News: Secrets About Race

Mediation proposal would keep comments about police anonymous

 
Jymi Bolden


City Councilman Phil Heimlich objects to a settlement proposal for a lawsuit over racial profiling by police.



City council — not a federal judge — should resolve complaints of racism in the Cincinnati Police Division, according to Councilman Phil Heimlich. Never mind that some would say council's refusal to aggressively deal with the issue made a lawsuit necessary in the first place. Heading into the May 2 council meeting, settlement of the lawsuit accusing police of racial profiling seemed to depend not only on the merits of the case, but also on who should fix the problem: the elected council or an appointed federal judge.

That was the question that seemed to most divide the five-member Law and Public Safety Committee — and maybe the others on council.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Black United Front (BUF) have proposed a mediation process that would include thousands of residents' experiences, wishes and ideas for changing the way the police division works.

The ACLU and BUF want to turn a two-year-old police misconduct suit into a class-action suit addressing systemic civil rights violations by police. Motions filed in federal court in March accuse police of stopping black residents for phantom traffic violations and then provoking reactions that lead to arrestable offenses ("The Last Chance," issue of March 22-28).

ACLU Attorney Al Gerhardstein suggested hiring the Aria Group, a conflict-resolution consultant in Yellow Springs, to craft a solution. Even before the riots last month, lawyers on both sides were working on the proposal, but the street violence boosted the proposal to the top of city council's agenda.

Everyone gets a say
Jay Rothman, president of the Aria Group, has worked in the Middle East, in South Carolina during the Confederate flag dispute and with various corporations. The firm has handled mediations more than 50 times, in five countries — but never with thousands of participants.

The proposal calls for Aria to gather opinions and goals on police/community relations from minority groups, city administrators, police officers and their families, businesses, youth, community councils, journalists, church leaders, social services and educators. Aria would take comments on a Web site, at meetings and in individual interviews, but keep names secret.

Aria would then assemble a group of about 20 representatives to begin working on a reform proposal. Recommendations could be finished by the end of the summer, according to Rothman.

"We want to create a collaborative process," he says. "The idea is to hear a voice and to get the idea articulated."

The city's fee for the process would be $100,000, which would help pay for 25 staff members working on the project, computers and other expenses. Another $100,000 would come from the Andrus Family Fund of New York. Rothman hopes other foundations and businesses would contribute hundreds of thousands more to the project.

Aside from maintaining anonymity, the process resembles planning used by the Riverfront Advisors Commission for The Banks project and by Queen City Metro for Metromoves.

Rothman says Aria would work with the mayor's proposed commission on race relations, which Rothman expects will be more of a top-heavy organization comprised of local business and civic leaders. Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken was close to naming the panel members late last week, according to his staff.

A week for 'toodling'
The mediation proposal seemed headed for an 8-1 vote of approval at city council's April 25 meeting, with only Heimlich dissenting. Heimlich objected to the proposal in part because of the level of secrecy it included. He also had concerns about giving a federal judge control over the process and a lack of details on how much proposed solutions could cost the city.

At Heimlich's request, Luken sent the proposal to both the Finance Committee and the Law and Public Safety Committee.

"We just got screwed," Gerhardstein said. "We thought we had a way around this."

It's unusual for such a significant issue to bypass council committees, especially with more than $100,000 in funding involved. But Gerhardstein said he sensed public support for fast action.

By April 26, the draft called for concealing participants' names and comments from everyone except the lawyers and the Aria group, who would later summarize them for the public. When asked about the level of secrecy, Rothman said he thought only the names would be secret, so participants could talk freely. But after reviewing the proposal's language, Rothman agreed it was "overly broad."

"It might need a little toodling," Rothman said.

But at the start of the April 30 meeting of the Law and Public Safety Committee, most of the secrecy proposals were still in place. Councilman Pat DeWine prodded Assistant City Solicitor Richard Ganulin to eliminate all but the language protecting participants' names from public disclosure.

But anonymity is not the only threat the settlement poses to the democratic process, according to Heimlich, who says it would give too much power to U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott. Something this important should be debated and voted on in public, he says. Furthermore, according to Heimlich, the settlement proposal doesn't say how much the city might be required to spend on solutions developed through mediation.

"The real problem here is that taxpayers are going to end up picking up the bill," Heimlich says.

Of course, city council and the other parties would have to approve any proposals and their funding before they take effect.

But if almost no one objects to the mediation process itself, why not do it outside court?

"We don't want to do it separately, because we don't trust the politicians," Gerhardstein says.

At least a few council members held the opposite view.

"If we're going to do the process, council ought to be doing it, not a federal court," DeWine said.

Gerhardstein challenged Heimlich's assertions that the city could win the lawsuit.

"We're ready to get it on, if that's what council wants to do," Gerhardstein said.

The committee twice voted 2-2 with one abstention, sending city council, without a recommendation, the most recent two drafts of the proposal — one with broad language on secrecy and one that would only keep names secret. DeWine and Chris Monzel voted against both versions, John Cranley and Paul Booth supported both and Jim Tarbell abstained to ponder the issue further. ©

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