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Crunching the Numbers

By Chris Charlson · September 27th, 2011 · News
timthumbPhoto: Citizens for Civic Renewal
In April, Citizens for Civic Renewal (CCR) embarked on an ambitious mission: Learning if the city of Cincinnati’s police budget could be cut without compromising safety. Following months of research and public meetings, the organization recently posted its findings online that include expert testimony, research data and citizens' opinions.

The organization continues to collect public feedback with with the goal of presenting its final recommendations to City Council in November. Now the organization will strive to bring together a city government historically known for its disinterest in public opinion together with a seemingly apathetic citizen base to discuss the vital budgetary issues.

On its website (www.citizensforcivicrenewal.org), the organization offers ideas on how to cut spending by focusing on so-called “smart policing.” It involves devising evidence-based, data-driven law enforcement tactics and strategies that are effective and economical. Recommendations include fewer supervisors, enhanced technology and more citizen involvement. Along with myriad cost-cutting ideas, the site reports that citizens consume too much “free” police services for incidents that often don’t require a highly skilled and trained officer. 

City officials currently are grappling with how to avoid a $33 million deficit next year. City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has proposed laying off 44 police officers to help cut costs, but City Council remains sharply divided. In fact, layoffs have become a key issue in this fall's council elections.

The Police and Fire departments constitute 69 percent of the city's General Fund Budget. Although Cincinnati lost 8 percent of its population from 1990 to 2010, it has increased its police force by 21 percent during the same period. As a result, Cincinnati ranks at or near the top on a list of police officers per 100,000 residents in similarly sized cities.

But mounting national data indicates that putting more officers on the street and having quicker response time do little to improve safety or solve crimes — both practices simply waste money. For comparison, CCR's website allows users to see how Cincinnati stacks up against other nearby cities in terms of policing and crime rates. Besides featuring expert testimony via video clips, the interactive site allows users to add their own input.

Jeffrey Stec, CCR's executive director, says the organization’s goal isn't to cut police with reckless abandon but instead to help them more efficiently utilize resources and personnel.

Stec met with new Police Chief James Craig last week.

During the meeting, Craig proposed creating a “citizens police advisory board” that would work with the chief to help set departmental policy, Stec says. CCR’s role would be to provide outreach from the board to the community.

Such a board should represent all of Cincinnati’s diverse communities, he adds, and members of the police department must be included in the advisory process to also feel like co-creators of the community.

“The basic challenge (is) how do we get people involved in not just setting policy at the board level, but refining policy at the neighborhood level and implementing or co-creating safety at the block-by-block level,” Stec says. “You can lose that implementation piece, especially getting people to do Citizens on Patrol or do Block Watches or come to Community Council meetings. Whatever the methods are, people still have to show up and both the police and the citizens need to feel the other side is listening.”

Since posting results on the website, Stec says he’s a bit discouraged by the response. While there's been more than 400 hits, the average visitor spent less than four minutes, which is hardly enough time to critically view all the information, he says.

Stec believes part of problem begins with disconnect, a case of citizens having little interest in government affairs. To more clearly define the challenge, he uses a Venn-style diagram with circles of interest for both government and citizens. He explains when comparing the two, the area where the government and citizens' interest intersects is an extremely small sliver. The challenge is with this very small sliver of shared interest, how do you motivate both sides to participate or engage the other party in discussion, Stec says.

“The only way to get people motivated is through relationships and you can’t build a lot of relationships if there’s only a few people seeking them out,” he says. “And we have tight budgets, so it means the city doesn’t want to pay for outreach, and the reason they don’t want outreach is because they believe everybody’s already apathetic.”

But while some people believe the problem stems from indifference, others say it's due to feelings of alienation from their local government.

Peter Block, a Mount Adams resident who is an author and expert on organizational development, blames disengagement as the culprit. People feel great passion for things that directly affect them, such as their children, their health, their safety and their environment, Block says.

As an example, he notes that on any given night in a low-income neighborhood there are people are out on the streets, they know their neighbors and there’s a strong social fabric. The system breaks down when citizens perceive themselves as customers of City Council and not creators of the community. This is called “a learned disconnect,” he says.

To engage citizens, Block advises City Council members to do more than simply voice their opinions while campaigning or hold contrived public hearings where citizens get two minutes at the microphone. Instead, council should invite citizens to engage in detailed discussions and develop a true partnership, a task that requires members to participate in small community meetings. Citizens also need to take an active role in getting council’s attention, he adds. 

“We as citizens need to make a move for (council) to follow us,” Block says. “We invite them to come to our meetings, but tell them don’t speak, just sit in on one of the small groups and listen, they’ll get it after awhile.” 

City Councilwoman Amy Murray, a Republican, says she believes in CCR’s mission and wants to engage the group in a discussion involving the police budget and other issues. Echoing the sentiment of council's current conservative majority, Murray explains she’s not against cutting the police budget, but doesn't want to reduce the number of officers on the street.

As the former president of a neighborhood council, Murray says she understands the importance of civic engagement, adding she is planning a new program where she will hold small community meetings in neighborhood venues with no pre-planned agenda, just an opportunity to listen.

“What’s amazing to me is every community council is so different, and that’s what I love about them,” Murray says. “You have so many good leaders — and it’s really free volunteer work for the city — these people are doing what they think is best for their neighborhoods, to grow their neighborhoods and keep them strong.”


 
 
 
 

 

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