Why is second best in Columbus a good first choice for Cincinnati?

A lame-duck mayor and his city manager imported from Louisville have hired a new Cincinnati police chief from Columbus—where he was rejected for the same job because of a troubling background.

City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. says Columbus Deputy Chief Jeffrey Blackwell was the best candidate. If you believe that, free streetcar rides are on sale for $100 million.

Cincinnati can do better.

Since 1912, police chiefs were selected on merit, from the top ranks of CPD. Always. It became the Civil Service rule. But after the riots of 2001, anti-police reformers and the press crusaded to “fix” the city charter to allow outsiders to be hired as chief.

On Nov. 6, 2001, voters agreed and passed Issue 5, by 52 percent. Police, from chief to union, warned it would start a revolving door of chiefs; and that removing civil service protection would put the police at the mercy of City Hall politics.

The opponents were right. The first outsider chief hired by Mayor Mark Mallory and his hand-picked city manager, Dohoney, was James Craig, who had been in Portland, Maine only two years after a career in Los Angeles. Craig began browsing want ads within a year after he arrived. In just two years, he jilted Cincinnati for Detroit—which had 30 shootings per weekend in August. Craig dumped the Queen City for the Bride of Frankenstein.

“Look how that worked out,” says Lt. Steve Kramer, director of the Cincinnati Police Museum and CPD retiree. “In every city in the U.S. that hires chiefs from outside, they are down to an average of about 2.6 years and they’re gone.”

Craig was also unqualified. He refused to take the Ohio test for law officer certification, meaning Cincinnati’s first African-American chief was also the first one who could not even issue a speeding ticket. But the politicians at City Hall generously allowed the chief to ignore a requirement for every other cop at CPD.

“I knew damn well that man wasn’t long for Cincinnati,” says former Hamilton County Sheriff Si Leis. “He came to see me about a week or two after he was hired. I said right away, ‘He will be gone in two years.’ Anyone could see it.”

Too bad Leis wasn’t on the search committee.

The city’s second African-American chief, Blackwell, fits the politically correct fashion of police as community organizers. “Reducing crime” was third on the city’s hiring priorities, behind “community engagement” and “reaching out to youth.”

At first glance, Blackwell looks good: a parking-enforcement officer who once tackled a bank robber, he overcame opposition to join the police force and rose to deputy chief. He has been a youth mentor and a diversity trainer and represented Columbus PD in violence prevention and community relations. Unlike Craig, Blackwell is certified by the state.

But a closer look reveals a deputy chief who was stalled in Columbus. “I think there are forces that are actively engaged in seeing that I don’t become the chief,” Blackwell told the Columbus Dispatch before he was rejected for police chief in 2012.

It was no surprise. The Dispatch reported that he was hired in 1987 over the objections of the police chief and safety director because he had used cocaine twice that year. “He’d been fired from three restaurants, one of them after he threatened his manager. And creditors were trying to collect more than $4,000 from him,” the Dispatch reported.

Blackwell was put back on the hiring list anyway and became top scorer on the police exam. He continued to excel at tests and climbed the ranks, commended as a “street smart” detective who used his neighborhood contacts to help solve cold cases.

Then in 2010 Blackwell wore his dress uniform to testify as a character witness for a friend charged with weapons felonies. Asked under oath if he had permission to appear in uniform, he answered, “Yes.” But that was not true. The safety director asked for an investigation of perjury. Blackwell said he made a mistake. The investigation was dropped.

In another court case last year, Blackwell’s testimony contradicted Columbus Police Internal Affairs and other brass, undermining the city’s defense in a potentially costly lawsuit claiming civil rights violations and unlawful entry by two police officers.

In 2007, the officers responded to reports of a fight at Wellington Way Apartments and entered the home of Tremaine Nelms to see if someone was injured inside. A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit and said the police “reasonably believed that a person inside the apartment was seriously injured and unable to respond. This risk of danger constituted exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless entry and search.”

But on appeal, the federal Sixth Circuit cited Blackwell’s testimony and sent the case back for retrial in December. A Columbus Police Internal Affairs officer had testified that the officers “complied with department policy.” Court records say two ranking officers agreed, including another assistant chief. “But Police Commander Jeffrey Blackwell testified that ‘the belief that emergency or exigent circumstances dictated the entrance … is flimsy and not plausible.’” The Appeals Court backed Blackwell.

But his testimony offers one more explanation of the “forces that are actively engaged in seeing that I don’t become the chief.” Bureaucracies have long memories. Siding with plaintiffs who are seeking jackpot damages and testifying against cops who were exonerated by internal affairs is career poison in any police department.

More trouble surfaced just as Blackwell was introduced to Cincinnati. Local News 12 reported that a federal grand jury was looking into “criminal misuse and even sale of federal property on loan to the Columbus police department.” The suspect officers “were under the supervision of Deputy Chief Jeffrey Blackwell and it’s believed that he is also under scrutiny by that same grand jury.”

Blackwell and Dohoney said they were not concerned.

But Cincinnati police should be. Kramer says the cops he stays in touch with at CPD are “apprehensive” about Blackwell. “The cocaine use shows poor judgment. Then the perjury allegations and the grand jury story...”

Sometimes the outside choice is the best choice. Chief Craig was popular with the police union for adopting four-day, 10-hour shifts. Insiders say he made CPD less military, more friendly. Other changes were cosmetic—cops can take their hats off and uniform shirts changed from white to blue.

None of it made a real dent in crime or the city’s black-on-black homicide problem. Homicides dipped in 2011, but by the end of summer, this year’s rate was 50 percent higher than in 2012. Cincinnati crime rates are far above national and state averages. The city’s fleet of cruisers is hitting breakdown mileage. CPD will soon be 200 officers below full strength. Response times are stretching. And there has been no recruit class since 2008.

Those are mile-markers on the road to Detroit.

But even Detroit is adopting stop-and-frisk to reduce killings. Cincinnati politicians are pushing “youth outreach.”

Chief Blackwell did not respond to comment for this story. He might become one of the best chiefs ever. But if he stays long enough, it will take more than two years to understand Cincinnati. Meanwhile, it’s just not plausible that second best in Columbus was the first choice for Cincinnati.

Acting Chief Paul Humphries was highly praised by Mallory and Dohoney when they made him second in command to Craig. He is typical of Cincinnati’s strong police tradition. During his 26-year career in the city he served in every police district. He went through the riots in 2001, and the crippling aftermath when cops were handcuffed by political blame-shifting and meddling. He is better educated than Blackwell, with a master’s degree in criminal justice, and has an outstanding record.

“It’s a major mistake to go outside,” says former Sheriff Leis, who was re-elected for 25 years and knows a little bit about law enforcement. He says he got along well with nearly all of the city’s police chiefs, but he was not impressed by Chief Craig.

“Why spend all that money on a search to go outside when we have great talent here?” he asks. “When you come up through the ranks, you know the operation inside and out. You know what needs to be done. When you come in from outside, you have no idea.”

And there are other costs beyond fat consulting fees and a long learning curve.

Ironically, critics of outside hiring warned in 2001 that Cincinnati could wind up “like Cleveland,” with a parade of short-term chiefs. But Cleveland’s current chief has served since 2005, while Cincinnati has had three in the same period. Since 1866, Cleveland has hired only three chiefs from outside, and none lasted more than a year, according to Bob Cermak of the Cleveland Police Museum.

Cincinnati’s last civil service chief, Tom Streicher, retired after more than 11 years. During the riots, the mayor and city manager tried to fire Streicher to appease the mob, but civil service protection saved his job, and he provided strong leadership when it was critically needed. When council members tried to ban Tasers, Streicher refused, and police shootings of suspects—the alleged “root cause” of rioting—were reduced dramatically.

“That’s exactly why chiefs came under civil service,” says Kramer.

Dohoney was praised for hiring Craig as the city’s first black chief, although the results were clearly mixed. When the charter was changed in 2002, voters were promised that CPD career cops would have a fair chance. But the latest hiring by Dohoney suggests that race trumps merit, and the ladder for local cops will never reach the top.

The best, highly educated hometown career cops may decide to retire or take jobs elsewhere. The message from City Hall is clear:

Cincinnati’s finest aren’t good enough for Cincinnati.