Citizens speak; Blackwell listens

Jeffrey Blackwell

AVONDALE — An audience of more than 100 citizens — not counting a dozen police officers and handful of elected officials — squeezed into the Urban League of Southwestern Ohio’s Community Room on Friday morning to give Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell their solutions to the city’s recent spate of gun violence.

Blackwell had listened in a meeting Thursday night at New Prospect Baptist Church, Roselawn.

As of May 24, 162 were injured this year by gunfire, more shooting victims than within that time frame than at any time in the previous 10 years, according to a report presented to City Council. And as of May 30, the city had experienced 30 homicides, compared to 33 during the same period in 2014, according to Cincinnati Police data.

“Shootings are up 25 percent. Homicides are down 10 percent,” Blackwell said in brief opening remarks.

Some members of council have criticized Blackwell for the city’s violence, and The Cincinnati Enquirer reported in late May that Blackwell had been handed resignation papers, which he refused to sign. He has received many votes of confidence from citizen and organizations.

On Friday morning, during the two-hour meeting, citizens were split into several small groups and instructed to come up with three solutions to the root causes of ongoing violence, especially experience in the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods — primarily Avondale and Walnut Hills in recent weeks.

Citizens presented several ideas — which were written on notecards and handed to Blackwell’s staff members. Themes centered on illegal gun control, job creation, better parenting of children, and better communication and collaboration between city services.

“This is not a Chief Blackwell issue. It’s a community issue,” said Tracie Hunter, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge and Westwood church pastor.

Other community members offered various proposals: Make the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) more effective or get rid of it. Curb access to violent video games in which youths are desensitized to gun play involving police officers. Create a scared straight-type of program that would take young people to emergency rooms, prisons and the morgue to witness first hand the effects of gun violence. Community meetings such as those held Thursday night and Friday need to be a consistent happening, addressing concerns and celebrating successes.

Jobs and economic conditions came up repeatedly.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Friday that the nation’s unemployment rate stood at 5.5 percent, yet it is double that among African-Americans.

“We know that 1 percent of people commit 85 percent of crime,” said DeAnna Hoskins, director of Hamilton County’s reentry program, which helps returning citizens remove barriers to employment. “We have to give them a reason to put guns down. We have pushed individuals into violent crime. We have to change the culture. Reentry is not a program. It is a process.”

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation of Corrections released more than 21,000 prisoners in calendar year 2012, not counting inmates under local transitional control, such as parole and probation. That year, 1,940 prisoners from Hamilton County came home, in addition to another 1,203 from adjacent Butler, Clermont and Warren counties.

The Urban League specialty

The Urban League — nationally and in Greater Cincinnati — is the industry leader in job-readiness programs that help graduates find and maintain employment and advance on career tracks.

As a recipient of Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s Hand Up Initiative grant, the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio is offering an additional 11 SOAR classes in different neighborhoods. The initial three-week course — co-sponsored by the Uptown Consortium — will begin June 15 at the Hampton Inn in Corryville. Courses during the next year will be held in several neighborhoods: Madisonville, East Price Hill, CUF, and Mount Auburn. These classes also will provide, for the first time, customer service certification from the National Retail Federation.

SOAR stands for Solid Opportunities for Advancement and Retention, and recent graduates found work that paid an average of nearly $22,000 in the first year. Many SOAR graduates move into the League’s Construction Connections program — which offers several construction certifications, including heavy equipment operation.

The Urban League’s call center training program – Accelerated Call Center Education (ACE) – led 2014 graduates to jobs that paid an average of $11 an hour. From 2010 through 2014, the Urban League in Cincinnati welcomed 12,000 participants through its doors into its workforce, youth, small business and women’s business programs.

Community, police find solutions In addition to leading in job-readiness programs, the Greater Cincinnati Urban League houses the Partnering Center. Created as part of the city’s groundbreaking Collaborative Agreement of 2002, now seen as a national model, the center brings residents, business leaders and police together to develop solutions to neighborhood crime problems, said Dorothy Smoot, executive director of the center and the local Urban League’s director of programs.

The Collaborate Agreement resulted from months of long negotiations that came on the heels of a police shooting of an unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas, in April 2001 in Over-the-Rhine. Days of civil unrest and a declaration of martial law followed.

“Cincinnati has a more accountable and transparent policing process in 2015 that makes the community partners in keeping it safe,” Smoot said Friday morning.

Community meetings involving police are planned for later June in Avondale and East Price Hill, Smoot said, meetings that will make use of the process known as SARA — scanning, analyzing, responding and accessing.

“Neither Chief Blackwell nor the police can do it by themselves,” Smoot said. “We have shown that when the community is an engaged partner in public safety that crime goes down.”

Avondale, Bond Hill, Corryville, Madisonville and Northside are Cincinnati neighborhoods within the past decade that have successfully employed the Partnering Center and the SARA process to develop successful solutions to crime problems.

State Sen. Cecil Thomas, a Democrat who represents District 9 in Hamilton County, attended the session and said Cincinnati has a process to involving citizens and police to reduce crime problems.

“This is part of that foundation,” said Thomas, a long-time Cincinnati Police officer.

For his part, Blackwell — though he faced a weekend of writing a 90-day plan to reduce violence, due to City Manager Harry Black on Monday — said he was enthused by community response during a tense week.

“This (meeting) demonstrates how much love this community has for each other,” he said in closing remarks. “It’s not about me. It’s about us. A negative has been turned into a positive. “Violence is not as high here as in other cities. I’m encouraged that this city is going to get this under control.”

Information on ACE, SOAR, Construction Connections and the League’s other workforce, youth and economic development programs is available on this Website or by calling (513) 281-9955.

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