This month marked two decades since Cincinnati Police Officer Steve Roach killed Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old Black man. On April 7, 2001, the police attempted to arrest Thomas on more than a dozen warrants, all for misdemeanors. Thomas, who was unarmed, ran into an alley and Roach shot him. Cincinnati community members demonstrated for days.
“Here we are 20 years later and we’re still facing a lot of the same issues nationally,” said Kimberly Elliott, a volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “We need to find alternative ways that deal with issues that so often escalate and end up in situations that happened 20 years ago and are still happening this week.”
Elliott is helping the ACLU of Ohio survey voters about police reform and the upcoming mayoral race. On Tuesday, Cincinnati voters will decide on two candidates from among six running in the nonpartisan mayoral primary. Public safety is among the most urgent issues facing voters, according to local activists whom The Appeal spoke with. True public safety, they say, means divesting from the police and investing in community needs.
After Roach killed Jones, the ACLU of Ohio, the Cincinnati Black United Front, the city of Cincinnati, and the Fraternal Order of Police agreed to a plan to enact reforms. These reforms, which were introduced over several years, included the creation of the Citizens Complaint Authority, an independent body that investigates allegations of police misconduct and abuse—an agency that the mayor plays a critical role in.
The mayor appoints, with the City Council’s approval, all seven members of the Citizens Complaint Authority. The agency reports directly to the city manager, who oversees the police department and is also appointed by the mayor.
“The city manager is basically the CPD’s boss and so that’s a direct connection to make change in policing,” said Jennifer Kroell, an ACLU of Ohio volunteer. The next mayor, she said, can “make or break policing in our city.”
“Our team really sees policing as the most important issue in this mayoral race,” said Greer Aeschbury, the Cincinnati organizing strategist for the ACLU of Ohio.
Although public officials have lauded the local policing reforms that occurred in the last two decades, much work remains to be done, according to community activists.
“A number of public officials have pointed to the changes that have occurred,” said Annabelle Arbogast, an at-large executive committee member of Democratic Socialists of America Metro Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, which has not endorsed any of the candidates. But those reforms, she continued, “are wildly insufficient and don’t actually shift the focus on achieving community safety towards things like housing and healthcare and workers rights and things that meaningfully achieve community safety.”
Last summer, the City Council and Mayor John Cranley, who is term-limited and cannot run for re-election, rebuffed community calls to take money from law enforcement and invest it in community needs. The approved budget essentially keeps police funding the same as the year before. At a budget hearing in June, council member David Mann, who is now a mayoral candidate, adjourned the meeting early after community members began protesting over police funding.
Several mayoral candidates have advocated for police reforms. At a recent forum, state Senator Cecil Thomas said professionals from the social services sector should take the lead on responding to mental health or child abandonment crises. Aftab Pureval, Hamilton County’s clerk of courts, said at the same forum that 911 must be reformed.
“We have to take action on this by making sure police officers are only responding to issues they’re trained for and where they’re not, sending unarmed, specifically trained professionals,” he said. “This is not just important for our Black and brown communities. Justice is important to all of us.”
Rather than investing in the police department, activists have demanded that the city expand the availability of affordable housing. In Hamilton County, there was a shortage of about 40,000 units of affordable housing for people earning less than $14,678 (or 30 percent of the county median income), based on 2010-14 data from the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey, according to a 2017 report by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. The majority of Black households in the county were spending more than a third of their income on rent and more than a quarter spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent.
“Our affordable housing in Cincinnati is very scarce,” said Chazidy Bowman, president and founder of Opportunities People’s Justice Leaders. “Affordable housing is the main thing on the agenda right now.”
In 2018, the city started a trust fund to create and preserve affordable housing, but it has been severely underfunded. Housing rights advocates hope to change that with the passage of Ballot Issue 3. Issue 3, which will be on the Tuesday ballot, would amend the city charter to require an annual investment of no less than $50 million to the fund. It is supported by the local chapter of the NAACP, as well as the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, and Affordable Housing Advocates.
The ballot initiative proposes several funding options, including city funds and a fee on real estate developers. It has faced steep opposition from the current mayor, several council members, and the local chapter of the AFL-CIO.
Two out of the six candidates for mayor—retired firefighter Raffel Prophett and educator Herman Najoli—support the initiative. Mann, Pureval, and Thomas oppose it. “I don’t know how we can get by with taking $50 million away from our general fund,” said Mann at the recent mayoral forum.
The sixth candidate, business owner Gavi Begtrup, who was formerly U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords’s policy adviser, has not stated his position. The current administration says if the initiative passes, it would lead to reduced budgets, including a $13.8 million cut for the police department.
“I would really like to see them cut the budget to policing and add those resources into affordable housing,” said Bowman, who supports Begtrup.
To make communities safer, Bowman said, underserved communities need more resources, especially when it comes to housing, not more police.
Hamilton County renters are particularly vulnerable to evictions. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a limited federal moratorium on evictions, but a federal appeals court ruled this month that the CDC overstepped its authority by extending the eviction moratorium. In response to the court’s ruling, the Hamilton County municipal judge told the Cincinnati Enquirer that there was no longer a moratorium in effect for Ohio and other states under the federal court’s jurisdiction.
Pureval has publicly opposed the court’s decision. Ohio, Hamilton County, and Cincinnati do not have local eviction moratoriums in place, although two City Council members have proposed an eviction moratorium since the court’s ruling.
“There’s likely to be a profound eviction crisis if dramatic action is not taken by public officials and if working class people don’t come together to demand that,” Arbogast said.