Crossing the color line

Cincinnati police patch

Their offices have been just across Central Parkway for 25 years.

Yet not until this year did the two white cops leading the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police and the two black officers at the helm of the Sentinels Police Association step out and meet in the middle.

In making this effort, these brothers bound by the thin blue line have started difficult and thorny conversations about policing in the context of race in America. Their stated goal is to help the Cincinnati Police Department run better, inside and out. They know, humbly, that their relationship can serve as a model for their 1,050 fellow officers and maybe a city and even a country in the throes of racial dissension and distrust of law enforcement by people of color.

In just two months, these men – Eddie Hawkins and Marcus McNeil of the Sentinels black police union and Dan Hils and Don Meece of the FOP – have learned the expanse of their common ground as police officers and people. They also have come to understand that they come from and still go home to different worlds.

The department still faces racial discrepancies in promotion, discipline, assignment and hiring. Of its 1,056 sworn officers, 314 (or about 30 percent) are black. The city is 46 percent black. Progress is being made. Four African-American officers were promoted Feb. 23 within the command staff, including three to the rank of captain.

Black-white tension endures inside the organization, just as it does in larger society. On July 29, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced the murder indictment of the white former University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing. He had shot and killed black motorist Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop 10 days earlier. A group of officers watched Deters’ news conference on television in a squad room. When Deters said Tensing would face a murder charge, white officers walked out in silence. Black officers stayed behind to listen.

“My perspective in 27 years is some obvious racial disparities have existed inside the police department,” said Eliot K. Isaac, Cincinnati’s third consecutive African-American police chief and a career Sentinels member. “The challenges are not so obvious anymore. We have moved forward.

“The ghosts of the past are what we’re facing now.”

Enter four new police union leaders.

`They got me through it’

Sentinels President Eddie Hawkins experienced the support of white teammates as a child playing soccer. At a pivotal time in his police career – when he shot and killed a bank robber who fired first at him – he received it again.

On Friday morning, Aug. 31, 2001, in his second year as an officer, Hawkins worked an off-duty shift at a credit union branch in Roselawn. The city was undergoing an unusually high number of bank holdups.

That morning, a lone robber with a white cloth over his face entered the branch, showed a silver handgun, threw a pillow case on the counter and ordered the teller to fill it with $50 and $100 bills.

Hawkins, hidden behind the teller, radioed police before ordering the robber to put down his gun. The robber, later identified as Brandon Lowe, a white 18-year-old who once lived in suburban Lebanon, pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Lowe was about to try again when Hawkins shot him to death.

The bank’s security cameras captured the scene. Two white police leaders stood with Hawkins. Chief Tom Streicher commended him for his conduct. FOP President Keith Fangman spent a good part of that day with Hawkins.

“Keith knew what kind of man I was,” Hawkins said more than 14 years after the incident. “He knew the incident weighed heavily on me. It was an 18-year-old kid. It didn’t matter if he was white or black. I took a kid’s life. It still bothers me from time to time. Chief Streicher knew what working with kids meant to me. He always treated me great.

“It was a tough situation for me and my family. My phone started ringing and didn’t stop. Black and white officers called. Everybody. They got me through it.”

Hawkins works today as a police youth specialist at Woodward Career Technical High School, his alma mater, in Bond Hill. With a round face and quick smile, Hawkins is at ease with everyone, especially children. Talkative, ambitious and community-oriented, he voluntarily organizes college trips for black high school students to show them the world outside of the urban core.

He is the 13th Sentinels president, a list that includes Cincinnati Council member Wendell Young and Ohio state Sen. Cecil Thomas. Founded in 1968, when black officers faced overt race-based disparities in discipline, promotions and assignments, the Sentinels grew from a handful of members to 208 today. Three, including one female officer, are white.

“There’s a world of difference for black officers today compared to 1967,” said Young, 70, who retired as a sergeant in 1992 after 25 years in the department. “It’s fundamentally wrong that black officers have to have an organization of their own, but I can’t envision a time there will not be a need for the Sentinels.”

Working conditions have indeed improved for black officers since the late ‘60s, thanks in part to a voluntary agreement involving the city, FOP and Sentinels in 1987 to settle a lawsuit. It calls for proportional promotion of people of color, white female officers and those in an “others” category.

Hawkins’ openness toward whites – and to people of all backgrounds, the “others,” he said – took shape as a child. He grew up in integrated Mount Airy and played soccer.

“There were three black people at those huge soccer tournaments: me, my younger brother and my mom,”‘ he said. “It was never the N-word, but I’d hear comments like, `That’s not fair. He’s faster than the rest of the kids.’ ”

Those comments came from parents of opposing players. Hawkins’ all-white teammates took offense and stuck up for him. “They were angry,” he said.

Hawkins said he was the only black player on all of his teams but remembers how white teammates and coaches made sure to include him on overnight team parties. White coaches and teammates’ parents gave him rides to and from games and practices if his mother could not.

“She was always grateful,” Hawkins said. “So am I.”

A perspective deep below the surface

At first glance, Dan Hils fits the stereotype of the prototypical Cincinnati cop: White. Military haircut. Elder High School graduate, Class of 1984. Bridgetown native. Lives in Delhi Township. Closing in his 50th birthday and 29 years with the department. West Side through and through. Lenten fish fry West Side. Hils is proud of the Elder cop cliché, but to stop there is to miss most of what he is.

Hils’ son, Alex, is also an Elder man, 16 and a sophomore. Meghan is 18 and the biggest reason that surface characteristics like a person’s race, class and religion are insignificant to him. Meghan has the fatal congenital heart defect pulmonary atresia and has outlived her expected lifespan. Doctors are giving her another six months.

“I left machismo behind a long time ago. Meghan helped me grow up and become a man,” said Hils, not surprising his daughter’s fiercest advocate. “She is so inspirational.”

His voice trailed off for a few moments.

“I’ve learned the hard way what matters and what doesn’t. I don’t want this to be about her and me. I want it to be about the four of us with the FOP and Sentinels.”

Elected FOP president Dec. 21 by almost a 2-1 margin, Hils is at times hesitant to talk about race and said that the media makes the issue more complicated than it is. Then other times his observations on race relations fire with urgency and insight.

“The media goes out of its way to point out when people are at odds because it sells, and without all of that, we as a society would be further along,” Hils said.

The flip side: “Like Rev. King said, `It’s the content of a person’s character that matters, not the color of their skin.’ I have seen the beautiful side of people of all colors. I have seen the worst of all people, too. If I chose to be, I could be a bitter racist. But I choose to look at the positive things I have seen across the racial spectrum.”

He doesn’t have to look harder than a family gathering to see a rainbow. One of his brothers is married to a Hispanic woman. One of Hils’ sisters is married to a black man, and they have two biracial children.

Adoption brought a Korean niece into the family. Her husband is a black man, former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Keyon Whiteside, and they have two children.

Hils has two families, he said. His family at home and his police family. Both are diverse and as complicated as they are simple according to this self-described “C-minus Elder guy.”

“Listen, I’ve been a cop for a long time, and a few times, when you’re getting your ass whipped by a bad guy and rolling around in a gutter, you never once think you hope it’s a white cop who’s coming to help you,” Hils said. “When I started 28 years ago, we’ve gotten a lot better. Today if you said, `I don’t want a black partner,’ I hope you would get called out.”

Jersey color, not skin color, still matters most

Marcus McNeil joined the department’s SWAT team in 2007 to become a crisis negotiator. That’s where he met Hils, who trained what used to be known as hostage negotiators but evolved into working primarily with people threatening to harm themselves.

Many of those calls come in overnight. Those shared experiences become more meaningful than a racial difference. The two officers were trying to save lives.

“I realized pretty quickly Marcus would be better than I ever was,” Hils said. “Marcus easily puts himself in the shoes of the person in crisis.”

Measured and reserved, dressed in a shirt and tie with a full beard that looks more teacher than cop, McNeil returned the compliment: “Dan’s ability to actively listen to someone in crisis makes him good at it.”

Over time, as the two colleagues talked about working conditions inside the department, they decided that forging a Sentinels-FOP relationship might help.

“It’s uncharted territory for everybody,” McNeil said. “It’s not FOP versus Sentinels. It’s us saying, `If there’s a problem, let’s work together to fix it.’”

Working with people of different backgrounds comes naturally to McNeil.

Now 42, he graduated in 1992 from Western Hills High School, where he played safety on a football team that he remembers as being half black and half white. It was “Remember the Titans” a generation later than the movie but without the stress.

“We were naturally diverse,” said McNeil, who described himself as a “skinny little dude” of about 150 pounds. “We never had a problem.”

He grew up as the only black child through middle school on a street in Westwood. Most of his friends in the neighborhood were white.

“Typically, black people are not taught to hate white people,” he said. “We’re accepting of all people until something happens, which can change a person’s mind.”

Like McNeil, Meece’s racial attitudes formed in large part on a football field.

At Mount Healthy High School, Meece played fullback and safety on a team that, he said, was split equally black and white.

“Nothing breeds the spirit of cooperation more than organized team sports, in my opinion,” said Meece, 45, who graduated in 1990. “We were all lower middle-class kids who shared the same life experiences and life challenges in spite of the difference in skin color.”

He blocked for a future NFL player, Jeff Hill, who played college football in the Big Ten at Purdue before playing three years in the NFL, primarily as a kick returner.

“Jeff was a great player,” Meece said. “It didn’t matter to me that he was black. All I wanted to do was score touchdowns.”

Meece lives with his wife and daughter in Harrison. Their nephew grew up in Indiana and attended a predominantly white high school. His school would travel to Greater Cincinnati and play teams, such as Winton Woods or LaSalle, with black players.

“They’ve never seen black kids before,” Meece said. “They’d be overwhelmed. I tried to tell him, `Hey, the black kids put their uniform pants like you do, one leg at a time.’ ”

Black and white cops, of course, put their uniforms on the same way, too. The year 2001 was a turning point inside and outside of the Cincinnati Police Department. “People don’t expect this bald-headed, blue-eyed white guy with a pissed-off look on his face would know anything about diversity,” Meece said. He does. He participated in a panel discussion on race relations and police-community policing in November 2001. It came seven months after the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas, by a white Cincinnati officer shook the department and the city.

“I talked to some African-American Sentinels members after the (April 2001) riots,” said Meece, described by those close to him as a bridge builder. “They felt they were not fully represented by the FOP. We went through a crucible together.

“It’s this way with us (FOP and Sentinels leadership): We intend to be open and public. I’d love nothing more than a good old-fashioned compromise instead of yelling and screaming at each other. Let’s break bread together, get a cold drink and discuss things rationally.”

Series of internal, external tests for union leaders

On this issue, the FOP and Sentinels are unified. The police union’s contract with the city will expire May 21. Hils’ campaign for the FOP presidency centered on pay. In the last 10 years, he said, officers received raises just three times.

In a group interview with the four leaders, Hawkins jumped in. The average salary of Cincinnati officers is $64,000, compared to $77,000 for Columbus cops, he said

The leaders face challenges beyond getting a new contract. Sentinels officers are working to recruit more African-Americans to the police academy. The current recruit class has just 14 blacks among its 52 members.

That’s internal business. External challenges await these union leaders.

The depth and breadth of their relationship will be tested.

The historic “long, hot summer” is not as much a concern for police as are the first warm days of spring when some people come outside with their guns after a long winter inside. Some drug turf lines will be re-established. Cincinnati Police officers began testing body cameras March 13. They will go department-wide in June. July 19 will be the first anniversary of the DuBose shooting. Tensing’s murder trial by jury will begin Oct. 24.

Hawkins, Hils, McNeil and Meece are determined to continue to build their relationship through the coming months. Hils’ term runs two years. McNeil said he and Hawkins had planned to reach out no matter who’d been elected to lead the FOP.

The four officers met recently at FOP headquarters. The meeting ended in the hallway with hugs, the one-shoulder lean-in, hand-shake-at-the-same-time guy kind of hug. They made sure to set a time for another meeting.

The major players

Four Cincinnati Police officers, two white, two African-American, the four leaders of the two police unions, have pledged to work together in their new positions to move the department forward, both internally and externally.

Officer Eddie Hawkins, 43, grew up in Mount Airy and is a 1990 graduate of Woodward High School. He was elected in January as president of the Sentinels Police Association, which represents African-American Cincinnati Police officers. He is the married father of a son and a daughter and lives in Symmes Township. An 18-year police veteran, his current assignment is as a police youth specialist at his alma mater, Woodward Career Technical High School, Bond Hill.

Sergeant Dan Hils, 49, was elected in December as president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police. A 28-year Cincinnati Police veteran, he worked previously in District 3 on the city’s west side. A U.S. Army veteran, he worked for 15 years in the Canine Unit and is a long-time crisis negotiator on the SWAT team. He is a 1984 Elder High School graduate and Bridgetown native. He lives with his wife and two children in Delhi Township.

Detective Marcus McNeil, 42, an 18-year Cincinnati Police veteran, is assigned to the Homicide Unit’s Criminal Investigation Section. He grew up in South Cumminsville and Westwood and is a 1992 Western Hills High School graduate. Elected Sentinels vice president in January, he worked previously as a patrol officer in Bond Hill and Roselawn and has 10 years of experience as a crisis negotiator with the SWAT team. He and his wife have four children and live in Montgomery.

Officer Don Meece, 45, is an 18-year Cincinnati Police veteran and has worked in its Canine Unit since 2008. He is a 1990 graduate of Mount Healthy High School and was elected in December as FOP first vice president. He and his wife live in Harrison and are the parents of two children. He formerly worked in the violent crime squad in Avondale out of the District 4 station.

http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2016/03/20/crossing-color-line/79364682/