In 2002 I moved back to my hometown, Cincinnati, for a few years. I was drawn in part by activism there in the wake of the police shooting of a 19-year-old black teenager named Timothy Thomas and subsequent riots. The outrage and sense that real change was possible were strong, as I imagine they’ve been in Ferguson, Missouri, since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown there last month.
Cincinnati has been in the news lately for exactly this reason, drawing comparisons to Ferguson at The Washington Post, The New Republic and elsewhere. The upshot seems to be that Cincinnati emerged from the upheaval of April 2001 with improved police-community relations and that Ferguson’s residents can look there for guidance on how to move forward. Among the evidence that’s been offered to support this claim: in the six years leading up Cincinnati’s pivotal shooting, fifteen men—all of whom were black—died at the hands of police. In the ten years since, eight men have been killed by police, six of whom were black.
Those involved in Cincinnati’s reforms point to two developments that have led to the drop in police killings and what they say is an increase residents’ trust of police: (1) The Department of Justice investigation and subsequent “consent decree,” that is, a settlement between the city’s police department and the federal agency; and (2) the Collaborative Agreement, a document—negotiated and agreed to by city government, local activists and the police union—that led to reforms such as improving police training, setting up a civilian complaint board and equipping police with tasers with the expectation that they would then be less likely to use lethal force. It’s the blueprint that figures in heavily with what Cincinnati organizers have offered Ferguson in recent weeks.
The people of Ferguson have already secured Justice Department involvement. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his agency’s intention to examine whether there’s a pattern and practice of racially discriminatory policing and civil rights violations in Ferguson. Already, there’s debate about how meaningful the federal government’s involvement can be. During a recent segment of Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, guest Phillip Atiba Goff put the onus squarely on city officials, arguing that a consent decree is “really a lever for progressive law enforcement that wants to do the right thing.” In other words, if city leadership is resistant, it’s a safe bet that no substantive change will result.