Cincinnati mayor, police, and black community talk

On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers issue a two-minute warning to demonstrators. When the protesters refused, the officers tear-gassed and beat them. Over 50 people were hospitalized. (National Archives Identifier 16899041) Photo by Spider Martin, M-212328_2006_001.

Can the police build trust, respect, and communication with the black community in Cincinnati? Or, will the black community continue to fear the police as the face of an unjust and oppressive system?

The three government panelists and the three civil rights panelists were poles apart at The Enquirer’s community forum, “Police and the Black Community, One Year After Sam Dubose’s Death,” July 14 at the New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn. Some in the audience of several hundred were angry, sometimes jeering or shouting over panelists to express their views.

Despite the differences and emotional tension, there appeared to be at least some communication across the divide.

Opening the discussion, Peter Bhatia, the editor of the Enquirer, said, “We believe in Cincinnati and want this place we call home to be better.”

“We remain a divided city,” Bhatia said. “Tensions between our community and the police remain high, even as we recall the extraordinary collaborative agreement negotiated in the wake of the riots in 2001.”

Chief Eliot Isaac. Public domain photo, City of Cincinnati.
Chief Eliot Isaac. Public domain photo, City of Cincinnati.

As representatives of city government, the police serve and protect its citizens, said Cincinnati Police Chief Elliot Isaac in response to a question from Kevin Aldridge, deputy opinion editor at the Enquirer, who served as moderator.

“Precisely,” said Ashley Harrington, Black Lives Matter steering committee member. The police serve and protect the interests of those in power, she said, “which is not the interests of black folks, not those of people of color, and not those of poor folks.”

Rev. Damon Lynch III participates on a panel about "21st Century Policing: Lessons from Cincinnati" in February 2016 hosted by the Ford School at the University of Michigan. Photo by Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fordschool/, subject to a creative commons license.
Rev. Damon Lynch III participates on a panel about “21st Century Policing: Lessons from Cincinnati” in February 2016 hosted by the Ford School at the University of Michigan. Photo by Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fordschool/, subject to a creative commons license.

A police officer may not have a racist bone in his body, but he is doing the bidding of the system that employs him, said Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church and a long-time Cincinnati advocate for civil rights.

“If I’m trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it’s not governor Wallace on the other side that’s trying to stop me,” said Lynch, referring to the Bloody Sunday march in 1965 when police attacked civil rights demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas as they were attempting to march to the Alabama state capitol. “He sends the police.”

“I understand there is a history in this country that we’re not proud of,” Mayor John Cranley, “and there are issues that need to be dealt with to this day.”  City leaders have been trying hard to have a police department committed to justice for all, he said.

Mayor John Cranley. Public domain photo, City of Cincinnati.
Mayor John Cranley. Public domain photo, City of Cincinnati.

Cranley proposed that it was time to “refresh, update, and revise” the 2002 collaborative agreement that set the framework for community policing in Cincinnati. He invited the original signatories to join in that effort.

Lynch headed the Black United Front, which was a party to the collaborative agreement with the ACLU, the city, and the fraternal order of police in 2002.

Despite his skepticism about community policing as another trend with no meaningful effect on the larger issues of racial and economic justice, Lynch agreed with Cranley’s proposal to refresh the collaborative agreement, provided that the next generation of activists, like Harrington, be a party to the discussions.

Public servants work for all residents of the city, whether they are taxpayers or not, said Rickell Howard, Ohio director of policy and litigation at the Children’s Law Center. It is the job of public servants, she said, to listen and hear the full spectrum of concerns that residents have, then respond appropriately.

Black children are nine times more likely than white children to be arrested in Hamilton County, said Howard. Individual police officers, who are the adults in these interactions, decide whether this will be a positive or negative experience for the child, she said. This experience may counter or reinforce the portrayals of police in the media.

Training at police academies can lead officers to feel threatened all the time and “always be on their guard,” said Forest Park Police Chief Phil Cannon. This kind of training does not provide the foundation for respect needed for good community policing, according to Cannon.

“I hope this is the start of a dialogue that can be helpful to our community,” said Bhatia at the end of allotted 90-minutes. “We’re not going to give up, and I urge you to continue to participate.”

As he said “good night,” some members of the audience started to chant, “No justice, no peace!”

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com