At the Ford School of Public Policy Monday evening, panelists discussed ways police reform in Cincinnati can serve as a model for cities across the United States to adopt a more community-based approach to issues of police brutality, touching on collective experience in the field.
The event, “21st Century Policing: Lessons from Cincinnati,” was hosted as part of the University of Michigan 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium and moderated by David Thacher, assistant professor of Public Policy and Urban Planning and Reuben Miller, assistant professor of Social Work.
In his remarks, Thacher emphasized that opportunities to implement police reform are made possible through the work of social activists.
“We’re at a really important moment in American policing right now,” Thacher said. “We have a level of social attention to policing and scrutiny in policing that we haven’t seen in probably about 50 years. We have a window of opportunity in policing for real and lasting change, and we have that window because of the passion and commitment of so many civil rights activists over the past two years who have put policing in the national spotlight so successfully.”
Participants in the talk were key members involved in the process of Cincinnati's police reform after a series of deaths prompted a lawsuit from the Cincinnati Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union over alleged racial profiling in the city’s police force, ultimately leading to a series of reforms. Rev. Damon Lynch III, a key community leader in filing the lawsuit who was a panelist at the event, said there was a clear need for change at the time.
“Some of (the killings) were justified, some of them were not, in our eyes,” Lynch said. “But at that point everybody dying was Black, every officer that killed them was white. And we felt there was a problem in the city of Cincinnati.”
Panelists cited the case of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed Black man shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer, in explaining the situations that led to the lawsuit. Thomas was the 15th Black man killed by Cincinnati police since 1995 according to the New York Times, and shortly after his death riots ensued throughout the city. These riots were prompted by a number of factors, including statements from the police officer in question who charged that Thomas was “reaching” for the officer’s waist at the time of the shooting.
“But of course there were these five famous words that every officer will use when they take a person’s life: ‘I feared for my life,’ ” Lynch said. “When Timothy Thomas was killed, Cincinnati divided.”
In particular, audience members and speakers discussed a collaborative agreement between the police and various stakeholders — the result of the lawsuit — enacted in 2002.
The Collaborative Agreement calls for the initiation of a proactive problem-solving method for police officers rather than letting incidents play out to ultimately make an arrest.
Thacher said the model is an effective, new approach that fundamentally changes the system, adding that the brutal use of authority is a problem that must be avoided all across the country.
University of Cincinnati Prof. John Eck, another panelist, served as an academic consultant for the reforms team and was a part of the negotiation processes. He said he noticed many citizens oscillating between wanting fair policing and effective policing, and realized the Collaborative Agreement had to break this cycle and resolve underlying conditions.
“The one strategy of policing I was aware of, since I worked on it for 17 years, was problem-oriented policing,” Eck said.
Eck said the “problem oriented” policing approach addressed the kinds of things for which police were getting in trouble in Cincinnati, like unnecessary shootings.
From the police perspective, panelist James Whalen, former Cincinnati assistant chief and public safety director, said community involvement was not welcomed by the police department at first. Whalen was a part of the team that adopted the change and helped decrease the number of misdemeanors by working with the community.
“We would listen to what folks had to say and then when they walked away we would decide what we thought the best way was to go,” Whalen said. “I think we didn’t have a sense of the whole.”
James White, assistant chief of the Detroit Police Department, also joined the panel to reflect on ways local communities may be able to learn from Cincinnati’s example. He said that engaging with the community is the best way to make reform, and that the old policies should be changed in order to more appropriately teach new police.
“You have to be progressive in policing,” White said. “There is no one-size-fit-all type approach to policing.”
White added that race must also be addressed when talking about policing.
“When we refuse to acknowledge the fact that policing in urban America is different, I think we miss an opportunity for a discussion,” White said.
After the event, Public Policy graduate student Sabiha Zainulbhai said she had knowledge of the Department of Justice working with cities like New York, but wasn’t sure what exactly happened in Cincinnati until she took a course with Thacher.
“I took a class at the Ford School called Thinking About Crime with David Thacher,” Zainulbhai said. “We talked about Cincinnati a little bit. I didn’t really know much about what went on there when, so this was kind of like a more comprehensive picture of what it looks like when the DOJ comes in and then like what happens after that.”
Lynch noted that many cities across America, such as Ferguson, Cleveland and Chicago, are seeking ways to reform policing to deter the use of deadly force by their police officers.
In 2014, Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser, a Black woman, was shot by a police officer in her home. Since her death, a group called Ann Arbor to Ferguson has regularly held protests and rallies calling for reform and action to prevent police brutality in Ann Arbor and beyond.
Lynch said cities must constantly keep addressing those issues in order to effectively focus on a successful future.
“Somebody has to climb the flagpole to make this country a better place,” Lynch said.