Glasses Half Full, Half Empty

BY John Fox | Posted 07/23/2008

Cincinnati is having one of those weeks where good news and bad news try to outdo each other.

On the positive side, good feelings remain from last week's NAACP national convention. Given the pressure to prove that the group chose wisely in holding the convention here instead of in Las Vegas, the city's reputation as being unwelcome to African Americans and the high-profile appearances by John McCain and Barack Obama, Cincinnati has a lot to celebrate.

Area political and business leaders put everything on the line to make sure NAACP attendees found Cincinnati, particularly downtown, friendly and inviting. At the same time, I was pleased to hear them avoid trying to sell the city as some sort of paradise where racial harmony comes naturally.

In fact, Mayor Mark Mallory deserves credit for honestly and publicly discussing the city's history of racial difficulties, especially the 2001 riots that boiled up after a number of unarmed black men were killed in Cincinnati Police custody. By placing this national convention in context with Cincinnati's — and urban America's — struggles to achieve economic and social equality, Mallory and other local leaders demonstrated an unusual level of maturity and thoughfulness.

Concurrent with the NAACP gathering, the outside monitor hired to track the Cincinnati Police Department's progress with improving community relations reported that he thinks the Collaborative Agreement should officially end. City police, monitor Saul Green says, have come a long way since the U.S. Department of Justice forced the department to change its ways in 2002.

Some people thought the death toll of black men in police custody was the singular sign that the Cincinnati Police Department was out of control.

If so, the fact that no one has died in custody in several years must be taken as a monumental turnaround.

The true story of the difficulties between local police and black citizens grew from small everyday interactions — traffic stops, disrespect, lack of trust — and so the true fix comes from small everyday improvements. Those are the type of improvements Green says he's seen since the ACLU asked Judge Susan Dlott in 2007 to extend the Collaborative Agreement one more year.

Around the time Green's report was released, another report tackled the ongoing problems in Hamilton County's public defender program. Actually, the Ohio legislature is to blame for not properly funding public defenders, but the report focuses on the situation here. (See Margo Pierce's related story here.)

Public defenders represent those to whom Miranda rights promise "If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you" — but in Hamilton County these attorneys are overworked, underpaid and share computers, putting them at a huge disadvantage compared to the prosecutor's office.

These issues — race relations, police/community relations and a fair justice system — remain difficult problems with elusive solutions. For Cincinnati, perhaps it's two steps up and one step back.

Contact John Fox: [email protected]
Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.