CINCINNATI — Cincinnati police Sgt. Erik Kohler is suing the city and claiming he was held back from promotion because he is white. In response, the federal government may reopen a consent decree that has informed the department's hiring policy — and mandated a certain percentage of minority and women hires — for roughly 40 years.
But Mayor John Cranley is fighting the potential change to that hiring policy, saying that, without the decree, Chief Eliot Isaac may have never been hired in the first place.
"He was bypassed for promotion by a racial minority simply because Erik Kohler is white," said Tom Bruns, an attorney representing now Sgt. Erik Kohler.
Kohler was promoted to sergeant in September after initially being passed over for the promotion months earlier in July.
Kohler's discrimination lawsuit claims he was passed over for the initial promotion due to a federal consent decree from 1981 that mandates 25% of all officers promoted in the department must be Black and/or female officers. According to the Cincinnati Police Department, Kohler ranked eighth among candidates taking a promotion exam in March, but another officer, who was Black and ranked 12th, got the promotion ahead of him.
"It’s based on an immutable racial characteristic and regardless of whether or not someone has white skin or black skin, that’s not something that can be changed," said Chris Wiest, another attorney representing Kohler in the lawsuit.
The consent decree also mandates at least 34% of all new department hires must be Black applicants and 23% of all new hires must be women. Kohler and his attorneys want to see the entire deal thrown out.
"Our outcome would be doing away with these consent decrees," Wiest said.
In response to Kohler's lawsuit, federal officials filed a motion last month asking the courts to re-examine the 1981 consent decree.
Cranley and Isaac said they worry that could be "a huge problem." The two sent a letter to President Joe Biden Wednesday, saying such an action could set back "decades of progress in minority inclusion in the Cincinnati Police Department."
"We need to maintain it in order to maintain the diversity in our department," Cranley told WCPO. "Sadly, it’s been proven in the diversity numbers in other police departments across the country, and in Cincinnati prior to 1980, but for that consent decree, we wouldn’t have the diversity that we currently have."
In the letter to Biden, Isaac wrote about the decree: "Without it, I would not be chief."
Cranley went on to say that the decree prepared the police department to respond meaningfully to last year's protests against the death of George Floyd and demands for police reform.
"When you think about the image of Chief Isaac taking a knee last summer in honor of the concerns over George Floyd, that was a very emotional, powerful moment of our city and it helped us get through a tough summer," Cranley said.
But Wiest said that Isaac's position -- and other women and minorities in positions of power within the department -- suggests the decree is no longer necessary.
"We’ve got a police chief that’s Black, the majority of the command staff, the assistant chiefs are women and minorities. Are we really still remedying past discrimination?" he asked.