Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac joined a video chat Wednesday hosted by Cincinnati Public Schools and Cohear to answer student questions about his tenure with the Cincinnati Police Department, how police can better interact with minority communities, and how he, as a black man, is feeling in this current climate.
Students from Aiken, Riverview East, Hughes, Walnut Hills and other CPS high schools shared their concerns about feeling misunderstood by police and what the department is doing to fix those relationships.
"Many of the concerns you have, I share those same concerns," Isaac told the group. "Relationships are the key to everything. Everything we do is about relationships."
He offered examples of the department's outreach, like its cadet and Police Explorer programs and its annual youth summit, as well as its sports and "Shop with a Cop" offerings.
Isaac acknowledged the department could do a better job of sharing all it does. "What we don't do well is we don't tell our story well," he said.
He added how when something is terrible and wrong - like the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which have sparked three weeks of protests in Cincinnati and across the nation - "it's very hard to say, 'Well, we do stuff with kids.' "
"You don't want to hear that. You want to hear how something that horrible can never happen again," Isaac continued. "And I understand that. I get it. I understand why people are angry. I'm angry. I've done this job for 32 years. And the reason I got into this work is because of experiences I had with police and how I was treated."
He encouraged students to continue reaching out to police to talk about the changes they would like to see. "Reach out to us and pull us in where you see a void and where we can connect," he said. "That is critical and that is something new that I haven't seen in the past. You all are reaching out to us and it is so very helpful."
A student asked Isaac what he is doing within the department to make sure officers aren't racist or biased. "When I've seen it, I've tried to take action," he answered, noting training and disciplinary action he took against CPD officers who were caught using the n-word last year.
Isaac also said that is why he is a big proponent of the department's body-worn camera program. He mentioned a recent training the department undertook called "Empathy Through History" that looked at the evolution of policing and why such a large part of the African American community feels the way they feel about police. "It's because of that history," he said. "It's undeniable."
Immediately after, a student asked how it felt for him to hear that black kids are "taught" how to stay alive when they encounter police.
Isaac said it makes him feel "terrible."
"But it also - I know that it's necessary," he said. "I've had those same talks with my children, with my nieces and nephews. ... Here in Cincinnati, I'm fairly well known. But when I travel, people don't recognize me. They see me as a fairly large black man and those things cross my mind. If I'm stopped by a police officer some place, I'm very cognizant of how I behave as well."
He ended by acknowledging the significance of youth voices in this current movement.
"The changes that will be made now will be what impacts your life as you all move into adulthood and the children you will have one day," he said. "It's so important that you all pay attention, that you have a voice, and that you stay politically involved in what's happening."