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The Daily Record (Maryland’s Business and Legal News)


Volume: 2   Number: 77_law   October 1, 2001

Opinion - Resolve racial profiling conflicts through community collaboration, mediation

By The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board

While last week’s acquittal of a police officer in the shooting death of a black youth has reignited tensions there,
Cincinnati is midway through an innovative community-wide collaborative problem-solving and mediation process that has great potential as a national model for resolving community complaints or concerns about racial profiling.

Community collaboration and mediation also could prove to be effective in restoring good police-community relations in cities and towns where there has been a breakdown because of racial tensions.

The Cincinnati Police Department is one of 13 police agencies currently under federal investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether police officers have engaged in practices of excessive force or other acts of police misconduct against blacks and other minorities in violation of their civil rights.

The misconduct would have deprived those citizens of rights protected by Title VI of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and other federal civil rights statutes.

Police practices in Cincinnati became a hot issue after the ACLU and the Black United Front filed a civil rights suit earlier this year in federal court alleging that for many years, police have engaged in a pattern of racially motivated misconduct against black citizens.

The suit revealed some disturbing statistics. Since 1995, 15 criminal suspects have been killed by police officers—all of them were black. Cincinnati has 331,000 residents—43 percent are black. There are 1,000 officers on the police force, but only 28 percent of them are minorities.

This March, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott concluded that mediation could bring about a more substantial resolution of the underlying racial tensions between the community and the police in Cincinnati than what was likely to be accomplished by the litigants through a trial and appeals.

Broader collaboration

Judge Dlott appointed Dr. Jay Rothman, a nationally renowned conflict resolution specialist, as the Special Master to conduct the mediation. He has mediated conflicts in America and around the world, including in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

Although originally retained as a mediator to resolve the federal litigation, Dr. Rothman and his firm, The ARIA Group, decided to facilitate a much broader collaborative process involving the wider community. The project combines citizen input and expert analysis to help Cincinnati understand and constructively address the issues faced in police-community conflicts.

This community collaboration and mediation process is unlike any approach that has been used so far to resolve racial profiling complaints, Justice Department enforcement actions or private civil rights suits focused on police misconduct.

It consists of a series of facilitated community dialogues, community surveys, feedback sessions and the collaborative development of an action plan that holds the promise of fleshing out the core problems underlying racial tensions in police-community relations, and developing practical solutions.

It offers the best chance for improving those relations on a long-term basis so that the quality of policing can improve, the police and the citizens they serve can show more respect to each other, and the problem of racial profiling can be addressed now and even eliminated well into the future.

There are several reasons why this innovative approach holds such promise.

First, collaboration itself is important and critical to the outcome because in the context of these dialogues, it will be necessary to transcend the narrow interests of litigants in the suit and ultimately to reach the citizens of the community. The community must participate in the process to find long-term solutions for resolution of the conflict.

The collaboration will take account of views and opinions expressed by more than 4,000 people in Cincinnati who have a stake in cooling racial tensions and improving relations between the community and the police. The stakeholding groups include a broad demographic cross-section of black and white residents, religious leaders, police officers, police family members, social workers, elected officials and businessmen.

Litigation is generally geared toward addressing the claims of individual litigants, while collaborative problem-solving processes are more broadly focused and better able to incorporate the perspectives of the community at large.

After a trial, the court must give relief only to the litigants or a class of people similarly situated. Through an alternative community-based process, relief can be designed that will impact the entire community.

This process is unlike any approach that has been used so far to resolve racial profiling complaints, Justice Department enforcement actions or private civil rights suits focused on police misconduct.

Second, all aspects of the process will be conducted openly. Unlike traditional, confidential mediation sessions, Dr. Rothman designed a more open process through which Cincinnati community members have been encouraged to provide their views or opinions on the following queries that will be part of an open forum:

* What are the goals for future police-community relations?

* Why are those goals important?

* How can those goals be best achieved?

The answers are being collected and shared with each stakeholder group. There will be a meeting where the participants will be heard. The information will be included in the data collection process.

Third, data will undergo a rigorous analysis incorporating views of the participants and expert studies regarding the best practices in police-community relations. As stated by The ARIA Group, a proposal then will be developed to address the concerns of the stakeholders.

The proposal can be expected to include, “… suggestions for changes in policing practices, community involvement in policing, programs for improving communication between youth and police, individual responsibility and many other topics.”

The proposal should lead to a written settlement agreement with, “… opportunities for ongoing, enforceable and meaningful collaboration by the community and the police.” Disputes that arise about the terms of the settlement agreement will be mediated.

Efforts underway here

Racial profiling has become one of the most explosive social issues in America largely because of:

* The admitted misconduct of several New Jersey State Police Troopers;

* The findings of the New York Attorney General about the misconduct of New York City Police Officers;

* The federal court injunction against the Maryland State Police specifically prohibiting racial profiling;

* The candid admissions from officers and former officers of the Los Angeles and New Orleans Police Departments about misconduct and abuse of citizens; and

* Other notorious cases involving police conduct.

Those incidents have made it clear that in many communities throughout the nation, racial profiling is a serious problem that in some instances has reached crisis proportions. The problem must be dealt with and then resolved through a process that will heal racial tensions, abate the racial profiling problem, restore good working relations between communities and police, and provide a framework that can address police-community conflicts in the future.

Similar efforts are underway in Maryland with funding support from the Maryland Judiciary’s recently created Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO).

The most notable example is a series of expanding “study circles” that are being facilitated by the Prince George’s County Community Mediation Board. These sessions bring county and municipal law enforcement officers together with community, civic and religious leaders for productive dialogues on racial profiling, police-community partnerships and crime prevention.

MACRO is also working with the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and the American Friends Service Committee to launch a series of “listening projects” in East Baltimore and Prince George’s County HotSpot neighborhoods.

As a result of the national tragedy of September 11, MACRO is planning a project with the Maryland Human Relations Commission and the Maryland State Police to design facilitated community dialogues to promote understanding and support for Maryland’s Muslim and Arab American community members. Conflict prevention, as well as conflict resolution, can be addressed by collaborative community processes.

In addition, MACRO has helped fund creation of a new statewide “community conferencing” program, which helps set up similar, large-scale, multi-party dispute resolution processes at the neighborhood level. Often used in juvenile justice cases, the community conferencing model also has been effective in bringing police together with community members, local youth, educators, and government service providers to resolve contentious neighborhood issues.

We feel that community collaboration and mediation processes will be proven effective in addressing difficult racial profiling issues. The Cincinnati model developed by Dr. Rothman, as well as similar community-based efforts in Maryland, should be promoted, replicated and encouraged.

— Note: Editorial Advisory Board Member Rachel Wohl is executive director of MACRO.


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The Cincinnati Police - Community Relations Collaborative