Cincinnati Police Reform Advocates Get National Platform

Iris Roley, a key player in Cincinnati's 2001 Collaborative Agreement, is appearing with civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein on the season finale of HBO's "Problem Areas"

Iris Roley at a February 2018 session on police reform in Roselawn - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Iris Roley at a February 2018 session on police reform in Roselawn

One of Cincinnati’s most consistent voices for police reform is getting a national platform during an appearance on the season finale of HBO’s Problem Areas.

Iris Roley, the Black United Front activist who helped push for Cincinnati’s Collaborative Agreement police reforms in the years after the city's 2001 civil unrest, appears in the 10th episode of the show, hosted by comedian and social commentator Wyatt Cenac.

Cincinnati civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, who represented the Black United Front in their legal struggle with the city and police department, also appears in the episode.

Problem Areas sees Cenac focusing on big, thorny issues in America with a mix of deadpan, dark humor and searching earnestness. While each episode in the series focuses on multiple issues, questions around a number of recent high-profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police recur throughout. Cenac highlights “the rare steps the people of Cincinnati took to shape the city’s police department,” interviewing Roley at length about those efforts.

“We wanted to make sure that the black community was instrumental in the design of any strategy that came from the Cincinnati Police Department,” Roley tells Cenac. “We fought for... three years.”

In the years leading up to Cincinnati’s 2001 civil unrest, Cincinnati police killed 16 African-Americans. Some of those who died at the hands of police were unarmed, including 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, whose shooting by officer Stephen Roach in April 2001 was the final match that set off three days of unrest in Over-the-Rhine and other parts of Cincinnati.

Even prior to the unrest, the Black United Front had filed a lawsuit over the officer-involved deaths. After Thomas’ death and the subsequent anger it unleashed, the Department of Justice and a federal judge ordered the city and Cincinnati Police to sit down with activists and hammer out a path forward for reform efforts to reduce racial disparities in the city’s policing. From that work, Cincinnati’s Collaborative Agreement was formed.

“We gave the city a choice, “ Gerhardstein tells Cenac. “We’ll fight over (it), or we’ll have a collaborative process.”

The years following the agreement have seen progress toward the Collaborative’s aims: arrests and use of force are both down drastically from the late 1990s and early 2000s. But despite those reductions, blacks still disproportionately find themselves in the backs of police cruisers. 

In the first half of 2017, roughly 72 percent of adult CPD felony arrests and 63 percent of misdemeanor arrests were of black citizens, according to CPD data, though blacks make up just 42 percent of Cincinnati’s population. The disparities among juveniles are even more stunning. Ninety-six percent of youths arrested for felonies and 89 percent arrested for misdemeanors by CPD in the first half of 2017 were black, according to CPD data.

A potential part of the problem: Recent expert reports suggest the city and CPD may not be following key parts of the Collaborative Agreement anymore, as CityBeat reported in March. Roley and Gerhardstein have urged a renewed focus on the so-called problem solving techniques at the heart of the Collaborative.

You can stream Roley and Gerhardstein’s appearance on Problem Areas here, or see it tonight on HBO at 7 p.m. or on HBO2 at 10 p.m.

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