Can Rahm Emanuel Survive in Office? Advice From a Mayor Who Did

Charlie Luken of Cincinnati says that the Chicago leader needs to rethink his police-reform and communication strategies.

photo: riot police in formation dressed in uniform at night
Riot police stand on a corner in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district on April 10, 2001. (Tom Uhlman / AP)

There’s been a steady drumbeat of bad news for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel since November, all tied to the bad relationship between the police and the community. The latest set of stories comes only a few months after Emanuel narrowly won reelection, in a runoff he had desperately tried to avoid. Protestors are marching in the streets, and an increasing number of Chicago groups are calling for Emanuel to resign. For the national media, it’s become a political deathwatch (in many cases cheered on by liberal journalists): Can Rahm, the famed Washington street brawler, hold on to his job?

The precedents offered by other mayors who have recently faced policing scandals are mixed. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles remains in office. Baltimore’s Stephanie Rawlings-Blake opted not to run for reelection, under pressure. New York’s Bill de Blasio is battling low approval ratings. In the past, major protests have ended mayors’ tenures. Los Angeles’ Tom Bradley retired after the riots there. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums retired after riots followed the acquittal of an officer who killed Oscar Grant; his successor, Jean Quan, was defeated in her reelection effort after unrest involving Occupy Oakland.

One of the few big-city mayors to survive a major episode of civil unrest is Charlie Luken of Cincinnati. The Democrat entered office (for a second stint) in 1999. In April 2001, police shot and killed 19-year-old black man Timothy Thomas, setting off several days of rioting. The riots cost millions and devastated the city’s Over-the-Rhine district. Several months later, however, Luken was reelected. He oversaw a process of police reform that is now hailed a model for other cities. Luken declined to run for reelection in 2004, and now works for a law firm in the Queen City.

I called him to see what he learned from his experience, and what Rahm Emanuel might take from it. Like Emanuel, Luken faced a crisis rooted in issues that predated his term in office, lacked quick fixes, and involved issues extending well beyond the city limits. In our conversation, Luken put a premium on transparency above all else. “When I see something like we held a video of a kid getting shot for 14 months, I’m shocked,” he said. “That could never, ever happen here.” But he said there’s no clear guidebook—the path he followed was difficult and fraught, and his reelection hinged in large part on his luck in facing a weak challenger. Luken ended on a somewhat pessimistic note. Although proud of Cincinnati’s work to repair the relationship between police and citizens, he worries that the issues underlying the 2001 riots aren’t any closer to being solved than they were then.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

David Graham: How does a mayor approach police-community relations problems like the ones in Chicago and Cincinnati, that started long before you entered office and don’t have simple fixes?

Charlie Luken: We went through hell, and by that I mean, we didn’t just flip a switch and go from darkness to sunlight. It was a few years of work and pain. I’m certain things are much better. I’m not sure we solved anything. Issues of poverty, racial discrimination—they still exist here. If we solved anything it would be in the area of police-community relations. Large problems still exist as they do in many American cities. When I became mayor in 2000, it was clear that the city had a very serious police-community relations problem, and I talked about it but nobody paid any attention until the young man was shot, Timothy Thomas. Then the riots happened for three days, and then people got more serious about corrective action.

Graham: How did you go about reforming Cincinnati’s police department?

Luken: I invited the Justice Department to town, which was not a real popular decision, but it was a good one. The teaching, the lessons, just have to do with police training and transparency. If I look at Chicago from 10,000 feet, I would say they never got the transparency part or really all of the police-training part. [With Timothy Thomas,] they had a guy who was got out of a mental hospital, and he had a brick. A bunch of police surrounded him and shot and killed him. Obviously there are alternative ways to handle that.

Graham: I imagine it was hard for you as the mayor to convince a huge group of career officers to change their methods.

Luken: The brass used to say to me, “You know, I was here before you, and I’ll be here after you.” They were generally right about that. The interesting thing is over the few years that we engaged in this process, the Fraternal Order of Police and most of the police brass went from rejecting this process and fighting any changes to really embracing it. That’s been the key going forward. Now I think there’s even a little pride when people go to Cincinnati in talking about the reform.

Graham: Is there a trick to getting the community to come together to back reform?

Luken: I really don’t know. You get a bunch of people at the table and you just keep slugging it out. We had a boycott called by leaders in the African American community. It was honored by people like Bill Cosby, who wouldn’t come. The old saying is what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We had good lawyers that represented the community. We had a good federal magistrate. We grudgingly brought the police department along. There’s no rabbit in a hat here. Everybody's gotta get out of their comfort zone.

Graham: Chicago is in the process of searching for a new police chief. Is it important that they hire from outside the department? Does it work better if it’s someone from inside the ranks?

Luken: That was one of the things we faced. I put a ballot issue on that would allow us to pick a chief from a national search.We tended to get the same demographic of police chief over and over again from within. I’m not saying it should always be from within or from outside, but having the option is very important.

Graham: Who were the people you brought into discussions?

Luken: The engagement ran the gamut. It wasn’t just the city. It wasn’t just the community. It was the business community. They had to be there. They had to help and participate. So it was a wide ranging communication effort. I just tell you, I got through it, but two weeks before the riots they came to me and said they wanted me to do some commercials because my approval was 82 percent. Three weeks later it was 32 percent.

I think one problem that Chicago seems to have is that they dole out information only when they get caught. That is just the reverse of what I think I learned. I think if you have good relationships between the police and the community you can be honest with them, and even if the news is bad, there’s an understanding and a process. People can deal with it. I get the sense that Chicago has been engaged in a “reveal it when we have to, if we have to.” That wouldn’t work here.

Graham: Was it easier for you to build those relationships since you had been talking about it before?

Luken: No one was paying attention! I remember giving the State of the City six months or eight months before the riots, and I remember opening up questions. It was more of a business than community audience. They asked me what the biggest problem in the city was, and I said it was race relations. They thought I was going to say we needed a new stadium, a new convention center. It dawned on us slowly. We didn’t have a citizens’ complaint authority before 2001. Part of the reform was—there was a long list—part of the reform was the formation of a citizens’ complaint board.

Graham: Did you worry that some of the big businesses in Cincinnati—Kroger, Proctor and Gamble, Macy’s—would decamp after the riots?

Luken: I was afraid people were going to leave town.There was a period of time when I really wondered whether the city as we know it was going to make it. If you look at it today, Cincinnati has done pretty well for a midwestern, medium-sized city. I don’t think we would have been able to make any progress had we not first dealt with the police-community issues. We wouldn’t have been able to do the development that has happened over the last few years.

Graham: How did you repair the city’s relationships with African Americans? You’ve mentioned in the past that you regret the way you responded to the boycott.

Luken: I don’t know that I regret my response. I did call it “economic terrorism.” That was—we can debate whether that’s true, but it certainly was not the right word to choose. I don’t have any good answer for that. I ran for election eight months later and it became unfortunately a white vs. black election. I think today I have a certain level of trust.

Graham: Did it ever occur to you not to run for reelection in 2001?

Luken: No. I always thought I’d rather the headline be ‘Luken Loses’ than ‘Luken Quits.’ It’s just a personal preference. When you go through things like that—I knew after the election I was done. I knew that was my last term. I knew I had to make some changes that nobody would like. Those four years were probably the—for sure, the four years of most change in Cincinnati in modern history.

Graham: How’d you win the election? There were just enough more white voters than black voters?

Luken: To be honest, the other guy is a friend of mine. He was a news anchor. He’d have won except his campaign just kind of collapsed around him. He was caught in some things I don’t really want to talk about. Otherwise he’d have won. People recognized, ‘This guy may—we may not like him very much at the moment, but he’s the guy to get us through.’ I ended up winning by about 11 points.

Graham: What does Chicago need to do to make the sort of reversal in police relations that Cincinnati did?

Luken: The changes that we made were, in that sphere that I described, were historic, and like so many police departments we had a demographic of a police officer that wasn’t always true to the city. You’ve got a certain neighborhood, certain Catholic schools, certain… that’s where the police tended to come from. The cultural differences between a city like Cincinnati and the police department had just grown very apparent. I think people made a commitment and they stuck to it. We still view the Collaborative as the bible of police-community relations.

When I see something like ‘We held a video of a kid getting shot for 14 months,’ I’m shocked. That could never, ever happen here. If it happened, people would—the city wouldn't do it, the community wouldn’t tolerate it. You have to get the info out quick and deal with it. When Timothy Thomas got killed, the reaction of the city was to say, “It’s under investigation.” It just boiled. That’s just not—you have to say, “Here’s what we know, here’s the video we have, here’s what we think, AND it’s under investigation.”

Graham: What was your relationship with the city council like throughout the process?

Luken: I think they felt sorry for me. The Collaborative was voted on by city council. It passed 7-2. The Fraternal Order of Police signed it! You could have knocked me over with a feather. If you’d looked at the change of where they came and where they ended, it was amazing to me. Those people were important players. We didn’t always get along by a long shot.

Graham: I wanted to come back to something you mentioned at the start, which is that you feel like the underlying causes of tension are still there. What is a mayor supposed to do about problems like that that are much broader than what’s in his control?

Luken: It wasn’t easy. It was a long time. It was years. It was tough. And it was solving a piece of the problem. It’s part of a larger problem that deals with race and economics.