The shooting death of a 15-year-old African-American girl named Africa Hope in Over-the-Rhine last June touched people for many reasons. Her youth, her loveliness, her brains—all were noted at her funeral. Her misfortune, to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and caught in the crossfire of someone else’s dispute, was especially appalling. “God never needed another rose in heaven,” said New Prospect Baptist Church Reverend Damon Lynch III to the gathered mourners. “Don’t put this on God.”
If anyone had reason to feel anything other than this same general despair, it was Cincinnati’s new chief of police, James Craig. Craig had come to town just 10 months prior to Africa Hope’s death, and highest on his list of priorities was ending this sort of violence. What encouraged him now was not the communal outpouring—he expected that—but the speed and efficiency with which the Cincinnati Police Department had apprehended a suspect.
“I met with the family and I made a commitment that we could have the killer in custody at the end of the week,” Craig told me recently. “I have a great team. I felt like the community would be forthcoming. I just felt like we could do that.” Four days later, the police arrested a suspect (his trial is pending). As Craig had hoped, the decisive factor was that neighborhood people stepped forward with information that helped police make the case.
“I have a saying,” Craig says: “‘One city, one neighborhood.’ I believe that what happens in one neighborhood affects the whole city. I get angry about this stuff. I call people out. People feel the passion. They may not always like it. But you know about Steve Jobs? He was passionate about excellence. I’m passionate about violence abatement.”
Soft-spoken and measured, Craig does not come across as an alpha personality. But he is intense and focused, and that passion comes through. “I’m a fighter,” he told me in July. “Sometimes we gotta fight for people who can’t fight for themselves.”
My first encounter with the Chief was at a luncheon where he spoke last February. As the first African-American, and the first outsider, to hold the office since the police department was formed 209 years ago, he was a natural draw. Without knowing what to expect, people wanted to hear him. Then…his humorous spins on topical issues, the easy way he answered questions, and the ambition displayed in recounting his career path charmed and impressed the room. Don’t look at me as just another bureaucrat in blue, he seemed to be saying. I’m going to be different. And I’m going to make a difference.
When he took office, in August 2011, Craig faced a long to-do list. Among the items: audit the department top-to-bottom to find as much efficiency as possible; evaluate police procedures; review how the department’s budget is spent; and untangle its communication practices. Craig also wanted to strengthen the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), a program instituted following the 2001 riots that was languishing for lack of funding. He wanted to beef up the use of statistics in fighting crime, and—in high-crime neighborhoods—focus on arresting and getting convictions on the worst criminals, to “take them out of the equation,” as he put it.
Altogether, it was a tall order, and that was before any consideration of Craig’s operating environment enters in. He had come to a city that had never had an outsider run its police department, let alone a black chief; a city whose own history of racial unrest remained raw, despite some improvement since the 2001 riots; a city so sharply delineated by neighborhood boundaries—and by East and West—that the concept of community sometimes felt foreign. He was taking over a department that had scarcely changed in generations. At the bottom of the ranks, resentment toward those at the top was rampant. He faced a budget that left no room for error; resources were strained to the breaking point.
Sixteen months later, it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t think he has performed admirably. “The men and women in the Cincinnati Police Department have in Chief Craig a leader who understands and responds to their needs and concerns while implementing overdue changes within the department,” says Vice-Mayor Roxanne Qualls. “The citizens of Cincinnati have a chief who is responsive to community concerns and is committed to working in partnership with them to reduce crime.” And she expects to see more of the same—more improvements in crime fighting, and better use of the department’s resources—under Craig’s leadership.
“One of the major things he’s done is to change the culture of the police department,” says Paul Humphries, his chief of staff. “The chief is creating a culture that encourages us to make decisions and take action.”
Craig is fond of saying, “If it ain’t broke, break it anyway.” Humphries says Craig’s approach is valuable. “It’s like walking into a house that’s not your own and seeing the cracks immediately. If we take chances, and something fails…it fails. We learn and move on.” He feels the department had become ingrown over the years. “To get to the next level, we needed an unbiased eye, a fresh perspective.”
The departmental audit—which focused on efficiency, organizational structure, and overall management, among other topics—was undertaken last winter under Humphries’s oversight. Police professionals from other cities, along with Craig, performed the review. Their conclusion: while quite talented, the department could still improve, notably with its own communication between units (when he arrived, “Unit chiefs operated very independently,” Craig explained) and by eliminating certain duplications, such as the overlap with county and regional narcotics control. The department has implemented some of the recommendations; others, says Craig, are “works in progress.”
For its part, City Council has restored some CIRV funding, and the program is being revitalized. One of its primary tenets is that by focusing on those who commit the most violent crimes, enforcement officials can “cut off the head of the snake,” as Humphries puts it. Following a policy first tried in Boston in the 1990s by David M. Kennedy, now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, Cincinnati police now meet with the worst offenders, tell them where they can get help—community street advocates, social service agencies, drug treatment, etc.—and then say, in effect: Either take advantage or keep on as you are and suffer the consequences. “The whole idea,” Craig says, “is to facilitate people’s seeking help. If they don’t seek it, that’s their choice.”
Craig has implemented Compstat, the crime data analysis program pioneered in New York City by former police chief Bill Bratton to notable success. Tellingly, he doesn’t cast aspersions on the crime-tracking methods of previous management, but he’s clearly a fan of up-to-the-minute analytical tools. Recently the department added STARS, a system that gives commanders the opportunity to track quality-of-life factors along with crime patterns. The goal is to provide context for the trouble in a neighborhood. Now, weekly spreadsheets of crime by category are circulated within the department, giving officers a picture of what’s happening so that they can plan a response. In mid-summer, Craig shared with me a recent report showing that for the year, across the city, total violent crimes were down 10 percent from the previous year; homicides were down 39 percent; and total property crimes were down 8 percent. District by district, the numbers were proportionately strong. Says Humphries, “The chief has put teeth in it. He’s made sure it’s a priority. Compstat is a most effective tool for allocating resources and solving problems.”
Under Craig, the department has reexamined its disciplinary procedures and moved to standardize the investigation of and penalties for acts of officer misconduct (issues such as discourtesy, excessive force, and policy violations). Again, while Craig is reluctant to speculate about what was occurring before his arrival, his conversation implies there may have been ad hoc decision-making and favoritism; he has made ensuring fairness and transparency top priorities.
He has tried to head off divisiveness early on; he met with Kathy Harrell, president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, before he was even sworn in. “He wanted to know our major concerns,” she says. And he acted on them. “He got us a new work schedule in eight weeks—something we hadn’t been able to negotiate with the city in 26 years.
“He understands the importance of a union,” Harrell adds. “He has made it clear that line officers on the street need to feel they have a voice.”
As substantial as these accomplishments may be, they are not what Craig pointed to first when he talked with me about his tenure in Cincinnati. The first thing he brought up was his “Call to Action” in Avondale. In response to three individual shootings there last spring, Craig made a call to the pastors of the community’s 52 churches. Couldn’t they, he wanted to know, use their influence to do something to stop the violence around them?
“He wanted us to serve as mediators, interrupters, and influencers,” says Ennis Tait, senior pastor of the Church of the Living God and president of Avondale Concerned Clergy. “His view is that one of the most important aspects of any community is its churches.”
For years, Tait and other clergy had been holding prayer walks and preaching about the urgency of quelling violence. Craig’s call was for them to, “get out of our four walls and into the streets and share this message and the moral voice,” Tait says.
Craig’s Call to Action created a Citizens on Patrol unit—volunteers willing to work with the police to patrol their own neighborhoods and instill a resistance to, and resentment of, crime. The program has been in other Cincinnati neighborhoods since 1997, but until Craig put out his Call, Avondale had not accepted it. Craig also held an open forum on June 30 for pastors and community leaders to discuss strategy for combating violent crime in the neighborhood, and helped form Brother’s Gonna Work it Out—a group of Avondale men who walk through the community, talking to youth about crime and violence.
“I especially love his passion that we are one city,” Tait told me. “This is totally contrary to what had gone on before. We had always been separate neighborhoods. But now we are one city with 52 communities. That just seems a much healthier way to deal with our issues.”
Craig is the 13th chief to lead the department; he was one of 45 candidates for the job. At a farewell press conference in Portland, Maine, where he had been police chief for almost two years, he wore a Cincinnati Reds cap, reflecting both a sense of humor and a determination to fit in quickly. “Cincinnati, I will not let you down,” he told a group of city officials and civic leaders at a press conference here.
He is 56, only a few years younger than the man whose office he now occupies, retired Chief Tom Streicher. He is not tall. He is not imperious. Despite some background as an amateur competitive weight lifter, he does not project an imposing figure. But he is fit, and he advocates fitness to department personnel. “It sets an important example,” he says. His children are grown; he has hobbies (muscle cars are a major enthusiasm; he maintains a 1970 GTO and a Cadillac V), but his private life is private, and he is reluctant to discuss it.
He says he likes his new city: He found his public reception warm and his new department ready for the kind of change he hoped to bring to it. Given what he calls the city’s “parochial” dimensions, that attitude has been “different from what you would expect.”
Craig is a bit surprised by what seems to be the city’s preoccupation with race. “It comes up a lot, more than other places I’ve lived,” he says. “The issue of my being the first African-American police chief here comes up almost immediately. I guess I find that odd. I lived in Maine, which is sometimes called the whitest state in the country. But the race issue never came up. People were focused on the quality of the work being done.”
He’s also bothered by perceived harsh treatment—not always, but sometimes—of himself and the activity of his department in the media. After Africa Hope’s shooting, for example, he took exception to the media’s characterization of the girl as a troubled kid. “She was a teenager, a victim of a senseless shooting,” he says. “I was offended that we would put so much emphasis on her character when we should be focused on her being a victim of violent crime. In L.A., one of the most challenging media markets in the country, it wouldn’t be like this.”
He has found that he is “more sensitive” here than in the other places he has worked to how his comments are interpreted. “I promised myself I wouldn’t read comments in the newspaper,” he says. “Frankly, some are very hateful. But I recognize that they represent what I believe to be a very small number of folks, and there’s some comfort in that.”
Detroit, where Craig grew up, is an important part of who he is. “It’s the fighter in me,” he says. With a father in the police reserve, Craig decided early on that he wanted to be a cop, and soon after becoming one, that he wanted to be a chief. In more than 30 years of policing, his most searing memory may be his first assignment after graduating from the police academy there in 1977, when he was matched up with a veteran white cop. “You sit there,” his new partner told him. “You touch nothing. You just be black. I don’t want you here.”
“That was a defining moment for me,” Craig says. “I asked my dad, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ And he said, ‘You don’t have a choice. You’re there as a part of change.’”
Craig decided that he did want to be a policeman, but that he didn’t simply want to be part of the change—he wanted to lead it. “I believed I could be a police chief,” he says, “and no one was telling me I couldn’t.” He had the good fortune of finding mentors who believed in him, but the bad luck of getting laid off in force cutbacks in 1980.
Ambition steered him to L.A., where he rose through the ranks for 28 years. At various times he served as commanding officer of the west, southwest, and southeast areas; and he held responsibility for the department’s Patrol, Juvenile, and Operations Support Division, overseeing 390 sworn and civilian personnel and a $42 million budget. In the 1980s, Craig became adjutant to Chief Bernard Parks, an appointment that generally means that the incumbent is being groomed. Craig went in as a lieutenant and emerged as a captain.
Parks, who is currently a Los Angeles City Councilman, recalls Craig as an officer with character, intelligence, and something else equally important. “He has an understanding of where and how a community fits into being a part of law enforcement,” Parks says. “He doesn’t believe that you go out and ‘police’ communities. You go out and be partners with them and solve their crimes.”
As an administrator, Parks says, Craig could “keep the paper flowing” and get things done. “Some of this was through his ability to communicate well with people who didn’t work for him, but who he had to work through. He did that very successfully.”
Smack in the middle of Craig’s years in Los Angeles, in 1991, the infamous beating of African-American construction worker Rodney King took place. A videotape of cops mauling King following a high-speed car chase resulted in outrage around the world. Four of the officers were brought to trial. Three were acquitted (the jury failed to reach a verdict on the fourth), sparking an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Los Angeles in 1992. Before it was over, 53 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured, and numerous city blocks were burned and destroyed.
Craig says it was the wake-up call—like the Timothy Thomas killing in Cincinnati 10 years later—that finally opened local eyes to the bitter distrust of the black community for the Los Angeles police. “It exposed the city and the police department to the injustice that was, too often, the pattern and practice of law enforcement,” he says.
At the time of the Rodney King beating, Craig was president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation—an advocacy organization for black police officers. Because of his position, “I was thrust into the center of it,” he says. That’s when he saw the value of working with neighborhood groups—churches in particular—to begin building trust between police and the black community. “A local minister told us how black officers needed to play a bigger role in healing the community,” he says. “We found ways to get closer. We even played basketball with the kids. The department was forced to change.”
James Craig’s large inner sanctum, on the second floor of police headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive, feels dark compared to the fluorescent light of the corridors. Display cases line a curving wall that embraces a mammoth desk and chair. The desk is awash in paper. In the chair, in front of the room’s only, and surprisingly narrow, windows (this is ’50s architecture), Craig does not preside so much as he perches, leaning forward to make a point, commanding not by his physical presence but by his confidence, his sense of mission and his precision of thought.
On the wall is a photograph of a younger James Craig, walking in a Los Angeles neighborhood on a mission for STRAP, an acronym for Stop the Rock Assist Police. STRAP was Craig’s idea: Police team up with clergy, business owners, and residents, and walk the streets, facing down the thugs with crack who were causing nonstop trouble. “We took back the neighborhood,” he recalled. “We ran the drug dealers off, and it got national attention.”
STRAP, introduced in the 1980s, was one of several crime-reduction strategies Craig implemented. Another, dubbed “Safer Cities” and implemented between 2006 and 2008, homed in on the crime-riddled neighborhood of Lower Baldwin Village where, he says, “We eradicated violence. Not a shooting or a homicide for a year.” He received L.A. city council’s Guardian Award for his work there. The award itself—a large figure featuring two bronzed wings reminiscent of those worn by John Travolta in the movie Michael—sits front and center on the shelf before him, for pride of accomplishment and renewed inspiration.
Along the way, Craig graduated from the FBI National Academy in Quantico in 1988 and acquired a B.S. in Business Management from West Coast University in 1995. He also received a master’s in Management/Public Administration from the University of Phoenix in 2010 (he’s in one of that school’s “I am a Phoenix” TV ads), and is now a doctoral candidate with a focus on Management/Organizational Leadership.
When the Portland job opened in 2009, Craig was willing to take a salary cut to move his career forward. There, Craig finally got to run his own show. In a city of about 65,000, the police department was only 215 strong, but Craig developed its first strategic plan and reorganized it to improve both efficiency and effectiveness. He introduced the Compstat process there, established a Chief’s Community Advisory Board, and enhanced the department’s police-community partnerships.
“He had a great open leadership style, outreach, and community mindset,” said Michael Sauschuck, Craig’s assistant chief while he was in Portland, and ultimately, his successor. “He was in the community on a regular basis, whether facilitating or attending various events.” Maine may be the country’s “whitest state,” but Portland has its own racial issues: Central African immigrants have been arriving for a decade. “He had monthly meetings with their leaders, specifically the Somali and Sudanese,” Sauschuck says. “They felt they had a personal relationship with the chief. They felt they could bring their issues forth, and not let them simmer. James did a great job of trying to bridge gaps and keep open the lines of communication.”
Craig had not been in Portland two years when he learned of the opening in Cincinnati. He’d wanted a big-city police chief job from his earliest days and his ambition had never diminished. While in Portland, he made a pass at securing the chief’s job in his native Detroit, but that hire was made from within. When the position in Cincinnati came up, he jumped. “When I saw the initial posting,” he said, “I felt this was my job.”
On a Friday morning in mid-July, the top brass of the department gathers for a ceremony at central headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive. Two officers are to be promoted to sergeant—an important move for both them and the department. Families are present, and City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., the first to speak, thanks the men for being “willing to step up” and their families for being “supportive of their efforts.”
When Craig speaks, he seconds the accolades and points out that it’s a great day when, even on a lean budget, you can promote two outstanding men. Then he gets specific. “To me,” he says, “sergeant is the most important rank, bar none. Without sergeants, what do we have left?”
Craig tells a story about his early days as a sergeant in L.A. “I’d been on the job a week, and suddenly one evening I was called out to a busy freeway overpass where a gunman with a high-powered rifle was firing. So I waited for my back-up, and when the back-up came, he says, ‘Sergeant, what are you going to do?’ And I realized I was in charge.”
That kind of identification—empathy, really—for the officer on the street characterizes much of Craig’s approach to the job.
“Another one of my sayings is: ‘Cops count,’” he said to me in July. “When I came here, I knew there was a strong culture. It was a good department, delivering a high quality of service. But morale was low. People didn’t have a voice. It was a hierarchical, command-and-control kind of place. The department controlled through fear and intimidation; there were public humiliations. My agenda was to give the officers a voice on a range of issues.”
Moving quickly to facilitate his own accessibility, not least through Facebook—“Early on, many felt more comfortable communicating that way,” he says—he held meetings with the union, with officers, and with management. While some on the force today kid that Craig spends as much time networking as their teenage daughters, he believes it pays. He hears their concerns, and he has responded. For the first time ever, police officers have the option not to wear caps; uniforms have changed from white to dark blue shirts; shifts are now four days of 10 hours instead of five days of eight. By and large, the changes appear to be popular. Nothing is more debilitating, according to insiders, than to jump from a patrol car and chase down a miscreant, only to be written up afterward for not wearing your hat. The blue shirts are less prone to show dirt and are less obvious in situations where officers don’t want to become easy targets. The 10-hour days enable three days off at a time. Another change: When the department gets new cars, they have traditionally gone to higher-ranking officers. Craig is now directing them to patrol officers.
Phil Buccino, the sergeant in charge of the motorcycle unit, was an administrative assistant in the chief’s office when Craig first arrived. As the new chief got acquainted with the department, he asked Buccino why the motorcycle unit was affiliated with District 1 (downtown headquarters) instead of the traffic unit.
“It’s just always been that way,” Buccino replied.
“I’d like to move it to traffic,” Craig said, “and I’d like you to be the head of it.”
“We needed drastic change, but the only way it was going to happen was with an outsider,” Buccino says.
“It was the right thing to do,” Craig says, explaining the reorganization. “Shouldn’t motorcycles be in a traffic unit doing traffic work, like they are in the rest of the U.S.? This is about improving efficiency. The cops knew it, but nobody listened.
“If you’re fair and treat people correctly, and acknowledge them when they do great work, they know it’s about them and not you,” he adds. “And then it works.”
Early this year, in what appeared to be a surprise to both the chief and those who hired him, it was revealed that he was not in compliance with the standard state police certification process. According to rules set by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, all newly graduated cadets must pass a 200-question, multiple-choice test in order to secure rights to make arrests, issue citations, and serve warrants and affidavits. Craig can serve as chief of police without taking the test, but unless and until he takes the test, he cannot exercise those fundamental functions.
In a sense, this test is to a policeman what the bar exam is to a lawyer. It is given to cadets upon completion of 582 hours of training in a police academy. In Detroit, Los Angeles, and Maine, Craig passed the equivalent certification. In Ohio, after first seeking (and being granted) two extensions on dates to take the exam, he chose to request an exemption. His reasoning is that his previous experience well qualifies him for his current job; the regulation seems to simply be a hindrance to keep qualified non-Ohio law enforcement officers from being hired in the state. “It’s an insult to ask me to take an academy exam,” he told me. “If my background and training don’t rise up to that, it amounts to an arbitrary way to throw up a barrier against someone coming in from the outside.”
Unquestionably, people who are years away from basic training are generally unfamiliar with the micro-issues addressed in certification exams. (How well, gentle reader, would you do on your driver’s exam today? Or the test to become a U.S. citizen?) Although he has not said so, Craig may well be concerned with what it would look like if he didn’t pass. He balked at having to prepare for the exam when he could be doing more useful things. He had already completed a required 30-hour course on Ohio law. Craig’s predecessor, former Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher, never took the test himself; like thousands of other officers statewide, he was grandfathered in when the statute was passed in 1988.
“Under Issue 5, passed in 2001, voters said they wanted to be able to hire police and fire chiefs from the outside,” Craig says, noting another recent change in Ohio law. “Making someone take this exam undermines that process. When you have 36 years in this business and have demonstrated your success, why should you take it?”
In July, he finally appeared before the Commission. After four hours of testimony, the Commission’s lawyer questioned whether the Commission even had the right to grant a waiver. Then, in late July, The Cincinnati Enquirer disclosed that both Craig and those who hired him knew about the exam before he was hired. It began to look like the chief had been assured in advance by his new employers that they would handle this issue, and that he needn’t worry about it. If so, they were wrong.
In early September, OPOTC ruled that it could not grant a waiver to anyone, and that Craig would need to take the exam. By the end of the month, Craig’s legal team had decided to appeal the commission’s decision in court. The case will be heard in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.
Given his years working in Detroit and Los Angeles, Craig has seen his share of communities in decline. At one point I asked whether, in his opinion, the deterioration he’s found in Cincinnati—for which teen pregnancies, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and inner-city poverty are all markers—could move it more precipitously in the direction Detroit has gone. No, he said.
“For one thing, you have a very robust park system,” he said. “Go to any neighborhood, and the park is pristine. In L.A. the parks were a hotbed of drugs and gangs. I applaud this city and Willie Carden [director of parks] for understanding what parks can do for a city.” And he points out the economic investment here: “Look at the Banks, the casino, Over-the-Rhine. Where there is no economic growth—take Flint, Michigan—it’s hard to recover. That is not the case here.”
Craig does not support merging the Cincinnati Police with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s department (though he believes in shared services), and he disagrees with council members who might like to try.
“Remember, when you talk about right-sizing: Cops count,” he reiterates. “We’ve come a long way since the riots in 2001. We are experiencing double-digit declines in violent crime.” The implicit message: Let’s not mess with that.
At lunchtime on a Friday in July, I met Craig at the Lighthouse Youth Services facility in Walnut Hills. He was there to address about a dozen young men in their mid-teens, almost all black and hailing from Avondale, Winton Terrace, Cumminsville, Madisonville, and downtown. Dreadlocks, cargo pants and T-shirts were the order of the day, and there was a wariness about them, as if cops are not to be trusted in any setting—even in this one where presumably the chief would be presuming them innocent, no matter the truth. They came in unsmiling, and didn’t look like they planned to walk out with anything they hadn’t brought in.
Then the chief spoke.
He talked about the Detroit riots when he was a teen, and how he wanted nothing to do with the police back then. He talked about blacks not being able to become police, and how finally, despite the obstacles, he decided he would become one anyway. And his father saying: Whatever you want to do, you have to set a goal and stick with it. Some make mistakes and don’t grow. Some grow.
He recalled going to Los Angeles, where he saw “countless numbers of young people shot dead,” and he asked why, and the answer came back because the people were in gangs. And why were they in gangs? The answer came back: Because the gangs loved their members, and these were people desperate for love. “And I learned that as police officers, we should love them too.”
At this, his audience shifted visibly. The ones whose gazes had drifted snapped back. The others focused more intently. Craig was talking about…loving them. Something they hadn’t heard from a policeman before.
The chief went on to talk about the Rodney King era in L.A. and what it taught him. “I remember people running from the police when they drove up,” he said. “I remember going out with a fellow officer, a Latino, who was getting ready to beat up a suspect with a flashlight, and I told him, ‘We can’t do that. As police officers, we don’t have the right to commit a crime.’ I told my bosses I would never work with that officer again.”
That day, Craig talked through the lunch hour, holding the last 30 minutes or so for questions. “Don’t give me softballs,” he told the kids, and they took him at his word. What are some of the fears you had in coming to Cincinnati? they asked. Do you try to get neighboring police departments to work with you? How do you sustain the changes you are undertaking?
His answers were thorough. But they were also challenging. The chief was not going to let them walk out empty-handed. “I understand the past, the present, and the future,” he said, somewhat enigmatically, as his audience scrutinized him. Their past? The past of policework? His own? Whose present? Whose future?
Then he laid it on them: “We need to do more. We need to put a lot more emphasis on youth. You are the future. My day is almost over. But you have the opportunity to do something great.”
It was a tough crowd. But he held them rapt.