In 2001, I was the mayor of Cincinnati when our city erupted in racial unrest over the police-involved killings of two unarmed African American men within the span of six months. The deaths of Roger Owensby Jr. and Timothy Thomas — and the perception that the police department's policies encouraged racial profiling — led to widespread demands for change.
It was clear we had a problem, and we needed to do something. I asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. Meanwhile, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Cincinnati Black United Front filed a lawsuit against the city seeking changes in police practices, the Cincinnati City Council voted to mediate rather than litigate.
This resulted in the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, which detailed a comprehensive revision to police policies and practices. Today, it is viewed as a national model for community engagement in policing, and it is a reference for local and state policymakers seeking a way forward from the turmoil we currently face.
So, what do I recommend for today's local leaders? The keys to solving the crisis now, just as then, are collaboration, transparency and accountability.
Accountability: Make the policy changes.
The Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement included changes in the policies for police use of force and put an emphasis on training officers in de-escalation tactics. For example, tasers were introduced as a way to decrease the reliance on the use of batons and other physical force, resulting in fewer injuries to suspects as well as police.
Officers also were trained to understand and identify inherent racial bias. Bias-free and community-based policing were enacted with the goal of reducing crime and building trust in the community. This approach, through the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence, de-emphasized overpolicing of low-level offenses and focused on more violent offenders.
Transparency from community leaders and police.
As part of the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, the Citizens Complaint Authority was established to review allegations of serious police misconduct. The subsequent use of body cameras has further contributed to increased transparency of police action.
In addition, when an incident does occur, it is vital to share information with the community quickly and accurately. Too often officials wait, hiding behind the investigation. It is important not only to institute model practices and procedures, but to make them easily accessible and understandable to the community.
Our procedure in Cincinnati was to engage the community immediately once an incident occurred. We organized news conferences quickly. Our response team — including myself, the city's police chief and human relations staff — would meet with community leaders, activists and members of the clergy so they had updated information, could ask questions and go back to their constituencies confident that transparency was the order of the day.
No amount of press releases will be believed by a community that has grown suspicious and distrustful over the decades. You must meet the public where they are and engage on a personal level.
Collaboration: Engage an independent partner.
Beyond the community collaboration stated above, it is critical that there be some independent involvement in the development of the practices and procedures. Engaging an independent partner with a solid history in these sensitive areas and a record for trustworthiness is key.
Once the riots ended in 2001, I called in the DOJ, looking for independent verification of our process and our results. I also began a mediation of racial profiling lawsuits, which enabled the negotiation of a broader settlement, ensuring community involvement in the new policing strategy.
The DOJ worked with the city and lawyers on the lawsuits, and assisted in drafting the collaborative agreement. Eventually, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio appointed an independent monitor, lawyer Saul Green, to supervise the implementation of the collaborative; Green was also recently reengaged to oversee a community refresh of the initiative.
Since the introduction of the collaborative agreement, total arrests in Cincinnati are down more than 50%, from 47,188 in 2000 to 21,487 in 2019. With the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence in place, the most serious crimes — those against people or involving violence — are down 36%.
This was all done without a significant increase to the size of the police department or impact to the city's budget. And the city has maintained generous funding across other services like mental health services, affordable housing and social services while still supporting the collaborative agreement programs, including the Citizens Complaint Authority and the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence.
Throughout our nation, from small towns to big cities, it is clear we still have a problem. But I am hopeful. Cities are starting to get it. The old ways, which led to the tragic death of George Floyd, for example, do not work. The community needs to be at the table when changes are made so they can trust that new policing is more than a piece of paper; rather, real change is enacted on the streets.
I have seen firsthand the positive results that come from listening to those who have justified anger and pain in their voices. I know from experience that when we come together with a willingness to learn, we can engage in a collaborative process that involves everyone. That collaboration can lead to appropriate, sustainable action that will bring about meaningful change. Then, our communities can begin to heal.
Charlie Luken is senior counsel at Calfee Halter & Griswold LLP. He was the mayor of Cincinnati from 1983 to 1991 and 1999 to 2005, and represented Ohio's 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 1993.
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