FOX19 NOW Morning News anchors Rob Williams and Kara Sewell interview Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell Friday. (FOX19 NOW)
Baltimore police and other agencies struggling to connect with the public they serve should enact the same community engagement policies Cincinnati officers embraced after the 2001 riots, Chief Jeffrey Blackwell said Friday.
"They should do what we are doing here," he said in an appearance on FOX19 NOW Morning News. "Listen the bottom line is this: the (U.S. Department of Justice) should not have to come into your city and tell you that you need to change. You should know if you're connected to your community and you're listening to the concerns of the people that live in the city. You should willfully change."
Police here learned first-hand what happens when they are slow to engage with residents. The protests and riots in Baltimore following the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, 25, are similar to Cincinnati's situation 14 years ago when one of their officers shot and killed an unarmed fleeing African-American, Timothy Thomas, 19.
The unrest ended with federal authorities coming to town at then-Mayor Charlie Luken's request. The Justice Department, Cincinnati police and local civil rights groups signed a Collaborative Agreement that guided change and turned the police department into a model for police-community relations.
Cincinnati police also introduced a protest-management protocol in 2011 that is used by the Justice Department and several cities as the model on how to communicate with protesters and prevent a riot from breaking out.
Officers kept the calm at a Downtown protest Thursday held in solidarity with Baltimore. There were concerns it might spiral out of control after several protesters in a similar event last fall after the Ferguson, Missouri, riots ended with protesters ignoring police by blocking Interstate 75 near Ezzard Charles Drive. Police had to shut down the highway and arrested eight people.
Police got out in Thursday night's crowd and talked with the group, said Blackwell, who also attended.
"I wanted to be seen by everyone and let them know I care about the narrative and what the whole protest is about," he explained. "As a police agency, you have to listen to hat people are saying so you know the needs of the city."
Blackwell doesn't foresee unrest breaking out in Cincinnati should questions arise over police actions. The city learned its lesson back in 2001.
"Things are different here. We police differently. We have a level of transparency that's better," he said. "We have officers that are the most professional in the country and we've been there. We've been through the rioting and the collaborative agreement that came out of that has created a much better dynamic here."
When death-in custody cases come up, it's always a tough balance to thoroughly conduct an investigation while balancing the public's right to know what occurred, he said.
Police agencies "need to be transparent first and then they need to be speedy and then be right and then you have to call it like you see it," Blackwell said. "I think what we are seeing throughout the nation is some flat-footedness on the part of police chiefs in other cities in not wanting to be forthright with their own folks in town and then things get pretty heated."