Changes in policing after Cincinnati's 2001 unrest are seen as an example for Ferguson

Collaborative agreement meant change on the street

CINCINNATI -- As officials in Ferguson, Mo. work to quell and recover from days of rioting and protests, they’re turning to leaders in Cincinnati for guidance on charting a way forward. 

Among them is local civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein – the lead lawyer in the class-action lawsuit that was filed following Cincinnati’s 2001 riots. That lawsuit in a major overhaul of policing practices here.

“Civil rights leaders in Missouri are interested in our experience with working with the African American community and police in Cincinnati, and we’ve offered to help any way we can,” said Gerhardstein

Policing strategies in place here now, says Gerhardstein, can serve as models as officials in Ferguson work to unravel the civil unrest sparked by the shooting death of an unarmed African American teen by a police officer.

Gerhardstein’s work in 2001 resulted in what became known as a collaborative agreement between Cincinnati police and the Cincinnati Black United Front and American Civil Liberties Union – the two groups which brought  the lawsuit against the city.

The 19-year-old killed, Timothy Thomas, was the 15th African American resident shot and killed by city police in six years.

Among other key changes, the agreement created new policing policies and launched reforms for the use of force by Cincinnati police. 

The agreement was guided five key goals:

• Police officers and community members will become partners in community problem solving.

• Build relationships of respect, cooperation and trust within and between police and communities.

• Improve education, oversight, monitoring, hiring practices and accountability of the police department.

• Ensure fair, equitable, and courteous treatment for all.

• Create methods to ensure the public understands police policies and procedures, as well as recognize exceptional police service in an effort to foster community support for CPD officers.

Through a memorandum of agreement (MOA)with U.S. Department of Justice, the changes were enforced and policing practices continue to be monitored and tweaked as needed.

“The most important result is the commitment to problem solving and a new policing philosophy in Cincinnati,” said Gerhardstein.

“At the time of the lawsuit, Cincinnati was doing a lot of traditional policing – you get a service call, you do a lot of sweeps and stop and frisk people,” recalled Gerhardstein. “As a result, there were a lot of angry people in the black community.”

Now, Cincinnati employs a “place-based policing” strategy that focuses on locations of repeated crimes and violence, and repeat offenders, said Gehardstein.

Police work with property owners, landlords, business owners and various city departments to focus on problems areas.

And not all policing strategies require more police.

“I believe that what good policing looks like is problem-oriented policing with healthy community collaboration,” said Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell. “Basically you work with your partners in the community to police their neighbors the way they see fit and on the problems that they deem are significant. And that's a paradigm shift for a lot of agencies.”

Sometimes  solutions require changing traffic patterns or putting up more lighting in areas. Other issues call for more stringent background checks on tenants in apartment communities where problems are rampant.

““It’s a team approach and commitment to get to the root of the problem,” said Gerhardstein.

The collaborative agreement also created a Citizens Complaint Authority that investigates allegations of police misconduct.

“We also have a good system for accountability and a system that gives us early warning signs that an officer may be slipping off the rails in terms of personal problems, or not showing up to court,” said Gerhardstein.

There is also regular tracking of how officers behave in the field – with video cameras in every police cruiser.

“The videotapes are reviewed on a random basis by supervisors so that we can be sure that officers are using the proper practices,” said Gehardstein. “And those tapes are public record, so when someone says I was beat up by police for no good reason, we can get to the bottom of it very quickly.”

In December 2008, a final report was released  by the federal monitor and an oversight committee that outlined the progress of the collaborative agreement and the MOA with the Justice Department.

The reported noted that the collaborative agreement was “the most ambitious police reform effort ever attempted in this country,”  and over time resulted in one of the  “most successful police reform efforts ever undertaken.”

And even though the Justice Department MOA expired in 2007, the new practices live on because all of these terms became city police policy.

“They are benchmarks for training and supervision, and are key to promotion within the department.” Gerhardstein said. “It’s important to keep our focus on that kind of continuing commitment.”


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