Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac On the Right Mix of ‘Serving’ and ‘Protecting’

In a wide-ranging conversation, Chief Eliot Isaac discusses Black Lives Matter, defunding the police, his opposition to a militarized force, and how CPD has improved since 2001.

I sit with Cincinnati Police Cheif Eliot Isaac in a conference room at District 1 headquarters on Central Parkway downtown. We’re at one end of the table with my digital recorder, and there’s at least six feet of space between us. Face masks guard our health, and perhaps create another barrier of sorts to overcome during the conversation.

Photograph by Kevin J. Watkins

My writing career has primarily been as a film and media critic, so preparing for the interview I retreat to onscreen portrayals of such figures. Immediately Lance Reddick’s Cedric Daniels from the HBO series The Wire comes to mind. Over the course of its five seasons, viewers followed his perilous ascent from lieutenant to deputy commissioner for operations of the Baltimore Police Department, which waged an entrenched ground war against drugs and street-level dealers. Watching Reddick convinced me of the perseverance required in the face of futility.

He morphed into Chief Irvin Irving in the current Amazon Prime original series Bosch, a crime drama set in Los Angeles. This time, Irving is the top cop who even attempts to enter politics after a somewhat successful reign on the force. In both roles, Reddick plays career men who know the job and the streets and are also Black, which means they know something else—a consciousness straddling Black and Blue, one foot in the world of “I Am a Man” and the other as The Man.

Like my television examples, Isaac is Black. I am as well, and we’re close to the same age (he’s 54). I wonder how the story of his life mirrors and diverges from my own stories about the police and the community, both onscreen and in my real life. How and when does a Black chief push for cultural restructure within his police department, or does he need to prove that he’s “tough on crime” and use the force as a cudgel against activism and criminality alike?

It turns out I’m not the only fan of TV police dramas. “The Wire has some years on it [it ran 2002–2008], but most cops will tell you it’s probably the most realistic law enforcement series ever,” says Isaac. “I look at different things that have happened in my career and think, Wow, I totally understand the dynamic they’re portraying. They really captured, maybe not all of the specifics, but the personal dynamic and the politics involved in modern policing.” Speaking with Isaac, I would discover, entails facing and challenging his story and my own as well as the collective narrative Americans tell about the police’s role in social order.


TT: So, what are your roots in Cincinnati?

CHIEF ISAAC: My family came to Cincinnati in the late 1970s from Gary, Indiana. That’s where my father landed after he spent 12 years in the Air Force after Vietnam. He worked for an electronics company and started to move up, and he got transferred here with no connection to Cincinnati whatsoever. So my mom, my dad, my three brothers, and I moved to the suburb of Forest Park.

I spent my junior high and high school years there and kind of developed an interest in public service very early. I joined the National Guard at 19 and spent six years doing that. Did a year at Ohio State and came back to do a year at UC, trying to figure my way as a young man. I joined the Cincinnati Police Department at age 22 in October 1988.

I always had an interest in law enforcement, but I had some negative experiences, too. I can remember as a young teen walking through the neighborhood in Forest Park, coming home from an activity after school, and being stopped by the police to ask me what I was doing in that neighborhood. What do you mean? I live two blocks away. I’m on my way home. Or being out in front of our house and having an officer decide to swerve his car, almost striking my brother because he was standing too close on the curb. And then telling my father, and he filed a formal complaint and that officer was reprimanded. Those encounters left me with some negative images about police and policing, but I still had interest in doing it, with the hope that one day I’d become a police officer and that kind of stuff wouldn’t happen again.

I’ve been married for 30 years, and we have two daughters, soon to be 30 and 28. Hard to believe. My younger daughter is a police officer, in her fourth year with the Cincinnati Police Department. My brother, a year younger, joined the department after I did. He’s a lieutenant in our special investigations narcotics unit. So it’s kind of become a family business now. I had an uncle who was a Washington, D.C., police officer for a number of years, but I was the first one in my immediate family to go into law enforcement here.


I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, before it transformed into its current alt-hippie phase as a community of transplants. I had bad encounters with the police there and in Philadelphia, where I earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania—yet it was another young Black man’s experience with the police that defined me. In 1985, Edmund Perry had just graduated from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and was scheduled to head off to Stanford in the fall, but he was killed by a plainclothes police officer near Central Park.

I knew about Perry because during that summer, immediately after his death, I attended Phillips Exeter and would have my two years of prep school paid for by the same scholarship that funded his education there. In some ways, I studied and sought to excel in order to live the life that should have been his. I mention him to add his name to the unforgivably long line of Black victims of police brutality, from Rodney King to Timothy Thomas and Sam DuBose to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.


TT: Describe your career advancement over the past 30-plus years.

CHIEF ISAAC: The department was very, very different when I joined. I had the unique opportunity of being one of the first officers to work in the West End when the department was starting community policing. I really built a relationship with the community early in my career. I also worked some plainclothes assignments and as a detective until I was promoted to sergeant. I spent some time working in the Internal Investigations Unit, which is where I was when the civil unrest started here in 2001.

So I saw the department from multiple perspectives—as a citizen of Cincinnati, as a police officer, as a Black police officer, and as a Black police officer working in its Internal Affairs Unit. I was promoted to lieutenant and then to captain while we were still under the Collaborative Agreement [following the 2001 unrest]. I had the opportunity to command the Internal Affairs Unit when we came into compliance [with the U.S. Department of Justice mandate as part of the Agreement], working very hard with the court-appointed monitors to see that our investigations met the standards that were expected. I spent five years as the commander of District 4 [covering Avondale, Bond Hill, Walnut Hills, and other central neighborhoods] doing the problem-solving work while addressing crime conditions. And then I moved up, after spending quite a long time as a captain, to executive assistant to the chief for a short time and then into the role of interim chief in September 2015. I was officially appointed chief in December 2015.


Isaac mentions 2001, but recollections of the civil unrest must go beyond the Timothy Thomas flashpoint to the mid-1990s. Between 1995 and 2001, 15 Black men in Cincinnati were killed after a string of tragic interactions with police officers. The documentary film Cincinnati Goddamn, from directors Paul Hill and April Martin, examined not only what happened to these men—and the lack of accountability for the officers involved in their deaths—but also the simmering cauldron of tension building in Black communities across the city.


TT: The protests and riots of 2001 didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course.

CHIEF ISAAC: I have seen [Cincinnati Goddamn] a number of times over the years, and it’s very, very impactful. As you say, the 2001 unrest wasn’t just an instantaneous thing; it was something that had taken place over a number of years. When the Collaborative Agreement came into being, there were a number of officers, myself included, who knew something had to be done in order to force change in the department. There were far too many deaths that had taken place at the time that we thought were controversial.

I remember being at the crime scene on a number of those [15 deaths], in different capacities that I worked in, and said, This is problematic. I could see the tension building in the community. When the death of Timothy Thomas occurred in 2001, the community’s response wasn’t a surprise.

A lot of these deaths occurred under the “war on drugs.” Cincinnati Police, like police departments across the country, basically took a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement, casting a broad net over communities and arresting anything that looked out of line. We took vast amounts of Black men out of their communities, and it was flat-out wrong. I believe that has devastated the city for decades. I think that, if you’d asked the average officer at the time if they were aware that’s what they were doing, they would have said no. I can tell you they thought they were doing the right thing.


This reckoning is straight out of Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th or Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. History, more purposefully and honestly told, alerts us that U.S. police forces were often founded to capture runaway slaves and punish loitering freed Blacks who had nowhere to go. The captured became a labor force for the state, an encoded and enforced extension of slavery.

But what are police supposed to do today? Again, based on what we see on our screens, they shoot first (second and third) because they see, like the Precogs in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, crime and criminals either before or at the precise moment that they’re about to act outside the law. Guided by this extra-sensory perception, TV and film officers are never wrong, unless they’re part of a small group of bad apples who are always caught at the end of an episode or killed at the end of a movie.


TT: How do we address the community’s authority over the police?

CHIEF ISAAC: That’s a very real question the entire nation is grappling with right now. You see how these things get addressed and ignored, and it makes you realize why people are angry. At the same time, being a part of that profession, you see police officers do amazing things every day—I mean, unbelievable acts of service and kindness. Then you see that fraction of 1 percent who step out of line or do something egregiously wrong, and it’s an indictment on the entire profession.

Our training, our policies, our procedures, and everything we do is contrary to what we recently saw in Minneapolis, yet the nation sees it as the same. They think that if a police officer in one city does something, it means they all do it.

Some officers were concerned when we made our move to the body-worn camera system, but we really expressed to them that because of the authority they have, they must be accountable. I speak with other chiefs across the nation, and we’re moving to hold officers accountable, even terminate and potentially recommend prosecution. There are labor agreements you have to deal with, particularly with administrative violations, and you have to make sure there is due process. But when you get to a potential law violation and see an officer prosecuted, that’s a big change.

TT: Even with the good that’s come out of the Collaborative Agreement, it was all based on that sense of urgency from people in the streets in 2001. Are there ways to make systemic change without riots and violence having to jumpstart it?

CHIEF ISAAC: I think significant change is born out of struggle. It evolves slowly, but I do see a generational push. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement is different. The protester demographic is different, and the voice of the young people is a lot louder. What happened in Cincinnati in 2001 was very specific to what we saw the police department doing. The tragedies we’ve seen in Minneapolis, Louisville, and Atlanta are about so much more, about the whole social condition of our nation and how racism permeates so many different facets of our daily life, law enforcement being just one piece. This message seems to have the ear of our political leadership more than I’ve seen in the past. I’m not sure they’re all on the same page, but it has their ear.

Being a police chief is like you’re sitting on a three-legged stool at all times, and you have to balance it. You have the community, you have that political base, and then you have your internal staff and officers. If you don’t have at least two of those healthy and working, you can’t balance it, and it’s gonna fall. You have to be concerned about how your officers are performing, how their morale is, how things are going internally. And how is your relationship with City Hall? Most importantly, what is your relationship with the community? If you can’t generate any support or any partnerships or they’re unwilling to work with you or they’re demonstrating their anger against you, you can’t function.

Photograph by Lance Adkins

TT: At the same time as this reckoning with our social condition, we’ve seen a militarization of police forces via funding and technology, which changes the way we look at the police and can create tension.

CHIEF ISAAC: If you look at the age-old model of policing, “protect and serve,” I think the vast majority of policing is service, maybe 90 percent. But that 10 percent, when it’s time to protect, you have to have the equipment to do that. In 2018, we had the Fifth Third Bank headquarters shooting, and in 2017 we had the Cameo nightclub shooting with multiple casualties. We see school shootings take place across the nation. Churches have been attacked. There are times when law enforcement has to be able to meet that need.

Still, there are departments that display their equipment as if they’re in a military parade. I don’t believe that’s what the citizens of Cincinnati want. There have been a number of times when, like last summer’s spike in crime, some called for the National Guard. Absolutely not. Having spent a little time in the military myself, in the National Guard, I don’t believe citizens want to see the military patrolling their streets.

Through our unrest here, I know Cleveland, Columbus, and other cities were forced to call in the National Guard. We did not do that here in Cincinnati. That’s something I was adamantly against. I believed that we could get through a short period of time and keep the city safe without the military.

The reason we still wear ties with our uniforms is so we don’t look so militaristic, like other departments that have moved to more of the fatigues-style uniforms, that tactical-type look. We’re very mindful about our appearance. When you’re wearing fatigues and you’ve got things hanging off of you, looking like you’re in Afghanistan, it’s very different than, Hey, I’m sitting here in a shirt and tie trying to build a relationship with you.


Another recent onscreen portrayal of a police officer that looms in my mind is the 2017 drama Black Cop, which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ronnie Rowe stars as a Black officer dedicated to serving and protecting a privileged community until he’s pushed past the breaking point by an encounter where he’s profiled and mistreated by another officer while out for a run. He gives up working to change a broken institutional structure from within and embarks on a far more subversive and dangerous mission, treating those he’s sworn to protect like white officers have treated him and Black citizens. It makes me wonder how much opportunity—and power—a Black police chief feels he has to change a department’s institutional structure.


TT: Discussions of defunding police departments are being held across the country, with some of that talk being that maybe we ask the police to do too much. Are you properly trained to deal with mental health issues and with the homeless community as part of your “service” mandate? Should you be?

CHIEF ISAAC: When I hear about this “defunding the police” movement, I try to listen to what’s being said, and what I really hear is people wanting to see more taxpayer dollars moved toward housing, education, mental health treatment, and other social services. I fundamentally agree with that. We need to invest in those things, because many of those problems help create the crime conditions we face. At the same time, I don’t think the solution is to take money from the police department to do these things. A number of people want to see police budgets cut and money taken from law enforcement as a way to punish police. Well, then you have anarchy, and obviously I’m not an advocate of that.

What protesters are asking law enforcement to do—better analysis, better training, better recruiting—those things cost money. They don’t happen for free. You need to invest in law enforcement to make it better, rather than take money from it.

Now that’s not to say there isn’t room to examine how budgets are spent. You need to do that in any kind of business—examine, self-critique, take a deep dive into how money is being spent, and make sure it’s being spent efficiently and effectively. I’m more of an advocate for making wise decisions about how money is spent. I don’t believe the solution is to just automatically defund something.

The other piece of what I hear is asking, Wouldn’t it be better for a mental health expert or some other social service person to respond to some of these runs? Yes, I agree, and we do that already in a sense. The UC Health mobile crisis team is embedded in three of our five districts, so they’re able to access the entire city and respond with our officers. Women Helping Women will partner with us to respond to domestic violence calls. Members of the social service communities respond with us on suspected overdose calls.

The challenge is, some people will say, Why have police there at all? What happens is when the run turns violent or a weapon is introduced, those civilian social service experts are not able to deal with the situation. I’ve had a number of people tell me, I’m not equipped or trained to disarm someone. Now if someone is in crisis and they need to talk and to receive medication, then by all means [send a civilian worker]. But what happens when someone’s life is at risk? These things change rapidly and can be very dynamic situations.

TT: As political winds change, community voices rise and fall. Five years in, what do the next five years look like for you?

CHIEF ISAAC: The longevity of a major city police chief is typically three to five years. Based on our retirement system, I have to retire by the end of next year, so I’ve got between today and the next 18 months before my tenure will end. But I don’t look on that with remorse or regret, because I think it’s important that there’s evolution. Talking to some of the previous chiefs who stayed in the role longer than that, they agreed it was too long. It’s healthy for the department—not to have turnover in the chief every two years, but to turn over every five or six years.

You need fresh ideas. We’ve got some up-and-coming people in [the department] who are very talented, and I think they need to be able to grow and step up into these leadership roles. We have a millennial generation with a much louder voice. I think it will be interesting to see the day when someone of that generation sits in this chair.

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