April 7, 2001: Timothy Thomas Is Shot and Killed
The fatal police shooting of unarmed 19-year-old African-American Timothy Thomas marked a nadir in the relationship between Cincinnati’s police and the community. In the six years prior, 15 young black men had died in police custody.
Thomas’s killing ignited days of clashes between citizens and police. The violence, property destruction, and resulting boycott put economic and popular pressure on the creation of a historic settlement agreement, already in the works before Thomas was killed. Dubbed the Collaborative Agreement, it was the result of a federal class action suit brought by Cincinnati Black United Front and the ACLU alleging decades of racial profiling by Cincinnati’s police department. The presiding judge, Susan Dlott, felt that litigation was unlikely to produce a lasting solution, wrote Jay Rothman, the court-appointed mediator she assigned to design the agreement, which was unprecedented in the scope and scale to which it sought to incorporate community voices and hopes.
Over nine fraught months, 3,500 citizens voiced their frustrations. City officials haggled over whether to keep control of police use-of-force guidelines or to concede control to federal oversight. The police refused to admit that racial profiling existed. And yet, by March 2002, because of the boycott, pressure had mounted to reach an agreement. On April 12, 2002, just over a year after Thomas was killed, 58 Cincinnatians representing thousands voted for the agreement, signed by the mayor, the president of the FOP, the head of the Ohio ACLU, and the president of Cincinnati Black United Front. It called for a community- and evidence-based approach to policing that tackled the root causes of crime rather than meeting quotas. Community members were to ride along with police. It established an independent Citizen Complaint Authority.
The Collaborative Agreement was strained from the beginning by a lack of regard by police and city leadership. In 2003, a federal magistrate rejected the FOP’s request to withdraw from it. The city was found in violation of the agreement when police refused to allow community monitors to ride along on patrol. But slowly, with new city and police leadership, change took hold, and the numbers showed it was working.
By 2015, Cincinnati had seen a 69 percent reduction in police use-of-force incidents. Citizen complaints and injuries were cut in half. Most telling of all, the Collaborative Agreement had been voluntarily continued after its court-mandated five-year-term. Recent incidents, including the shooting of Samuel DuBose, have strained relations, and police support continues to wax and wane with changes in department and FOP leadership.
In 2016, the city set out to refresh the Collaborative Agreement. It solicited an evaluation from Saul Green, the original federally-appointed monitor. Green’s conclusion, that the city had all but “unilaterally walked away from the agreement,” was bleak. But it also served as a wake-up call. Most recently, as part of 2017’s “Collaborative Agreement Refresh,” the city hired a “Collaborative Agreement sustainability manager,” Jason Cooper.
In 2016, University of Cincinnati sociology doctoral student Shaonta’ Allen worked alongside activist Iris Roley, who was integral to nurturing the original Collaborative Agreement, to gather input from more than 1,200 community members on the Collaborative Agreement, 14 years into its life. Allen found that community-police relations were still very much a work in progress. Distrust and misunderstandings persist, she says, but “in the context of the rhetoric around Black Lives Matter,” are as salient as ever. “The fact that 15 years later we can still be having this same conversation shows there’s something going on that we didn’t quite grasp back in 2002. It shows that we need to continue to push this notion of ‘What does community-based policing look like?’ ”