Chief Craig Takes On Cincinnati's Challenges

Oct 6, 2011
Originally published on October 6, 2011 2:27 pm
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NEAL CONAN, host: We're broadcasting today from Cincinnati Public Radio. Cincinnati, of course, is a city unlike any other, but it also shares the challenges of many American cities: poverty, racial violence and crime. This summer, Cincinnati got a new chief of police. James Craig is the first chief hired from outside the ranks of the department here Cincinnati. He's also the first African-American in this position. Craig spent 28 years in the Los Angeles Police Department, the last two years as police chief in Portland, Maine. In his first weeks on the job here in Cincinnati, he's made some changes. The department faces budget cuts, and there's been uptick in attacks on police officers.

What does a new chief of police need to know - not just this chief of police, but any top cop? We'd especially like to hear from police officers. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Chief Craig joins us here at Cincinnati Public Radio. Welcome to the program, and congratulations.

JAMES CRAIG: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: And I assume it takes - in a new building, in a new department, it takes anybody, what, six months to figure out where the bathrooms are.

CRAIG: No. It took me exactly two hours.


CONAN: But there is a specific culture...

CRAIG: Right.

CONAN: any organization, and specifically one that's never had a chief of police from outside before.

CRAIG: Right. You know, I had a great opportunity throughout 35-year career, certainly moving from Detroit as a young police officer to Los Angeles, and then from Los Angeles to Maine, very different, all different cultures. And so I'm very used to moving into different environments and adapting to a different environment. But as you point out, you know, it is a different culture and certainly, Cincinnati, in the 209-year history, I am the first outsider. But the advantage I have as an outsider, I see things through a different set of lenses, and the rank-and-file have been extremely supportive of an outsider.

CONAN: Well, that's good to hear, that the advantages of the outsider, the fresh set of eyes, and you can ask questions about, gee, why are you doing it that way here when I know people do it this way there, or even a third way somewhere else?

CRAIG: Exactly. I mean, change is not bad. I mean, when you look at one of the more notable issues when I got here was that police officers are still working a six-day work week. And when I asked the question how long has that been going on, the response I generally get from the rank-and-file is, well, I've been on the job 30 years, and we've always done it that way. And that's always clue number one for me. If it's always been that way, maybe it's the time for us to change or break it and start all over. So we are in the process of moving into a new work schedule.

CONAN: I know in Portland, when you got there, people were asking, gee, why can't we have four 10-hour days...

CRAIG: Absolutely.

CONAN: opposed to the standard five-day week? And everybody said, well, it's always the way it's been done.

CRAIG: Exactly. And so we changed it. So they have a 4/10 work schedule in Portland, and certainly, it was a great morale booster. It saved us money, saved taxpayers' money, so it was a win situation all around.

CONAN: But you're - saving money. You're going to come in as the new guy from outside, and the first thing you have to do is cut the budget, right?

CRAIG: Yeah. Well, we are - fortunately right now, lay-offs is not being discussed, but the budget is a concern. I have a top-to-bottom audit that's being planned. And during that process, we're looking for inefficiencies so that we can make the department more efficient. And there's things I'm starting to see now that we will be doing differently.

CONAN: Across the country, there has been a drop in crime that's been a trend for years now, and, obviously, some police officers think they're doing something right. Are you among them?

CRAIG: There are some things we're doing right. Cops count. As Chief Bratton, someone who I worked for in Los Angeles, he's known to say cops count, and they do count. We developed a CompStat process both in Portland, and now here in Cincinnati, and certainly being able to respond to those areas when we need to be there, either in a - I wouldn't say in reactive way, but in a predictive way, so that we can prevent crime from occurring.

CONAN: You mentioned Chief Bratton. Are you an advocate of community policing? Are you an advocate of no-broken-windows policies?

CRAIG: I'm absolutely an advocate of both community policing, community engagement partnerships, certainly an advocate of broken windows. I know it works. We've engaged discussions in my short time here about taking care of the little things, because at the end, it certainly takes care of the big things.

CONAN: The broken windows came out of New York, originally, and the idea is if you police the small crimes, the seemingly minor details like the guys swabbing windows of cars in the streets, you take care of the broken windows, big crimes won't occur, either.

CRAIG: Absolutely. Because crime occurs in places where people that want to commit crimes feel comfortable. So, for example, if you live in a neighborhood where a drug house is allowed to flourish, maybe it's flourishing because your neighbor feels they don't - need not to cut their lawn, or that trash could be thrown out in the front. Take any neighborhood in America and just look at those neighborhoods that are most dangerous. They don't - they look dangerous. But when a neighborhood doesn't look dangerous, it's clean, those are the places that criminals don't feel comfortable engaging in their criminal behavior.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with the new chief of police here in Cincinnati, James Craig. And we'd like to know what the top cop needs to know, not just here in Cincinnati, but any top cop. Let's start with Aaron, and Aaron's on the line with us from Dubuque in Iowa.

AARON: How are we doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks. You're on the air.

CRAIG: How you are doing?

AARON: Thank you. Thanks for taking my call. I just kind of wanted to make a point. I think a lot of times we lose focus, and that it's the job of the police to, like you said, prevent crime and make people feel safe and protected. But unfortunately, I think so many citizens, even law - you know, law-abiding citizens get to a point when they see a police officer or see a police car and they don't feel safe.

They start checking themselves to make sure they're not doing anything even the slightest bit out of bounds or trying to figure out what they're going to get nailed for next. So I think we have to be really careful and get back to a point where there's respect for police officers, and maybe there's more of that one-on-one dialogue where, you know, you've got a cop walking the beat, he talks to people so they know what you think, you're always looking out for their best interest. I'm going to take my response of the air. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Aaron, thanks for the call.

CRAIG: You know, that's a great point. It really is about relationships. I don't care what community you live in. If the police department has no relationship with the neighborhood or with the community, they're not going to necessarily trust the police. I've seen it in - when I arrived at Portland, Maine as its new police chief, it was very clear to me that the new immigrants that were arriving into Portland, Maine had no relationship with the police. They didn't trust police. Many of them came from war-torn countries where the police were corrupt, and so they brought to America that same belief.

But we didn't do anything to help the situation. So when I got there, youth from this community were aggressively attacking the police. And so I realized quickly that there was no relationship, and we had to do something differently. And as we started to work with a youth community in those neighborhoods and built relationships, that's when it changed. And they felt comfortable talking to police officers.

So it really is about relationships. And the caller made a great point about walking the foot beat. I started my career in policing 35 years ago walking a foot beat, meeting with local residents, business owners. It's a costly endeavor, but it's something that certainly is very worthwhile.

CONAN: You mentioned attacks on police officers in Portland. There's been some instances of that here in Cincinnati.

CRAIG: Absolutely.

CONAN: And in August, an armed teenager was fatally shot by a police officer here in downtown, two Major League Baseball writers - at a ballpark not too far away from here - mugged at gunpoint. What do you do to stop that sort of thing?

CRAIG: We have to teach and encourage our young people to make better choices. Certainly, there has to be - it must be a zero tolerance on violence. There must be a zero tolerance. When one makes a decision to arm themselves and point a gun at a police officer, they should know that they're putting themselves in harm's way. But in response to helping young people make better choices, we need to find ways to mentor these young people. And I've been engaged in work in Los Angeles and in Portland, Maine, and we're starting here in Cincinnati an intervention program that we call the boot camp, and the boot camp works.

We take these young people who are at-risk or pre-delinquent, and we really wrap our arms around them and teach them how to be - and make better choices. It really is about choice. And if the only influence that that young person has is from an older sibling who is a gang member or a parent who's incarcerated, there's not a lot of hope. But if you get adults like school administrators, police officers, city attorneys, other stakeholders in the community to show an interest and show love for this young person, it is just absolutely amazing to watch the transformation in these young people. I've seen it happen.

CONAN: Here's an email from J.J. in Cincinnati. He says a lot of things, including hi and he thinks he met you. But anyway, how does Chief Craig view the efficacy of the war on drugs at this point in history?

CRAIG: You know, and I'll say it like this: Drugs are certainly at the center of a lot of the things that we see going on in our communities. We talk about the crimes like theft from vehicles, and we talk about some of the violence. I know in Los Angeles, a lot of the violence that gangs perpetrate on a daily basis is because of drugs. So we can't ignore the role that drug plays in our communities. But one thing I know for sure, we cannot arrest the problem away. Just like we talk about gang members who engage in gang activity, we can't arrest it away.

It won't go away that way. You know, 30 years ago, Los Angeles was grappling with how to deal with gangs. Well, here, 30 years, 35 years, they're still grappling with it. We don't want that here in Cincinnati, not to a degree of a Los Angeles or some of our larger urban centers. But I don't like to call it a war on drugs. I mean, we have to be very precise, strategic in how we approach issues, and I used the example earlier of a narcotics location that's in a neighborhood. Let's focus on the ones that are responsible. Let's eradicate that from that neighborhood, because that's what's creating the problems of violence and being unsafe.

CONAN: We're talking with James Craig, the new chief of police in Cincinnati, Ohio. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Victor, Victor, a caller from Cincinnati.

VICTOR: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. And, Chief Craig, I was excited to hear that you became our new chief.

CRAIG: Thank you.

VICTOR: I am - I have, for the last 10 years or so, I have been training Cincinnati police officers about mental illness. And I fully understand that, oftentimes, when budgets are cut, training is often the first thing to go, and I know that there's a lot of issues that are important. But I'm hoping Cincinnati, in some ways, leads the way in mental illness training, and I'm hoping that that's something that's high on your agenda.

CONAN: And when you talk about mental illness, in other words, how to deal with people in the street who are mentally ill?

VICTOR: Exactly, and especially those who are in crisis. You know, jails are filling up. Fifty-four percent of our prisons are persons with diagnosable mental illnesses, and we have these revolving door in and out of prison. And a lot of what it takes is right there on the frontlines, when the officer knows how to deal with this individual so that everybody's safe, including the officer. And that - it prevents a lot...

CONAN: We got your point, Victor. We'll get a response from Chief Craig.

CRAIG: Yeah, that's a great point, and I'm happy the caller raised that issue. And Portland, per capita, probably has a population that has significant mentally ill persons. One thing that we were recognized for and awarded, we became identified as one of six learning sites in America, American policing for our response to the mentally ill. I was very happy with us winning that distinction, and the only other two major cities over Portland that were also part of the learning cycle was the city of Los Angeles and Houston.

So I place a lot of value on law enforcement's response to the mentally ill. I know what impact that can have on community safety. If we don't handle those issues correctly and in a very timely way, we could be met with tragedies, the tragedies that we've seen historically - Virginia Tech, one example. Just - so we have...

CONAN: And a lot of examples of suicide by cops.

CRAIG: And a lot of example of suicide by cops, so we have to be proactive. I know Portland, Maine, I used to say there was a - I was very vocal about the dysfunctional system. I felt that the government in Maine did a very poor job in dealing with the mentally ill. I was very openly critical of hospitals that - called a revolving door. A person would be brought in for treatment and allowed to go out.

We have one individual who had been in and out. She was obviously suffering from mental illness. She almost killed a police officer when she decided she wanted to jump from a bridge. We saved her life. But my point was that we never treated her. And so - and some of the advocates, they call it advocacy for fair treatment of the mentally ill, and that forcing medication or treatment was unconstitutional. So, in effect, what we had was a group of people in our communities, in our neighborhoods, that were not safe.

And then when we look at our jails, the jails in Maine, where at least 70 to 80 percent were suffering from - mentally ill. And to me, I mean, is that a humane way of treating people that need to be cared for, that need treatment? You know, I ended up getting this job here, so that's a fight that I know that's still ongoing. But I think if you look at many of our jails, there's an issue of mental illness, because we're not properly treating them.

CONAN: The police don't make the health policies.

CRAIG: Do not.

CONAN: The police don't write the drug laws.

CRAIG: Nope.

CONAN: Police have to enforce the drug laws and deal with the cuts that are going to be coming to health care programs. Do you worry that a diminished force - and layoffs could be coming - is going to get burned out?

CRAIG: Well, I'm always concerned. We're talking about cuts, but there's a larger system that we're operating. As you talk about health care, certainly, if we're not treating, say, the mentally ill, what impact does that have on public safety? It has a direct impact on it. So we're concerned. And so we have to push legislation that changes that, we'll do that.

Just like in Maine, we had a law in Maine that 14 grams, 14 grams of cocaine was a misdemeanor in the state of Maine. And I had a real concern about that, because we knew that suspects from larger cities - Boston, New York, Philadelphia - were bringing drugs into Maine because, frankly, they could bring large quantities, and it was a misdemeanor.

CONAN: Chief Craig, good luck to you.

CRAIG: Thank you. Appreciate it.

CONAN: James Craig, new chief of Cincinnati police. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.