After 14 years, what's kept Cincinnati's historic Collaborative Agreement going?

After 14 years, what's kept Cincinnati's historic Collaborative Agreement going?
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-14 06:00:08-04

CINCINNATI -- It's been called historic, a national model, a compass, a living document and a framework for the future.

Those descriptions aside, there are two main concepts fundamental to Cincinnati's Collaborative Agreement: transparency and respect.

"It's something that we've become accustomed to here in Cincinnati," Police Chief Eliot Isaac said.

More than a decade in, many of the people closely involved in forging the Collaborative Agreement say it's worked, but how it's implemented has continued to evolve through better understandings of crime and what causes it, along with a never-ending conversation between police and the communities they serve.

It took a serious wake-up for those conversations to begin: When Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley, the trust was already broken between Cincinnati's black community and the police force. That was in April 2001; a month before, the ACLU of Ohio and Cincinnati Black United Front filed a lawsuit alleging a decades-long pattern of racial profiling.

In the riots and boycotts and Department of Justice investigation that followed, there were two agreements: One, with the Department of Justice, called on the city to reform its use-of-force policies and practices; and the other, the Collaborative Agreement, was historic in recognizing community members as partners in fighting crime, rather than as people who should be viewed as potential criminals.

There were a raft of other reforms in the Collaborative, too: Intervention for suspects suffering from mental health problems. An independent citizen board to investigate police officers' use of force and complaints against cops. Rapid release of information after a police shooting.

The main principle, though, was in the agreement's title: Collaboration. And though court supervision of the agreement ended eight years ago, the collaboration hasn't. It's survived three mayors, three city managers and four police chiefs.

"I mean, just Friday we were all around the table again after Dallas and after Minneapolis and after Baton Rouge saying, 'All right, what's this mean for Cincinnati?'" said Al Gerhardstein, a civil rights attorney who was part of the 2001 racial-profiling lawsuit. "All the stakeholders that formed the Collaborative were at the table once again saying, 'All right, what is Cincinnati's response to that?'"

Current Mayor John Cranley credits Cincinnati's renaissance, in part, to the improvements in police-community relations. Cranley was a city councilman and chairman of the city council's law and public safety committee when the riots began in April 2001, perhaps the low point in Cincinnati's modern history.

"We're not perfect and it's a never-ending process," he said this week, "but we have become a role-model for police-community relations, which is fundamentally committed to use of force that is consistent with trying to de-escalate tension, training to deal with people dealing with drug addictions -- someone who might be high on heroin, cocaine -- and figuring out how to deal with that without leading to a use of force if possible."

Isaac said the four most recent recruit classes have received 40 hours of training on how to de-escalate conflicts, and it's being incorporated into training for existing officers, too.

"I think a lot of this is just the way you engage an individual to begin with," Isaac said. "I think a lot of this is when people feel disrespected things tend to escalate. I think it's really stressing that you treat people with dignity and respect as a beginning."

Sgt. Dan Hils, president of the city's police union, views it as the Golden Rule: treating others like you'd want to be treated.

"We always do our best to use the minimum amount of force necessary when we do have to make an arrest, and everything is as transparent as possible when we do use force," Hils said.

When a Cincinnati police officer is involved in a shooting, the Cincinnati Police Department holds a news conference within 24 hours, sharing the officer's name and personnel file, as well as a detailed account of the incident and any available video and audio recordings.

Body cameras, being deployed in phases starting next month, will add a new layer of transparency.

"Fundamentally, what police do is represent the government, and, the government needs to be transparent in what it does," Cranley said. " I remember when we put cameras in our police cruisers, it was a big fear at the time that the police would fear they were being micromanaged. It turns out the opposite has happened: The vast majority of cases the police cruiser exonerates the police officer from allegations of misconduct."

Hils said he recognizes body cams do bring more transparency to police work, but also thinks they add an extra layer of on-the-job stress.

"Being monitored while you're out doing every piece and part of your work? It's something that most people would not choose to do in their work," he said. "It's something that we're going to have to live with, and it's something else that needs to be recognized and needs to be recognized when it comes to salary."

Collaborative is 'part of our culture'

Robert Richardson, current president of the Cincinnati NAACP, notes the national organization is calling for the kind of de-escalation training that's become standard within the Cincinnati police force.

"Anybody looking at these different shootings that we have, it seem like the officers, they have the individuals usually outnumbered, outgunned, but they don't talk much.  They say a few words or action and they start shooting," Richardson said.

He added: "Cincinnati police -- they've been doing a good job of not shooting people."

And that means the Collaborative is working, he said.

Cincinnati City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, a past Cincinnati NAACP president, sees no reason to change the agreement.

"I think our officers in Cincinnati are on the cutting edge, that we've adopted it," he said. "It's a part of our culture.  It's a part of our DNA, and that's reflected, I think, in the good relationships we have right now in the community between our police and our citizens."

Isaac, promoted to police chief late last year, has seen CPD's changes firsthand as he's worked his way up through the department's ranks. The Collaborative, he said, lays a foundation for the city's future.

Gerhardstein cautions the agreement needs constant attention.

"We have to stay vigilant," he said. "I'm not going to say the work's done by any means. We have to keep training people. We have to keep upgrading the quality of all the officers. We have to pay them fairly, because we're expecting a lot out of them and I think we're on the right track here, though."