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We've Been Here Before. A Solution Exists.

Ferguson can learn a lot from the Cincinnati race riots of 2001

Getty Images/Joe Raedle

An unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer. Violent protests and riots. An overmatched police force withholding information. Tear gas. Looting. Riot gear. Vandalism. Curfews.

That’s not just a description of the past week’s events in Ferguson, Missouri, which began when police officer Darren Wilson shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. It’s also what happened in Cincinnati in 2001.

In April of that year, Cincinnati police officers attempted to execute an arrest warrant against 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, who was wanted on 14 counts of nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly traffic citations. Thomas took the police on a 10-minute foot chase before darting down a dark alley where he ran into patrolman Stephen Roach. Surprised, Roach thought he saw Thomas reaching for a weapon in his waistband and shot him in the stomach. In fact, Thomas was unarmed; he was reaching to pull up his shorts. But Roach's single shot hit the suspect's heart. Thomas, who had recently become a father, died at the hospital.

The protests began two days later, when hundreds of protestors threw rocks and bottles at police. They chanted “fifteen black men”—the number of black men killed by the Cincinnati Police in the previous six years. Some protestors fired weapons, resulting in a few injuries. Businesses were looted. The economic damage totaled more than $10 million; the toll on race relations was immeasurable.

But thirteen years later, thanks to policy changes that resulted from those events, race relations in Cincinnati have improved. Those changes provide a framework for how the St. Louis County police and Ferguson community can move forward today.

The rioters in Cincinnati looted businesses, burned buildings, and even pulled white motorists from their cars and beat them. The police arrested hundreds of them. On April 13, six days after Roach fired his fateful shots, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken declared a state of emergency, called in the state highway patrol and announced a curfew for 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The curfew largely worked, and the unrest subsided.

Just a few weeks before the riots, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio and a few other organizations had sued the city of Cincinnati, alleging 30 years of racial profiling. After the riots, the ACLU, Cincinnati Black United Front, the city of Cincinnati and police union settled the suit with the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, which made numerous changes to police protocol. Officers are now trained in low-light situations, like confronting a suspect at night in an alley, as was the case in Thomas’s death. The agreement also created the Citizens Complaint Authority to investigate incidents when officers used serious force. Most importantly, it instructed officers to build relationships with the community by soliciting feedback with residents and using all available information to find solutions to problems before necessarily resorting to a law enforcement response. The ACLU of Ohio, which was one of the signatories of the agreement, hails it as “one of the most innovative plans ever devised to improve police-community relations.”

These new policies have not fixed all of the racial injustices in Cincinnati, but they have improved them. In 2010, the Rand Corporation conducted an analysis of the Cincinnati Police Department and found “no evidence of racial differences between the stops of black and those of similarly situated nonblack drivers.” The report also found that some individual officers "stop substantially more black drivers than their peers do." But that's still a big improvement over 2001, when one analysis found that black drivers were twice as likely as white ones to be cited for certain traffic violations.

“Now we have a police department that goes around and talks about it in a positive way and they talk about community-oriented policing,” Iris Roley, who was intimately involved in crafting the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “They brag on working with the community and being transparent. We can look backwards and say we did something, we didn't just complain and moan. As hard as it was, we did something. The police and the community sat at the table and hammered an agreement out.”

"We didn't realize it at the time, but we accomplished something historic," Pastor Damon Lynch III, who was one of the leaders of the 2001 protests, also told the Enquirer.

Roley and Lynch have both gone to Ferguson to provide advice. The collaborative agreement they struck in Cincinnati is exactly what the Missouri city needs.

When Governor Jay Nixon withdrew the St. Louis County police force last Thursday and replaced it with the state highway patrol, led by Ferguson native Captain Ron Johnson, community relations seemed to improve. Johnson instructed his officers to remove their riot gear and put away the tear gas. He and his officers interacted, even took selfies, with protestors. That calmed the situation temporarily, and showed how law enforcement can work with protestors to solve problems.

But the violence and looting escalated over the weekend, prompting Nixon to implement a curfew for midnight to 5 a.m. It’s impossible to know if those violent clashes would have ensued without the curfew. Ferguson Police's release Friday of a convenience store videotape showing Brown stealing a box of cigars earlier in the day of his death, which protestors criticized as an attempt at character assassination, only exacerbated tensions. On Sunday, Johnson’s police force returned to using riot gear and tear gas, erasing much of the goodwill that the captain had built up with Ferguson residents just days earlier.

It’s that goodwill, says former Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher, that helped Cincinnati recover from its 2001 riots. The same cooperation is needed in Ferguson to defuse the situation and rebuild trust between the community and the police. "They have to engage the entire community and make them a part of this resolution process with every effort from this point forward,” Streicher told Cincinnati’s CBS affiliate. “If they don't do that they will fail.”

Correction: A previous version of this article named the Cincinnati newspaper as the Inquirer. It is the Enquirer.