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Voices of the Collaborative: Participants offer perspectives on agreement that changed the city

"We should have been woken up way before 16 Black men were killed by the police"
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-08 17:55:10-04

Twenty years ago, in the early morning hours of April 7, 2001, Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley. Thomas was the 15th Black man killed by police since 1995, and his death sparked days of unrest that highlighted a deep divide between Cincinnati’s Black community and the police. That mistrust, along with lawsuits accusing the department of a decades-long history of racial profiling, helped shape the Collaborative Agreement. We hope our coverage online, on air and on all streaming platforms will start a conversation about what led to the unrest, what has happened since and what work still needs to be done.

WCPO 9 News interviewed several people who were instrumental in the adoption of theCollaborative Agreement. Below are excerpts from some of those interviews.

Judge Susan Dlott, U.S. District of Southern Ohio: Oversaw the negotiations that led to the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement

WCPO: How did you get involved in the Collaborative Agreement?

Judge Dlott: The way I got involved in what we now call the "Collaborative" is back in 2000, I had about 14 cases that were filed about racial profiling by the Cincinnati Police. Actually, I had four and my colleagues had the other ten. I asked them if they minded if we would consolidate them and doing them all at once. They were very agreeable. And then I called the parties in, which were the plaintiff's attorneys. At the time the riots hadn't occurred yet. And the defendant was the city of Cincinatti and the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police). I asked them if they would try to mediate the problem of racial profiling rather than litigate it because litigation would be long and expensive, and it would only probably make matters worse because nobody would end up being a winner. Then Timothy Thomas was killed by the Cincinnati Police.

The riots erupted at that time. I think they lasted about three days. I think the mayor put on a curfew. The courthouse closed. I was in trial at the time with the Cincinnati Police. It became apparent to everybody that it was more important than ever that we try to find a solution for this.

The first thing that was done (was) we hired one special master who did a community outreach. 3,500 people took part in the collaborative process that we reached out to all over the city, asking them what they wanted. All of the stakeholders: the African Americans, the youth, the police, the business owners. We had stakeholder from every race, economic group and political perspective.

Then the attorneys and parties met and we started negotiating what ended up being the collaborative agreement. One of the main things that came out of the Collaborative Agreement was the Citizens Complaint Authority, which was very important and a big thorn in the side of the plaintiffs.

At the time, our mayor was Charlie Luken. He called the Department of Justice and asked for them to do an analysis of Cincinnati's policing. So, they got involved as well. We were running parallel tracks: I was doing the Collaborative. The Department of Justice was doing its own investigation.

We ended up actually with two agreements: The collaborative agreement which instituted things like community police initiatives, how officers are trained, the citizens complaint authority, putting cameras in police cars. Then, the Justice Department agreement was more on use of force by the police. They had, I think, 85 different things that the police had to change.

At first the negotiations were very difficult. The police department was very resistant. Their chief at the time was extremely resistant to the whole process. We had someone come in as another monitor, an attorney by the name of Saul Green, who was just wonderful. He had incredible patience and helped us get through it.

The negotiations lasted an entire year. And when we got to April, I wanted to show something for all of our work for the last year. So, I had the lawyers and all of the parties come into the courthouse everyday for two weeks.

The Collaborative Agreement and the Memo of Agreement with the Department of Justice was stamped in and signed by me at 2 a.m., April 12, 2002

Then the city and the FOP and the plaintiffs had to vote on whether or not they’d agree to it. I remember holding my breath over the weekend to see how they would vote.

They all voted in favor of it, so a couple weeks later we had a signing of the agreement at City Hall, and the attorney general of the United States at that time came in for the signing of the agreement.

The agreement created the Citizens Complaint Authority. It provided training and responding to calls involving citizens with mental health problems and revised policies for the use of police dogs, beanbag procedures, tasers and chemical spray as well as the creation of a board to review firearms discharges.

Under the collaborative agreement there was something was started called C-POP, or community problem-oriented policing. That was where the community and police became partners in preventing crime. What the community (problem-oriented) policing is, is working with the community, finding hot spots where all these calls had been coming from. And, sending social workers and police officers out there ahead of time to work with the community to try to prevent all these calls to the police.

WCPO: So, negotiations over the previously filed lawsuits had gone on for a year before Timothy Thomas was killed?

Judge Dlott: Yes, we had started. I knew there were 14 lawsuits, and I got the parties to agree to negotiate. And then, Timothy Thomas was killed and that just accelerated the importance of the negotiations.

WCPO: In essence, it was known that there was something happening that needed to be addressed?

Judge Dlott: Yes. In fact, there had been 13 reports done prior to this that all said there was a problem here in Cincinnati and nobody ever acted on it. So, it wasn't new news, people just didn't appreciate what was going on. Certainly, I think the Black community did. I think that they felt that there was excessive force by the police department. And I told them that whether or not there was excessive force, if citizens thought there was, it was as bad as if there was. That was another good reason to mediate this.

WCPO: So, when Timothy Thomas died, was that a shift for these negotiations? Was that pivotal in the negotiations that were already in progress?

Judge Dlott: It was in terms of giving us a timeline of getting things done. I originally hoped we could get this done in a few months. And when we got to April, to almost the (first) anniversary of when Timothy Thomas had been killed, the city had nothing to show for what it had done to improve relations in Cincinnati. So, I called all the parties in for two weeks before April 14, had them sit in my courtroom, which I turned into a conference room, and had them stay here all day and all night to get the agreement done and we did. I also had a magistrate judge, Michael Merz who's brilliant at negotiating and he was brilliant at discussions. But, everybody was very proud of what they had done.

WCPO: Ultimately, it was tragic what happened, but things are better?

Judge Dlott: Oh absolutely. It was a wake-up call. We should have been woken up way before 16 Black men were killed by the police. That all happened in five years. We should have said back then there's something really wrong here. But, Timothy Thomas' dying finally got everybody's attention.

It made the city focus on the police department where they hadn't before. I think one thing is, the police department back then didn't report to anybody. They didn't report to the city manager. There had been a liaison between the city and the police department. He quit during the riots and there wasn't even a liaison. So, the police department in effect did whatever it wanted to do without any supervision. And what the collaborative and memo of agreement with the Justice Department did was give them 85 things that they needed to change. Getting on computer systems, the way they responded to calls, being active in the communities, a whole lot of things like that that still exist to this day.

Minister Bomani Tyehimba: Lead Plaintiff in class action lawsuit alleging racial profiling by the Cincinnati Police Department

WCPO: Can you tell me where you were and what happened that led to you filing the lawsuit?

Tyehimba: I was going to pick up my son from Southern Baptist Church school. They had a school. I was on Lexington and I'm going down Lexington and I notice a police behind me. So, I pulled into the driveway. It's actually a house but it's part of Southern's annex. So I get out of the car, out of my van and start walking towards them and they are running towards me with their guns drawn, talking about "Get back into the car! Get back into the car!" So I'm like okay let me get back into the car.

And then, Officer Brett Stratmann he comes on the drive side and he goes up on the grassy area in front of the house that's connected to Southern Baptist Church. And, he's pointing his gun at me. He’s actually pointing it at my forehead and what I remember distinctly is just seeing this black hole of the barrel.

He tells me to roll down the window on the driver’s side. And, I look at him and at this point in time I’ve got my hands at ten and two. And I hear this voice in my head say be perfectly calm. And so I look at him and he says open the door to get out of the driver's side. I said, I can't open the door, I have to open it from the outside. I have to roll down the window. So, I roll down the window, reach outside and open up the door from the outside and I push the door open. Now, before I get out, I have my keys, key ring on my middle finger of my right hand. So, I put my hands out first, before I even get out of the car. And, I slide out, because the van is rather high. And I slide out of the car onto the ground. And Brett Stratmann is yelling at me, "what's that in your hands, what's that in your hands?" And I said very calmly, they're keys. So he comes up and snatches the keys out my hand. When he snatches the keys out my hand, the gun goes to my temple. So, I was that close from being killed.

Then they come and they do a pat down. Stratmann is still up on the grassy area. (Officer) Todd Ploehs pats me down and when he pats me down he comes across my pocket. He said, "What's that in your pocket? I said, "It's some money." He said, "Well it feels like a whole lot of money. How much is it?" And, I had been to the bank and I think I might have withdrawn about $100 or so.

Then they tell me turn around and they take me across the street. They're actually dragging me across the street. So, I get to the other side, the police car is on the other side of the street. They spin me around on the hood, kick at my feet and ask me questions. "Do you have anything that can poke me? Do you have a box cutter?" I said, no, no, no, no.

So, then they put handcuffs on me and when they put the handcuffs on me, they’re real tight. I said can you loosen these handcuffs? They said nah, nah. So they put me in the back of the police cruiser and then they drive maybe two car lengths up. I don't know why. And they're on the side of where they got me out of the van. They ask me for my name and I say Bomani Tyehimba and they ask me for my social security number and I give them that.

So they're talking to the dispatch and they say who is Tony Walker? I said, well I had my name changed legally. My parents gave me that name. And so he said, well we don't know who you are. And so I hear them talking back and forth to the dispatch and at one point in time, the dispatcher says something to them that made it clear to them I was who I said I was. And they told me oh sit still we got some paperwork to do.

So, they went ahead and proceeded to do their paperwork. They finished their paperwork, they got out, let me out, and actually someone had picked up my son by that time. And that was it.

That night I was sleeping, and I woke up because all I could see was this black hole and that was the barrel of the gun. And, I got up and I just started typing my experience. I owned a book store at that time, myself and my partner Mark Pastor. So we did this book fair in Cincinnati. So, I had a list of (city) council people. I had a list of news media people. And so because I had that, I typed my experiences and blasted it out to that list of council people and news media. And then people began to call me. I went down to law and public safety and told them what happened. I think that's one of the reasons it got some exposure.

Eventually I did file a lawsuit because my civil rights were violated. And, the thing was when they knew who I was, they were supposed to immediately let me go. They did not. So they violated my civil rights. My attorney, Ken Lawson at the time, he had a number of cases of police misconduct. So, he brought this before Judge Susan Dlott. She says since you have all of these cases, why don't you group them all together and make this a class action lawsuit. I was the lead plaintiff of the lawsuit, but there were several others in there as well. I know that my case led to what is referred to as the collaborative agreement.

WCPO: Did they ever tell you why they pulled you over?

Tyehimba: They did tell me why. They said I went left of center and failed to signal that I was turning. That's what they stopped me for.

WCPO: So, you're in the middle of the civil suit and then Timothy Thomas is killed. What went through your mind?

Tyehimba: Well he was unarmed and at that time there was a series of unarmed Black men that were killed at that time. And, it was tragic. I felt bad because you empathize with Black people in that situation. It's hard to disconnect yourself because you have a connection because of your race. And so, because of that it was hurtful. It was mourning. Man, he didn’t have anything, you know. He didn’t have a gun. Why is it that Black people, we’re perceived as having something always. We're deadly.

I told my son something about this, the incident. And I've spoken to some young folks after what I experienced. And I tell young folks you have to understand the difference between a battle and a war. I lost several battles that day. I lost a battle of having a gun pointed at my head. I lost a battle of being drug across the street. I lost the battle of being pushed up against a police car. I lost the battle of handcuffs being put on me. I lost the battle of being put in the. back of a police car. And, I lost the battle of not being immediately released.

But the war that I won is I went home that night alive to see my son. You may feel that you’ve been wrongly accused, that you haven’t done anything wrong. But, lose that battle even if it means that you have to be arrested. Because the long-term war that you want to win is to make it home alive.

WCPO: Do you feel the Collaborative Agreement was another war that was won?

Tyehimba: I think the Collaborative Agreement was a unique way to reconcile what happened. Not only to me, but all of the other plaintiffs and the community at large, African American community at large. Because we are disproportionately targeted. I say young Black, African American men have a rite of passage. I say by the age of 16, they’ve had an unprovoked negative encounter with the police. I had it. Most of the people I’ve talked to have had it. And, it can come in the form of police just coming to a corner and saying, "Get the __, off the corner."

And, I'm not saying all police, but there are police that have that disposition. So the rite of passage of an unprovoked negative encounter with police, Black folks have it. We've experienced it and it's always in the back of my mind. We know we have to act a certain way, have a certain disposition when we come in contact with the police. It's innate. It's a survival mechanism. It's not weakness, it's a survival mechanism. Because, you don’t know if you’re going to get a fair and just policeman or you’re going to get one that’s off the chain. Many of them are decent. I know many police that are decent.

State Senator Cecil Thomas: former Cincinnati police officer and head of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission in 2001

WCPO: What was your role with the Human Relations Commission?

Thomas: Cincinnati's Human Relations Commission is the oldest Human Relations Commission in the country. It was originally started back in 1943 as the Mayor's Friendly Relations Commission and it evolved into what is now known as the Human Relations Commission. One of the major responsibilities that was charged to the commission was making sure we had good police-community relations.

When I took over in 2000, one of my major concerns at the time, being a former police officer, I knew that we had some strained relationships between citizens of certain segments of our community, more specifically the African American community and police. It was a very strained relationship. I'd just come out of the 90s when we had a number of incidents, questionable contacts between the African American citizens and the police. One of the reason was we were using a form of stop and frisk. If I remember correctly, officers would pull up in an undercover vehicle, jump out on individuals and start checking for drugs and things of that nature on the street corners. Vortex unit, that's what it was called.

Then we also had a profile of what would be considered a drug courier. Cincinnati worked with the DEA. The DEA came up with a profile of what they considered a drug courier. That profile, they use it from Miami to DC. The DEA would train state highway patrol this is what you look for for a potential drug courier. If it's a rental car, or a certain type of car. So, they started indiscriminately using that methodology of what they thought would fit the profile of a drug courier from Miami to DC and some of the other drug corridors in the country. So they were using that to stop individuals, and often times it was African Americans.

So when they would stop someone, they would have what was called a pre-text stop. If you straddled the lane or your license plate light was out, whatever the case may be, that was a reason to stop you. But the next question was do you have any drugs in this car. Do you mind if we search your car?

So people were being detained simply because well you straddled a lane and this is why we stopped you. Now we suspect you have drugs in this car. As a result of that people started to complain. I started hearing it at the Human Relations Commission. I knew exactly what they were complaining about. I talked to council, the city manager at the time. I said, hey, this methodology that we're using is really creating a lot more tension than we already had.

I can probably say that Timothy Thomas was probably was an example of that pre-text stop. They had stopped him several times. He had all of those no drivers' license that he had accumulated.
So, he was basically the spark that exploded the powder keg of frustration that we were seeing in the neighborhoods.

The real indicators that we were going in the wrong direction was this consistent concern about how policing was being done in the African American community towards the African American citizens.

The bottom line is that we had a poor relationship between the citizens and police. And it has reached the level of police against the citizen, us against them mentality. And, I felt that as a police officer. I would get out of my car and try to quell that concern. Everything exploded obviously in 2001 and he community wanted to be heard.

There were a whole lot of other things going on. You also have to take into consideration people in Over-the-Rhine were forced to live in a very very difficult concentration of poverty. Forced to live in substandard housing. The city wasn't doing anything. The landlords were just taking advantage of folks. There were structures that were infested with mice, rats, roaches and things like that. Plumbing systems weren't working properly.

Then you also had the issue of high unemployment, high unemployment for young African American males during that period. You also had serious issues with high school dropouts. I believe we were close to 50 percent of the African American males in the age group from 14 to 25 were high school dropouts during the period. So, we saw all of that and police-community relations were at an all time low. So, with all of these other frustrations, it all exploded when that officer pulled that trigger.

The people in Over-the-Rhine, that was the epicenter but people saw what was going on and they came from all over to express their concerns for how the police were doing their work. I'll never forget Rev. (Damon) Lynch was sort of like the Moses for those folks. And he along with Ken Lawson and some others came down to city hall right after the incident occurred. They demanded answers as to what happened. And, I wanted to tell them, but they told me don't say anything.

Here's what the police were saying. When Rev. Lynch and Ken Lawson and all of them were at the meeting and they said, we just want to know what happened, that's all. And, they said well we have to investigate it and we'll let you know after we investigate it. And, that's the worst thing they could have told those folks.

I said to the chief and everybody else in a meeting. Look, just tell them what the officer said happened. And then do your investigation and see if what he said lines up with your investigation.

At any rate, the citizens are not left with the thought of you've just got something to hide. This is why you're not telling us. Well, my argument fell on deaf ears. So when they left out of there, immediately they started turning over garbage cans, and this is 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon. And, then it quieted down until night. And as soon as night hit, that was it.

WCPO: Are we still abiding by the spirit of the Collaborative Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding?

Thomas: It's going to take the political will to make sure we don't go in a different direction. Right now, police-community relations is in a much better place. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Can something happen that can cause serious problems? Yes. However, part of the Collaborative Agreement was not to have a repeat in city hall of when they came down and asked what happened, well we'll let you know, etc.

Valerie Lemmie, Former Cincinnati City Manager (2002-2005)

​WCPO: Before Timothy Thomas' death, was anyone raising concerns that something was going on?

Lemmie: By the time I arrived in Cincinnati there was clearly a concern about what was going on.The 15 deaths occurred over multiple years. Timothy Thomas was the point when the community said, this was enough. That something more structurally has to be done.

The lion-share of my time as city manager was spent ensuring again, that that agreement was implemented in the spirit that was intended, was within the bounds of the law and our legal requirements. I signed my name to that and that made a difference to me. I am a woman of color and that made a difference to me as well. And, justice. I mean, that’s what we as public servants are responsible for.

I would say months and months and months together around the table made a huge difference. And, people who at first said, ‘well there’s not a problem,’ began to recognize that we can do better.

WCPO: Did someone actually say "there's not a problem?"

Lemmie: Well, yes of course. It's all where you stand. There's a saying in this profession where you sit is where you stand. If you stand in an environment where you see bad people doing bad things day in and day out, the time that you’re called is when bad things happen, that tends to be what you see. You see the bad. Communities on the other hand recognize that there’s good and there’s bad. They live there everyday and they have to sort through what that means.

This is difficult. You don't take generations of anger and frustration and resolve them in a day. You have to find things that are meaningful for people. It's great to say well we did this training program and all will be well. It's the practice. It's the every day working together that determines how democratic we are.

I would like to believe that things are considerably better. But, that doesn't mean you have to stop. I am certainly frustrated that all we learned and all we struggled through in Cincinnati was not made available in a way that it became lessons learned for others. It breaks my heart to see so many communities continuing to go through similar problems when we didn't find the, you know there's no silver bullet in kind of business, but you find strategies, approaches, collaborations that at least can provide the opportunity for people to talk through and recognize the tensions, identify the tradeoffs that have to made if we're going to live in the community together, and what that looks like and what the responsibility is for all. Because again, we all have a responsibility. The first part comes with the recognition and the acknowledgement that there’s a problem. And, that’s what sitting around the table and the collaborative agreement helped us to accomplish.

WCPO: As you watch what's happening in Minneapolis right now, are there lessons you learned that could be helpful there?

Lemmie: Certainly what I learned is some of the problems are structural problems that really do require legal intervention and they require legislation. As you know, we fired the police officer who shot Timothy Thomas and ultimately he was re-hired. And, what that said to me was that the system in place for how arbitrations are handled is one that is out of the control of local government. When you have an outside arbitrator who comes in who doesn’t have to live with the concerns and interests of the community, who’s not appointed by city government, has no responsibility to city government, you probably don’t have a system that meets the test of what is appropriate for a given community.

PODCAST: 'That could've been my family ... that could've been me': Timothy Thomas' death still aches Listen to the full conversation in the podcast player above.