Residents and police share pain and take action together after tragedy

Person holding a sign that says "Justice, it has to start somewhere!"On April 7, 2001, a Cincinnati police patrolman shot and killed 19-year-old African-American Timothy Thomas, and social unrest broke out in the city where relations between the police and community already were strained.

Following the tragedy, several efforts in the city worked to change law enforcement policies and rebuild community-police relations. Among them was the Greater Cincinnati Study Circles Program. Led by Cincinnati Human Relations Commission Director Cecil Thomas, a veteran of the police department and former councilman, a coalition formed to implement dialogue and action to build trust, restore relationships and move to change.

“Once we sat at the table and listened to each other, we found citizens and police all feel the same pain when loved ones are lost,” Thomas said. “We found common ground and began to work together.”

The first several rounds of dialogues attracted 450 citizens and 54 officers, and generated more than 150 action ideas. More than 30 community- and faith-based organizations provided space, participants, and facilitators.

Abdur-Rashid Ali, an African-American Muslim leader and community activist in Cincinnati, expected the worst when he sat down in a dialogue with a young, white police officer from the other side of town.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, man. This is going to be a problem here,’” Ali said.

Fifteen minutes into the discussion, Ali said he decided to listen to the officer.

“Then he started listening back, and we had mutual respect,” Ali said. “The longer we talked about the issues, in-depth, we were able to find common ground, and we got away from differences to finding solutions to things.”

The 10 people in Ali’s circle became friends and continued to meet in each other’s homes for dinner. Several of the participants even took action on one of their own ideas, and began visiting neighborhood schools to talk to students about drug and violence prevention.

At the same time, another initiative was under way in Cincinnati to develop a landmark collaborative agreement to improve policing in the city. The agreement settled a racial-profiling lawsuit brought by African-American leaders against the police department, and led to many reforms. The study circle dialogues provided a way for residents and police to review the agreement.

Successes from the study circles program and other initiatives in Cincinnati addressing community-police relations include:

  • Injuries to officers and citizens during arrests are dramatically reduced. The city has had no recurring civil disturbances.
  • Former Police Chief Tom Streicher says police are better trained, have greater accountability and pay more attention to the way police power affects people.
  • The NAACP reports that police have greater cultural competency in working with people from diverse backgrounds. Police are better trained to work with people experiencing mental illness.
  • A Citizens Complaint Authority was created in 2002 to do independent reviews of all serious uses of force by police officers. With an independent professional staff, its investigations provide an informed community perspective on individual cases, and their decisions are presented to the city manager before the decision is made on officer discipline.
  • Use of force policies were rewritten and officers have been trained consistent with the policies.
  • An annual Community-Police Outreach Festival was established. Neighborhood residents and police help plan the festivals, which include activities for families, as well as events featuring social service resources, health screenings, and police and fire safety training.
  • A police officer stress-management survey and stress-management training for police were implemented.


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Photo credit: Flickr user Ryan Thomas
May 8, 2015

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