Memo outlines 'toxic' work environment before chief firing

Published: Sep. 9, 2015 at 3:33 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 11, 2015 at 9:28 AM EDT
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Eliot Isaac (FOX19 NOW/file)
Eliot Isaac (FOX19 NOW/file)

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black fired Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell Wednesday morning and named a police veteran the interim agency leader.

The move comes after weeks of controversy over Blackwell's performance and deep collapse of police morale that became so bad, the police union was scheduled to take an unprecedented no-confidence vote in the chief next week.

The reasons for termination are extensive and outlined in explosive examples in city records and statements from his co-workers, including some of his closest advisers:

  • Creating a "toxic"  and "hostile" work environment
  • Using "verbal abuse" and "insult to convey authority"
  • Acting in a retaliatory manner toward employees, including command staff
  • Frequently traveling out of town and being away from the police department for extended periods of time, unable to be reached at times when he was in town
  • Causing a complete breakdown in department communications
  • Using his position to secure free tickets to sporting events Downtown
  • Issuing overtime against proper procedure and interfering with internal audits and investigations
  • Taking selfies and acting as though he were participating in a parade instead of the funeral for a fallen officer

"This memo is to notify you that this morning I terminated Jeffrey Blackwell with cause," reads a lengthy and blunt memo from Black to Mayor John Cranley and City Council.

"My concerns regarding Mr. Blackwell's leadership of the Cincinnati Police Department ("CPD") are not new. Mr. Blackwell has not provided the necessary leadership to ensure a cohesive operating environment within the department," he wrote. "As such, morale is at an unprecedented low level, and the general sentiment throughout the department is that Mr. Blackwell's leadership style has created a work environment of hostility and retaliation.

"Lack of sufficient and proper communication, particularly within the command staff, coupled with a consistent and pervasive disregard for the chain of command, have had a significantly negative impact on operating cohesion and effectiveness within the department. At a time in which our City, like so many across the Country, is facing a dangerous spike in violence, we simply cannot afford such ineffective leadership."

Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police President, Kathy Harrell, said Blackwell's firing comes after a litany of issues arose during his tenure that ultimately became too much.

"People were getting to the point where (they) couldn't even come into work," she said.

Eliot Isaac, a 26-year veteran who became an assistant chief in July, was sworn in as interim chief effective immediately.

Rank-and-file officers were enthused. District 3 Officer Kyle Strunk tweeted: "Chief Isaacs (sic) is respected by all...and will (be) a phenomenal chief and leader. Proud to call him my chief."


Blackwell was hired in September 2013 by former city manager Milton Dohoney from the Columbus Police Department, where he worked 26 years. He was only the second outside chief hired in the city's history.

His firing was met with immediate outrage from two council members who were vocal supporters.

"It's hard to give more info without understanding the reasoning. I hate to think this is politics. If it is, we're in for big trouble," said Yvette Simpson.

Chris Seelbach was more succinct:

"The fact that today we have political leaders, city leaders and the city manager firing the chief is wrong. It's unacceptable, it's not good for our city. It's not a good day for our city."

But Black said his repeated attempts to direct and help the chief to address his "shortcomings" failed, even a mediation session between the chief and his assistant chiefs - two of whom recently retired.

In May, Blackwell offered to quit during a discussion about his performance with Black. Separation papers were prepared, but the matter was abandoned. Shortly after, Black announced the chief needed to provide him with a 90-day plan to reduce violence as shootings in the city hit a 10-year high.

Black's concerns over the chief also prompted him to have an independent climate assessment survey taken among the police department. The investigation uncovered serious problems with the chief's management and leadership.

"It is for that reason, and the reasons I will detail further below, that terminating Mr. Blackwell was the first and most important step toward creating a climate in the CPD that will allow it to flourish internally and provide our officers with peace of mind relating to their command structure," Black's memo states.

That study concluded employee morale was rated a 2 out of 10. with 81 percent of the police who responded believe the department has "ineffective communications and 85 percent believing there are "internal influences that negatively impact" communications.

Police equipment and technology is outdated or redundant and the department's social media should be used to highlight accomplishments of all officers, not just the chief.

The survey also found that Blackwell uses verbal abuse and insult to convey authority and even threatened to fire an assistant chief who is covered by civil service protection.

"This is one of the more troubling conclusions that I have reached," Black wrote, adding that the complaints spanned the spectrum of rank, gender and race.

Employees have been "threatened and berated, in the presence of subordinate officers, superior officers, and members of the public.

"This tactic has served to damage morale and has caused a number of officers and CPD civilian employees to seek treatment for anxiety and stress caused by this environment," Black wrote.

Black's memo included attached statements backing up the claims describing episodes involving the chief Assistant Chief Dave Bailey, Blackwell's driver, Specialist Scotty Johnson,  Captain Paul Broxterman and Tiffaney Hardy, the police department's civilian spokeswoman.

In fact, Blackwell treated Hardy so horribly amid a hostile work environment, she has to see a psychologist, according to Johnson's statement.

"In my 29 years of service with CPD, I have never witnessed such hostility and lack of hostility for employees," it reads. "These conditions have directly contributed to the low morale and displeasure pervasively haunting the Cincinnati Police Department."

Bailey wrote that Blackwell's frequent travels out of town to discuss the city's post-riot reforms where he was "quick to grab the national spotlight" and criticize how other police departments were handling incidents while holding Cincinnati's police up as the model struck the rank-and-file as "self-serving and arrogant."

But the longtime police administrator said that he was most offended by what he called Blackwell's "obsession with his own promotion," even when an officer was shot and killed in the line of duty in June.

"In my opinion, the most repulsive act occurred during the funeral services for fallen officer Sonny Kim . Once again, Chief Blackwell used this tragedy as an opportunity to gather more photographs and public exposure," Bailey wrote. "In fact, during the procession to the cemetery, Chief Blackwell and his carload of guests treated the procession as if they were part of a parade driving from one side of the road to the other and leaning out of windows waving at bystanders and taking selfies. As one could imagine, officers involved in this event were embarrassed and outraged."

Blackwell also abused his position as chief by asking one of his captains either directly or through the captain's staff to reach out to his team contacts to get him tickets for an upcoming game.

"Although I was uncomfortable in doing this, on two or three occasions, I was able to get him tickets at no cost," Broxterman wrote. "As the chief made repeated requests, I became increasingly uncomfortable in reaching out to my contacts. I believe the chief sensed this, because when he made a request on one particular occasion, he stated he would be willing to pay for the tickets. When I told his staff member how much the tickets would be, the chief was no longer interested in getting tickets for that game."

Broxterman also lamented that the chief was best at communications and engagement with everyone else, it seemed, but his own department.

"As a member of the command staff, I feel that the department currently lacks direction," Broxterman's statement read "Unfortunately, I believe the chief has little regard for his opinions and suggestions of his commanders. Instead, he relies on the counsel of his inner circle. The chief's inner circle, which includes non-supervisors and civilians, is often allowed to circumvent the chain of command, leaving middle managers and command officers powerless. I believe morale among command officers is the lowest I have seen in my 27 years in the department.

"There is no doubt Chief Blackwell has excellent in community outreach," Broxterman wrote. "He is passionate in reaching out to the youth in our city and he strives to provide them with guidance and hope. Sadly, he has failed to do the same within our department."

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