Sunday, December 7, 2003

Collaborative agreement will guide police reforms

By Alphonse A. Gerhardstein, Kenneth L. Lawson and Scott T. Greenwood
Guest columnists

Jim Borgman editorial cartoon
Preventing the next Jones case
Term 'homicide' does not always mean wrongdoing
Collaborative agreement will guide police reforms
Your letters on the subject
Send us your thoughts

Have we learned nothing? Are we back to the days when police encountered the mentally ill Lorenzo Collins and killed him rather than peacefully subduing him?

No one can reasonably claim that everything is OK when the police engage a mentally unbalanced unarmed man and as a result he is killed. Nathaniel Jones should not have died. But we know what to do to hold accountable those who are responsible and move forward to avoid more tragedies.

In August 2002, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott approved a class-action settlement (collaborative agreement) establishing extensive police reforms. Parties included the African-American community, the Fraternal Order of Police and the city of Cincinnati. Many of those reforms have been put to the test in the death of Mr. Jones.

What does the agreement require and what must we do to move forward?

• Video: The collaborative agreement that incorporates the memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department requires that police action be recorded on video and held for 90 days. We have the Jones video. Or most of it.

• Mental health response team: The agreements also require that a mentally disabled citizen be engaged by one of the "specially trained officers available at all times to respond to incidents involving persons who are mentally ill." We know that Jones was identified as a mentally ill person by the first officer on the scene. We also know that the Police Department policy as stated in the collaborative agreement states that if a specially trained officer is not available in the district where the mentally ill person is, then an officer is to be called in from another district. We must find out why Mr. Jones was never engaged by any of the 90 officers who have been trained to handle people in his mental state.

• Use of force: The agreements require that the least amount of force possible be used to restrain suspects, and considerable effort has been expended training officers on de-escalation techniques and how to select the appropriate amount of force from the use-of-force continuum.

• First aid: Common sense says use CPR if a suspect is restrained, in your custody, but not breathing. We must find out why Mr. Jones was not provided CPR for approximately three minutes while he was not breathing while restrained in police custody.

• Accountability: How do we get these questions answered? How do we hold the officers accountable if they broke the law? Or the Police Department policies? The agreements address that as well. The Citizen Complaint Authority was established as one of the nation's most progressive police investigative bodies. The citizen panel has its own independent, professional investigators assigned to review all serious police incidents. They were on the scene the day of Jones' death, and we certainly hope that they will do their job well.

Other investigations will be pursued by the prosecutor, the Police Department's homicide unit and the Police Department's internal affairs unit. But citizens run the Citizen Complaint Authority, and it is their investigation that we need in order to know that a neutral, thorough, professional review of all of these questions has been accomplished. The complaint authority will recommend discipline if needed as well as policy changes if those are needed.

The collaborative agreement is just over one year old. Many of the terms are not yet implemented. But the provisions discussed here are all in place. The parties to it are duty-bound to make sure we review our implementation of the agreement and change anything that is not working. The parties also must demand that the Citizen Complaint Authority do a thorough and competent job on this important case. Plaintiffs have questioned some of the investigations done to date and we need to make sure this one is done right.

Monitor Saul Green will undoubtedly help ensure that the citizens authority does its job correctly.

What lies ahead? We have learned a great deal since Collins' death. But obviously not yet enough to avoid another unnecessary, tragic homicide in police custody.

There are many people like Nathaniel Jones on the streets of Cincinnati. We owe each of them a professional, appropriately trained police force. The collaborative is the road map for avoiding these tragedies. The collaborative is also the vehicle for critically reviewing this incident - as a community - in order to hold people accountable in this case. Cincinnati deserves vigorous and strict adherence to its terms.


Alphonse A. Gerhardstein, Kenneth L. Lawson and Scott T. Greenwood are counsel for the plaintiffs in the Collaborative Agreement on Police Community Relations. Lawson is also representing the family of Nathaniel Jones.

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