News: We Have to Talk About This

Cincinnati is 'ground zero for racial relations'

A gesture characterized the mood of From Protest to Proposal, a day-long conference on police-community relations at Cincinnati State College.

After a young African-American man voiced his profound frustration with Cincinnati Police, Lt. Howard Rahtz approached and handed the man his business card: an invitation to keep talking.

Current and former police officers and civil rights advocates participated June 26 in what amounted to an all-out assault on the wall between citizens and the Cincinnati Police Division.

Maya Harris West, a senior associate at Policy Link, a non-profit group in Oakland, Calif., organized the conference at the request of Cincinnati Community Action Now, the mayor's task force on race relations.

For close to eight hours, participants purged their thoughts and bounced ideas off each other, taking the first step in what promises to be a long and arduous process.

The conference attracted nationwide input; the 13 presenters came from Washington, D.C., Oakland, Calif., and Chicago to offer their expertise.

Participants received copies of "Community-Centered Policing: A Force for Change," the result of a year and a half of research by West and her colleagues exploring successful policing strategies around the country.

"What we wanted to do was look at all the policy changes that have been made in police stations (around the country)," West said. "The report talks about a range of personnel policies — recruitment, hiring, training, promotion and discipline."

After spending the first half of the conference studying the successful police-community paradigms from around the country, participants debated about whether these same policies would fit Cincinnati's needs.

Observers also formulated their own proposals. Ideas included new recruiting methods and revamped training policies.

Many saw a feasible framework in voter-initiated legislation in San Francisco and Minneapolis that led to community oversight of police procedures. Others pointed to the importance of tailoring reforms to Cincinnati's social and political dynamics.

"Get uniquely specific with your community about recurring problems," said Howard Saffold of Chicago, chief executive officer of Positive Anti-Crime Thrust, Inc.

"What Cincinnati comes up with that makes sense in addressing the issue may not be the same menu of strategies that another city applies," West said.

The kind of open conversation held at From Protest to Proposal is a good sign, according to Monique Dixon, a staff attorney with the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C.

"I think Cincinnati is really for change," Dixon said. "When you see the groundswell here among community members, you know they are ready for change. I don't think it's 'all talk.' "

But talking is a big step toward improved relations with police, according to Alan Jones, an instructor with the Tri-State Regional Community Policing Institute.

"I thought the dialogue was important," Jones said. "It was a beginning. I think there was recognition that there's accountability on behalf of both the police and the community."

From Protest to Proposal is one of a series of public discussions of police violence and racism underway in Cincinnati this summer. One day earlier, Christ Church Cathedral hosted a forum sponsored by the Aria Group, the mediation firm retained by the city to settle a lawsuit over racial profiling by police.

Later this month the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies (IAOHRA) meets in Cincinnati. The theme of the 53rd annual conference, meeting July 20 through 26 at the Westin Hotel, is "Civil Rights in the New Millennium: A Call to Action."

Speakers will include U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Jones, Patria Jimenez of the Mexico House of Representatives, and Mary Woo-Sims, chief commissioner of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission.

Taking note of unrest that followed Officer Stephen Roach's killing of unarmed Timothy Thomas, IAOHRA conference organizers are calling Cincinnati "ground zero for racial relations." ©

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