News: Paying Attention

Ignoring the poor caused riots, rights leader says

Jun 28, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Cecil Thomas says the city must address the quality of life in poor neighborhoods.

Cecil Thomas brings a unique perspective to the issues dividing Cincinnati.

As a retired cop, an African American and now a human rights watchdog, Thomas might hold the key to bringing together the people and police in a city whose divisions recently erupted in violence.

Last year, Thomas became executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission (CHRC). The commission will play an important role in implementing changes that might result from a U.S. Justice Department investigation of Cincinnati Police Division patterns and practices, as well as recommendations by Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN).

"CHRC will be making sure — whatever those recommendations are — that they are implemented, because those recommendations deal with the quality of life of people," Thomas says. "We get involved directly in issues that affect the quality of life of people."

Part of that involvement is working with community councils, fielding monitors during political protests and unrest and finding programs to foster communication.

A Cincinnati Police officer for 27 years, Thomas now works to encourage discussion between police and citizens. The April 10-11 riots, he says, were in part about conflict between the police and community, but pointed to a much more far-reaching problem.

"It's not the police that caused the problem," Thomas says.

"The problem was caused by all of us who live in the city who ignore the quality of life of people living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. You've got to pay attention to those folks' needs just as much as you pay attention to someone wanting to sit in a new stadium."

Complaints about police/community relations are the last step before a community explodes, Thomas says. In that sense, the riots served a necessary function.

"It takes a spanking sometimes to bring us into that area of addressing the quality of life first, before we address our buildings and our bricks and mortar," he says.

Founded in 1943 in reaction to riots in Detroit, CHRC was originally called the Mayor's Friendly Relations Committee.

"Cincinnati's decision-makers decided we had better be proactive and prevent riots from happening in Cincinnati," Thomas says.

The committee was funded by the city, but its employees functioned independently.

"Being in the middle allowed them to not take a position one way or the other and give a balanced solution to problems," Thomas says.

Unrest in the 1960s prompted city council to enhance the committee's powers and renamed it the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission.

During the April unrest, CHRC had monitors in the community listening to the concerns of those involved.

"People do not understand the importance of having monitors in the community," Thomas says. "In the inner city neighborhoods, it's critical to hear the heartbeat of your city."

Thomas would like to see a commission field staff who would create a communication line between CHRC and Cincinnati neighborhoods so problems could be resolved before they escalate.

"I would hope that the CAN committee sees that as one of their recommendations — and if they don't, the CAN committee is not doing their job," he says.

One of CHRC's initiatives is to reach out to youth, a group that often feels its needs are ignored. Back on the Block is a 10-week program that serves 2,000 young people from 18 neighborhoods, connecting youth with business leaders, police and city government.

"There's a lot of interacting between the police and the kids, because we know that that's a critical area right now," Thomas says.

Back on the Block recently organized a sleep-out in an inner city park, with officers and kids spending the night in tents.

One of Thomas' goals is better relationships with the police department. Residents have expressed interest in knowing the officers who patrol their neighborhoods, he says.

"The biggest concern of the community was they don't know the police officers that patrol their neighborhoods," Thomas says.

Small groups for big change

Study Circles, a program already in place in more than 200 cities, could help change that. Study Circles consist of many groups of about a dozen people each who look for answers to problems in their community.

"The police departments have found that Study Circles has been very productive in helping them relate to the community," Thomas says.

Molly Carlson of the Kentuckiana Interfaith Community coordinates the Study Circles program in Louisville, where this year's theme was police/community relations. Carlson says the interest in the community was strong.

"There's a real positive feeling coming out of it," she says. "There was really some reconciliation. We're at a point where we can develop some actions that will really start healing some of the wounds. There's a lot more sense that this is a program that can make a difference in Louisville."

Carolyne Abdullah, a program director at Study Circles Resource Center in Connecticut, says Study Circles sessions progress to the point where decisions are made on how to make necessary changes in a community.

"Study Circles' emphasis is on small group democratic discussion for community change," Abdullah says.

The three components of the process are organizing the community, dialogue and action. Part of the process involves finding people of diverse backgrounds and opinions to bring multiple perspectives to the groups.

"You don't want to have a dialogue where there's only one type of person in the conversation," Abdullah says.

This summer, 10 pilot study circles will take off in Cincinnati, with the goal to fully implement the program with as many as 500 people this fall. At least one police officer will take part in each circle.

The program gives citizens a chance to realize what they can do, as well as allowing public officials to learn what citizens want.

"Here's an opportunity to not only talk about what's wrong in the community, but what's right," Abdullah says. ©