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Cincinnati: One Year After the Riots - 2002-04-17

A year ago, the Midwestern city of Cincinnati made world headlines when riots erupted after an unarmed black man wanted by police was shot to death by a white police officer. Since that time Cincinnati residents have been grappling with the racial problems that divide their city. And some steps have been taken to improve the situation. But, whether Cincinnati has made significant progress in the past year depends on who you ask.

"I don't think the city of Cincinnati is dealing with the racial problem head on. I think they're skirting the issue." "I'm out all day long making deliveries with people in the city. And I don't see any confrontations between anybody. And everybody seems to be getting along fine. I think they've done a good job." "It's taken a year. They're just NOW starting to make progress. I think they're way behind." "Well, I think that the biggest thing is that they brought it to the public eye a lot more. They brought it to the surface."

After last April's riots, Mayor Charlie Luken appointed a multi-racial commission called Cincinnati CAN to examine the city's racial problems and implement solutions. Commission spokesman Herb Brown says it's taken steps to improve education, job opportunities and home ownership for the city's African-American residents, and introduced a new plan to help neighborhood groups work in partnership with police.

"Giving both additional support and resources. The plan encompasses four program areas," Mr. Brown said. "Number one is problem-oriented policing. Two, 'Weed and Seed'. Three, youth street workers. And four, neighborhood juvenile courts," he explained.

Weed and Seed is a program under which police and neighborhoods identify drug dealers and violent criminals, work to remove them from the community and then bring in support services to foster neighborhood revitalization. Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken points to other improvements on the local government's part, from putting new money into the development of inner-city neighborhoods to implementing new hiring practices.

"I think there's been a new attitude, and we see it every day on the part of the police department, to try to work more cooperatively with our community and our neighbors," Mayor Luken said. "We have new systems in place to hire police chiefs. We have a new city manager that I think is taking the city in a more open and inclusive direction. I just believe that the attitude around here has changed from one of confrontation to people trying to get together to work on their problems, together."

But Mayor Luken acknowledges there is still a lot of division in Cincinnati. That was evident on April 7, the one-year anniversary of the shooting death that triggered last year's riots.

"What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" the crowd shouted.

Hundreds of people, both black and white, converged on downtown for a rally and a march for justice. Among the speakers was the Reverend Stephen Scott, who leads the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati. He told the crowd, justice has been denied to the city's African-American citizens.

"There is disparity in justice. There is disparity in criminal justice. There is disparity in economic justice. There is disparity in social justice."

Reverend Scott's group is one of several that have called for visitors to avoid Cincinnati and for residents not to spend their money downtown. The boycott, announced last summer, has prompted several organizations to move planned conventions from the city, and resulted in the cancellation of performances by some prominent black entertainers, including comedians Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg.

But those who oppose the boycott say mediation, not monetary pressure is the way to bring about change. They are praising a new, landmark agreement to settle a class-action lawsuit filed against Cincinnati in federal court. The suit accused the police department of racial profiling, singling out African-Americans for harassment for more than 30 years. The police officers' union hopes the collaborative settlement will help chart a new path in its relations with Cincinnati's black citizens, but it fervently denies it has ever engaged in racial profiling.

"We will be embarking on a new era in police-community relations," said attorney Scott Greenwood.

The American Civil Liberties Union attorney helped craft the agreement and calls it, historic.

"The police, here in Cincinnati, unlike any other community, will have a real voice at the table when it comes to police-community relations issues. We will have real, verifiable checks on uses of police power. We will have a system of mutual accountability. And we will be shifting to an entirely different philosophy of policing, problem-oriented policing," he said.

That philosophy incorporates recommendations from the federal Justice Department to reform police training on when and how force can be used. The agreement and cooperation that led to it attracted the attention of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. He came to Cincinnati this month to put his symbolic seal of approval on the accord, which he called a model.

"I dream that some day people in other settings who are having problems will say, 'Let's get some of those folks from Cincinnati to come and tell us how to work together to solve our problems,'" Mr. Ashcroft said.

Mayor Charlie Luken acknowledges that his city hasn't solved all its problems yet, especially in the areas of education and employment. But he says his race relations commission is working hard on these issues and agrees with the Attorney General that Cincinnati's struggles and successes could help other U.S. cities.