undergone a transformation.

    CINCINNATI -- Shawnie Williams has a 6-year-old son he wants to do better for.

    The 26-year-old hates that his son, Tre'Shawn, saw him under arrest.

    "I didn't want him to follow," Mr. Williams said on a recent morning, waiting outside a suburban apartment complex for the rest of his work crew.

    Mr. Williams, who lives with his son and his fiancee in Cincinnati's Evanston neighborhood -- a community once regarded as one of the most dangerous places in the city -- recently started a job landscaping at Harper's Point in Symmes Township.

    The job, paid through the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence, isn't much. He makes $9.50 an hour, has no benefits or insurance, and, that particular day, woke up at 4:30 a.m. to wash his son's clothes before work.

    But there's a paycheck every two weeks, and he knows he'll make it home every evening.

    It's better than hustling, pushing weed and crack on Cincinnati street corners, wondering who is watching or if the next customer will pull out a gun.

    "I see the difference," Mr. Williams said. "I'm saving money, I don't have to look over my shoulder. I've been peaceful."

    Shawnie Williams, who lives in one of Cincinnati’s most dangerous areas, says he’s no longer afraid.
    Shawnie Williams, who lives in one of Cincinnati’s most dangerous areas, says he’s no longer afraid.

    The Cincinnati crime-reduction initiative, implemented in 2007 after a year with a record 90 homicides, is the model for Toledo's strategy -- the Toledo Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, or TCIRV, announced on April 17.

    Toledo police Chief Derrick Diggs and Mayor Mike Bell said the initiative, which kicked off at a meeting involving city leaders and nearly 40 parolees and probationers identified as gang members, is intended to reduce gang-related shootings and homicides, which in the past year increased significantly.

    Toledo police estimate that there are about 2,500 known gang members and 25 active gangs in the city, compared with about 1,460 known gang members and anywhere from 45 to 50 gangs in Cincinnati.

    In 2011, shootings in Toledo increased 73 percent to 210 from the 121 reported in 2010.

    Last year, Toledo -- which, according to the 2010 Census, had a population of 287,208 -- recorded 36 homicides, compared with 25 homicides in 2010.

    The city has had eight homicides so far this year.

    Cincinnati had a population of 296,943 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

    In many ways, Toledo's strategy will resemble what is being done in Cincinnati. Officials there say the initiative has been a success and is now a part of the fabric of the city.

    During a recent session in Toledo, gang members were told that violence in the city must stop or they will face arrest and jail time. Chief Diggs was clear: Anyone who shoots another person will be charged, and the shooters' fellow gang members will be investigated and charged with any criminal activity, no matter how minor.

    Federal prosecution isn't just possible, it's probable.

    But for those who until now have not seen a way out of the crime surrounding them, community leaders are offering job training and education.

    The changes won't happen overnight, said Robin Engel, a criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati who has worked with Cincinnati's anti-gang initiative since day one.

    "This offender population has been lied to all of their lives," she said. "They're going to be brought in, they're going to be told a message, and they probably won't believe it, and they're probably going to continue with business as usual."

    Search for causes

    In Cincinnati, it wasn't until the second, maybe even the third, gang call-in session that changes were noticeable.

    In 2007, Cincinnati recorded 62 homicides, a number that since has fluctuated but never again came close to 2006's record 90, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.

    This year, Cincinnati has recorded 14 homicides to date.

    An analysis of the 42 months before and after implementing the Cincinnati initiative found an overall reduction in gang-related homicides of 42 percent and 21 percent fewer shootings, Ms. Engel said.

    It's almost impossible to determine what is a direct result of the initiative and how other factors, such as the economy, weigh in.

    The need for improved community-police relations in Cincinnati was never more clear than in 2001, when an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white city police officer, igniting four days of race riots.

    City Councilman Cecil Thomas, then the executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, said that once the riots ended "we started to have a tremendous amount of gun violence." with an overall increase in gun-related crimes.

    Mr. Thomas, who also was a Cincinnati police officer for 27 years, set about repairing strained police-community relationships.

    He and others started by looking at what caused the "civil unrest" and who was "perpetrating a bulk of the violence."

    Their study found that those involved in violence tended to be black males ages 14 to 25.

    The dropout rate of African-American males in Cincinnati in 2000 was double that of white males -- 33 percent compared with 17 percent, according to Census data. During the same time frame in Toledo, the dropout rate for African-American males was 30 percent, compared with a dropout rate of 17 percent for white males.

    "We knew that education had to be one of the factors involved in the whole issue of crime and violence," he said.

    David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention Control at John Jay College in New York, likened Cincinnati's problem to the violence that occurred in Boston during the late 1990s. He heralded that city's response, the "Boston Miracle," which brought communities, criminals, and policemen together to curb street violence.

    Mr. Thomas knew Cincinnati needed something similar.

    In 2002, he started the Street Worker Program, which sent individuals -- many with criminal backgrounds -- into the streets to meet the at-risk population and encourage them to take advantage of services and programs the city offered.

    Cincinnati officials reached out to Mr. Kennedy for help in developing a more inclusive strategy crafted specifically for Cincinnati. Mr. Kennedy's crime-reduction initiatives, which have been implemented in communities across the country, have won numerous awards.

    Two members of the Cincinnati Police Safe Streets Task Force question two men who emerged from a vacant building in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
    Two members of the Cincinnati Police Safe Streets Task Force question two men who emerged from a vacant building in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

    After much planning and consulting with Mr. Kennedy, the Street Worker Program eventually morphed into the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence.

    'What's different?'

    Mayor Mark Mallory, an avid supporter of the initiative, didn't bite the first time around.

    "It took me awhile because it was like, 'So what's different?' " he said. "We're going after the bad guys. Of course we're going after the bad guys. So what's different?"

    The mayor said Mr. Kennedy had to explain a few times that some people, given the opportunity, would change their behavior and that a very small portion of the population was responsible for a very large portion of violent crime.

    Cincinnati police Lt. Col. James Whalen, also the assistant chief, said there was push-back from all over -- community members, government, the police department.

    "All the cops seemed to have heard about was the social services and the helping end of it," he said. "It's not hug-a-thug, we're going to have a meeting, and we're going to cry, and they're going to put their guns down and never offend again.

    "That's not what this is about," he said. "There is a social services piece that is genuine, a community building piece that is genuine, and there's a law enforcement piece that's real. That's what I told the officers. Our part is law enforcement; that's what we do."

    The community appears to support the city's efforts.

    Working together

    A large mural -- a black gun inside a red circle with a line painted through it, and "Stop the violence" painted above it -- is a plea on the side of one Over-the-Rhine building.

    The near-downtown neighborhood was in 2001 one of the central locations for the city's race riots.

    Nearby is another sign above a business that reads, "Help the police stop the violence. Save a loved one."

    City Councilman Thomas said that since the crime-reduction initiative was implemented, calls to the city's Crime Stoppers program have increased.

    He cited a recent shooting that injured a 4-year-old boy in Avondale, which many say is the most dangerous neighborhood in Cincinnati. He said he went to the media saying, "The maggots that did this will be under arrest; we will know who you are in a short period of time because people are going to tell us."

    Sure enough, he said, the calls came in and police had a suspect.

    "We're operating as a group," Mr. Thomas said. "That's the moral-voice piece, and people operating as a group and not standing out there by themselves. Folks feel comfortable going to court as a group saying, 'We don't want you in our community,' and all of that works."

    Officials said the initiative has had spin-off effects, solving some problems and creating new ones.

    Seeing results

    One of the city's greatest success stories comes from Over-the-Rhine. In the past several years, the once neglected and dangerous neighborhood has undergone a transformation, with commercial and residential properties taking over long-empty buildings.

    The neighborhood still has its blight and share of vacant properties; it's certainly not immune to violence, but it's moving in a positive direction.

    Mayor Mallory said the boom could be attributed in part to the success of the crime-reduction initiative.

    "The most striking example is Over-the-Rhine, where it's been a combination of … really tough policing that went on, CIRV in operation, [and] a huge influx of economic development dollars that are converting some of the problem properties," the mayor said.

    The initiative also has helped boost police morale, said Capt. Daniel Gerard.

    Patrol officers are encouraged to share with supervisors what they see on the streets. With that information, several times a year, the department will "stop the presses, hit the brakes, get all the police together, and we're going to do something about what that officer said," Assistant Chief Whalen said.

    "That really gives the officers an internal sense of satisfaction," he said.

    A partnership with federal prosecutors hasn't hurt either.

    When the initiative was just starting out, one of the first cases, bringing down "Grimy," a city gang, had a major impact on cold-case files, closing more than two dozen unsolved homicides, Assistant Chief Whalen said.

    The investigations, which usually take three or four months, allow detectives to build cases strong enough to interest federal prosecutors.

    "Then you turn around to the bad guy and say, 'See ya later. I won't see you anymore because I'll be retired by the time you get out, so see ya later,' " Assistant Chief Whalen said. "And then they say, 'What can I do to help myself?' All that tough-guy stuff, all that 'I'll never talk,' all the tattoos, all that other brethren stuff all goes out the window."

    Funding woes

    Despite the good, there have been pitfalls.

    Because the initiative focuses only on individuals 18 and older, it leaves room for juveniles to be manipulated by adults who are afraid of facing federal charges, Mr. Thomas said.

    "We started to see a lot of your older dope dealers, 20 and older, going to the younger kids, 15 and 16 years old, and say, 'Hey, I'm going to hire you to shoot so and so,' " Mr. Thomas said. "We start to see the younger individuals now perpetrating the violence and the only reason that was occurring was because the older guys are telling the younger ones, 'You don't have to worry about federal prosecution, you ain't got to worry, you're just going to juvenile court and you'll be out by 21.' "

    Mr. Thomas said officials "knew this was going to happen" and tried to start a similar initiative for youth offenders, but, without funding, the program was put on hold.

    Funding has, in recent years, become something of an issue, although officials say they are working to restore money for the initiative.

    For the 2011 fiscal year, much of the budget -- funded through city coffers -- was cut; the initiative's annual funds dropped to $289,530 in 2011 from $861,590 in 2010. For 2012, the city budgeted $274,830.

    In Toledo, the only money for the initiative is from a grant that will go toward research. Toledo officials have said the rest of the program is being done on an in-kind or volunteer basis.

    The decrease in Cincinnati's funds was "approved due to the limited nature of general fund resources," according to the city's approved biennial budget.

    The initiative lost major components with the funding cuts: The number of outreach workers dropped to four from 16; the systems arm -- the research and analysis -- was cut, and ties to services -- education, job training, mental health, and alcohol and drug abuse treatment -- were lost, leaving law enforcement to continue with business as usual. At the end of 2011, the program got a boost with an additional $150,000 that increased the number of outreach workers to 10.

    With the losses, shootings and homicides seemed to be on the rise, still not to the previous levels, but trending in the wrong direction.

    "[Funding] affects the number of individuals we can hire, OK, but the approach to policing remains exactly the same," Mayor Mallory said, adding that the initiative's budget would be increased "pretty soon."

    "If this is going to work, and Professor Kennedy pointed this out from day one, you have to sustain it," the mayor said. "You can't do it for two years and stop. You can't do it for three years and stop. You have to maintain it. If you don't, you will see the return in … homicides."

    The mayor, Mr. Thomas, and Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld all agreed that the administration and council are supportive of the initiative.

    "CIRV is a strategy that works and continues to work," Mr. Sittenfeld said. "We need to make sure it's successful. You know, you can't fudge the numbers; the math of the budget is the math. You've never seen a lapse in commitment to the CIRV program."

    Mr. Sittenfeld said that a more stable budget is allowing the city to reinstate $150,000 to the initiative this year, and another councilman wants to find an additional $2 million.

    "This is, without question, our signature strategy for addressing homicides in Cincinnati," Mr. Sittenfeld said.

    Contact Taylor Dungjen at:, 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @tdungjen_Blade.