Saul Green's Long Shadow

Two Cincinnati mayors differ on the severity of SPD's impending DOJ oversight.

There's been a lot of fearmongering over the U.S. Department of Justice's proposed consent decree with the city over police reforms. The feds reportedly want an outside monitor, a role Mayor Mike McGinn has likened to a "shadow mayor." Similarly, a Seattle Times source referred to the proposed monitor as a "shadow [police] chief."

"It's not true at all," says Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. "The mayor is still the mayor. The chief is still the chief."

Cincinnati had just such a DOJ-sanctioned monitor for six years after the feds investigated his city's police force and worked out a consent decree. While Mallory came to office several years into the process, the mayor says he never observed the monitor trying to control police or city decisions on a day-to-day basis.

"As I recall, he was dealing mostly with processes and procedures," Mallory says of monitor Saul Green, a Detroit lawyer and former U.S. attorney in Michigan named by the Times as a possible monitor for Seattle. For instance, the mayor says, Green was looking at how officers were trained and whether they were following new procedures such as filling out "contact cards," which documented every officer interaction with a member of the public.

In fact, Green wasn't even living in Cincinnati, points out John Eck, a professor of criminology at the University of Cincinnati. When he periodically came to town, he tended to pull a bunch of reports from the previous months and give feedback to the city. "It typically wasn't all bad or good," Eck says.

"The only time there were major blow-ups—and there were damn few of them as far as I can recall—was when there were ridiculous stances from the city," Eck adds. The police department objected, for instance, when a member of Green's team wanted to do a ride-along, according to Eck. He says the judge monitoring the consent decree "dropped a hammer" on the department for that one.

Whatever flashpoints there were seem to have dissipated in a rosy glow. Eck says that Cincinnati's police union became an unexpected ally of reformers when the organization realized that many of the reforms—more transparent promotions, for example—were good for line officers. Green, in his final monitor's report in December 2008, declared the effort he'd overseen "one of the most successful police reform efforts ever undertaken in this country."

Maybe so, but it got off to a rocky start in 2002, says Mallory's predecessor, Charlie Luken. Green did not try to take over either the police department or the city, the former mayor concedes. But he describes the first few years of Green's oversight as "one hell of a battle" and "the toughest time of my life." Given that the 60-year-old Luken served in Congress and as a newscaster as well as in City Hall for 12 years, that's saying something.

He says a mutual contempt quickly developed between Green and the police command staff. Green may not have been physically present all that often, but Luken says members of Green's team would descend upon police headquarters for a week or two at a time. "They would expect full access and full attention," Luken says. "The police chief threw them out. He said: 'I can't do my job. All I do is respond to their questions.' " (Green declined a request for an interview.)

According to Luken, Green would also tell police command staff how to handle certain things—not day-to-day crimes or hiring decisions, but, for instance, how to deal with mentally ill suspects. And in the early days, Green's reports were sometimes brutally negative, according to Luken.

The former mayor says resentful police responded with a slowdown, and crime shot up. Luken heard calls for his resignation on right-wing and African-American radio stations alike. He says he was exhausted by 2005, when he decided not to run for office again.

Given all that, it makes perfect sense why our mayor would resist a monitor. McGinn's approval ratings are already embarrassingly low, and ongoing confrontations at police headquarters won't help him any.

Luken nevertheless says that, for Cincinnati, the ordeal "was worth it." The city could not have gone on as it had been, with relations between the police department and the minority community so toxic that riots followed a police shooting in 2001. The former mayor says the DOJ brought needed reforms, including mental-health training for all new officers.

But if anybody thinks the process is easy, Luken adds, "they're nuts."

 
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