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'We wanted to come out as a better city': Cincinnati's Collaborative Agreement marks 20th anniversary

Black Lives Matter
Posted at 8:00 AM, Apr 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-11 19:53:46-04

CINCINNATI — Monday, April 11 marks the 20th anniversary of the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, a revolutionary agenda devised by activists, lawyers, police and city officials to reform police-community relations.

The agreement is upheld nationwide as an exemplary model for combatting discriminatory, excessive law enforcement. It is also applauded for its inventive ideas on how policing should be conducted to prioritize problem-solving over arrests, and to optimize safety and relationships between officers and the marginalized communities they serve.

“The largest milestone of this agreement is that the Black community was asked, ‘How did it feel about its policing?’ And that had never been done before,” said Iris Roley, an adviser to the city manager's office focusing on issues related to the Collaborative Agreement and the city's process to identify a new police chief.

Roley was one of the central organizers of the Collaborative Agreement. She has been a prominent, longtime organizer with the Cincinnati Black United Front, a social justice collective whose activism helped serve as a catalyst for the agreement.

“That in itself was a huge milestone because people needed to hear from Black people in the city of Cincinnati,” Roley said.

The agreement, which would ultimately be ratified in federal court, came after the Black United Front joined forces with lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union to file a class-action lawsuit. The 2001 lawsuit alleging racial profiling and biased policing was in response to over a dozen high-profile police brutality cases involving Black men in the city in the years prior.

“There was really a need to bring light to the situation Cincinnati. But we did it through the Collaborative Agreement, which means that, at the end, we were going to come out with changes,” said New Prospect Baptist Church Rev. Damon Lynch III, another prominent organizer and member of the Black United Front. “We were going to come out with reforms, but we wanted to come out as a better city.”

The plan reinvented Cincinnati’s philosophy of conducting law enforcement. In addition to identifying police officers and residents as change agents who could provide solutions to conflict, it codified goals to build more trust and respect between the two groups. It also enhanced officers’ education, oversight, monitoring, recruitment and accountability, pushed back on biased policing, and better informed the public on law enforcement operations.

“(We) gathered all the stakeholders together to approach a problem in a way that will minimize arrests while maximizing public safety and it's worked," Attorney Al Gerhardstein said. "Since we started, arrests for felonies and misdemeanors are down 50% in Cincinnati and public safety has not been compromised at all. So we are we want to stay on that trajectory.”

Gerhardstein was another key organizer in the formation of the Collaborative Agreement. He said he had already been filing lawsuits against the police for two decades by the time he began working with Roley and Lynch.

“The many paragraphs of the agreement became the policies and procedures of the department," Gerhardstein said. "Those became the training materials for officers. Those also became the job description for the officers and the standards on which people get promoted. So we infiltrated all of the markers for what an organization does in order to have staying power.”

Roley is slated to play a key role in expanding and reinforcing the mandate set by the Collaborative Agreement through a “Refresh” effort from the city. She, Gerhardstein and Lynch said they are all proud and encouraged by how strongly the Collaborative Agreement’s mission to eliminate excessive, biased policing has sustained in Cincinnati despite its nationwide struggle — particularly in Black communities.

“This is a huge opportunity to come together in a very intentful way to get the work done," Roley said. "We all understand that in order to change systems and cultures, minds, hearts and souls, it's going to take a while. We didn't get here overnight. It's going to take us a while to get out of it.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

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