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Former Cincinnati Chief Recalls Challenges Of Police Reform

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

About 300 miles away in Cincinnati, there are a lot of people who understand the challenges of police reform. Tom Streicher is one of them. He was Cincinnati's police chief in 2001 when the city was in crisis. The police shooting of a 19-year-old unarmed black man sparked huge protests and riots in Cincinnati, and the Department of Justice came in to investigate the city's police force and tactics. Today, crime is down. Arrests are down, and so is police use of force. Former police chief Tom Streicher joins us from WVXU in Cincinnati. Thanks for being on the show today.

TOM STREICHER: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: Take us back to 2001. What did you think at that moment?

STREICHER: Well, you know, everything was in chaos at the time. We had this very difficult shooting, and the riots kicked off very soon after that. We also knew that we had a police officer who was being dishonest because part of it, ironically, was captured on a dash-mounted camera in a police car. And that did not match what the officer had initially told us. So we knew we were in trouble. We knew there was quite a dilemma facing us, and we had to take some pretty drastic steps to address it.

MCEVERS: Eventually, your department hammered out an agreement with the Department of Justice, but when was the first time that you saw something and realized, OK, maybe this is working?

STREICHER: It took us, actually, a couple of years to get to that point and not so much because the agreement was bad or because the process was bad. It just takes a long time for you to come into compliance. Quite frankly, this is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier. It's not a speedboat where you just turn the wheel and the thing turns around and goes the other direction. It takes a lot of work, a lot of logistics, a lot of support and a lot of determination by a lot of people.

MCEVERS: When you look back at this reform process in Cincinnati, what specific reforms do you see as ones that worked?

STREICHER: I think one of the biggest things that we did was change the way we release information when a critical incident occurs. It used to be that we tell people very little and tell them everything's under investigation; we'll get back to you when it's over with. And of course, those investigations can take months and months. And because of that, information was withheld from the public. Rumors start to fly. Distrust starts to grow. And then no matter what you say or what you release, six months later, nine months later, a year later, it makes no difference because the rumors have already made their way through the community, and there's an enormous amount of distrust that's already been created.

And so one of the things we changed is that from that point forward, I literally went to the scene of every single critical incident, released information at the scene. And then we mandated that in no more than eight hours after an incident occurred. We had a PowerPoint presentation prepared that we released to the entire media. We released all the recordings, all the pictures, all the evidence and opened the process up to become very transparent. And we believe that that worked very, very well for us. That's helped build a lot of trust and help improve relationships between our police department and the citizens, particularly those parts of the community inhabited by people of color.

MCEVERS: The results from the process are known. Cincinnati saw a pretty sizable drop in use-of-force incidents of police...

STREICHER: Yes, yes.

MCEVERS: ...A reduction in citizens' complaints, reduction in injuries to citizens during...

STREICHER: Right.

MCEVERS: ...police encounters. But still, there are officer-involved shootings in Cincinnati.

STREICHER: Oh, yeah. There still are.

MCEVERS: And there's people who - in communities who complain that they're still being targeted by police. What still needs to be done?

STREICHER: I think there's two different things. One, when you talk about a reduction in injuries - we believe, as much as anything, that's directly attributable to us implementing the use of electronic control weapons. Here in Cincinnati, we selected the Taser.

Secondly, and the other piece of technology that's out there right now that I think any police department in this country should see the absolute benefit in doing this - and that's the implementation of body-worn cameras. Body-worn cameras help us to collect evidence more efficiently and effectively than we ever have. It provides us with real-time audio and video recording of exactly what occurs. There's been no greater opportunity in the history of policing than right now to record and identify exactly what occurred in a tragic event or in any event between a police officer and the public.

MCEVERS: That's Tom Streicher. He was the chief of police in Cincinnati from 1999 to 2011. Thank you so much.

STREICHER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.