Cincinnati officials provide words of wisdom and warning for the Ferguson Commission | St. Louis Public Radio

Cincinnati officials provide words of wisdom and warning for the Ferguson Commission

Sep 9, 2015

With only a few days before they release their final report, members of the Ferguson Commission got something of a reality check from Al Gerhardstein.

Gerhardstein is an attorney who helped negotiate a landmark agreement in Cincinnati that brought massive changes to the city’s police department. As he looked at some of the commission’s recommendations to overhaul the region’s law enforcement agencies, Gerhardstein worried aloud that he was experiencing déjà vu.

“I knew that we had to do something very dramatic. We had to do something different,” said Gerhardstein. “Because what have we done before that time in order to affect police reform in Cincinnati? We’d gone to meetings. We had blue ribbon panels. We had lots of important people sitting at tables that had skirts on them. And we issued reports. And those reports were really profound and thoughtful and thorough.” 

Damon Lynch III helped hammer out Cincinnati's collaborative agreement. He told the crowd his city broke through once blacks and whites started seeing each other through their own "lenses."
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“And they sat on shelves,” he added. “And the reports didn’t change anything. And the clients still got killed.”

At the commission’s final public meeting in Ferguson, officials from Cincinnati described their wrenching, soul-searching process that occurred after a spate of police shootings in the early 2000s. 

Iris Roley of the Cincinnati Black United Front emphasized that her city had not become “a utopia.” And there are still tensions and problems between law enforcement and citizens. But, she says, there have been tangible policy shifts, especially after the implementation of a citizen’s review board of police that has subpoena power.

“So I want to tell you all it can be done,” Roley said. “But be self determined. Be arrogant. Fight, push, kick, scream – and even curse sometime.”

Much of the change came after a court-imposed collaborative agreement – and an attitude shift from police and citizens.

“The one thing we knew is we had failed so miserably at implementing blue ribbon panel reports that we wanted a court order,” Gerhardstein said. “And we needed a court order to keep us all on track. And that court order wasn’t just about spanking people who did bad things. It was about helping people, because the court order came with a group of monitors.”

Ferguson Commission report looming

Wednesday night’s meeting was the last public gathering before the Ferguson Commission releases it report. It’s set to be publicly unveiled next Monday afternoon in Ferguson. 

Ferguson Commission co-chair Starsky Wilson speaks at Wednesday's Ferguson Commission meeting.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“When the community sees it, it will be highly interactive,” said Ferguson Commission co-chair Rich McClure. “There will be ways to engage. They’ll be ways to go to places where people are interested and find ways to learn what they can do and how they can become better informed.”

Many of the Ferguson Commission’s recommendations have already been approved and publicly released, including some ambitious alterations to how law enforcement agencies operate. Included in the key recommendations are bringing an outside prosecutor to investigate police-involved killings; changing the state’s use of force law; consolidating local police departments; and expanding the amount of officer training.

When asked about Gerhardstein’s comments about how changes to law enforcement policy will require a court order, Ferguson Commission Starsky Wilson said, “The situation in our region calls for a different response.

“And quite frankly, the initiation of the commission calls for a different response,” Wilson said. “Our work was appointed by the governor. And so we looked at things that are in statewide authority, but impact our region. We also have multi-jurisdictional area that we’re talking about, whereas our friends from Cincinnati were dealing with one city.

“So it just calls for accountability mechanisms and approaches,” he added. “And we’re glad to learn about the ones they had. And there may be places for some these different techniques as we think about implementation and translation.

What Wilson alluded to is the dozens of individual municipalities throughout the St. Louis area. Hammering out a court-ordered agreement in Ferguson, for example, may not effectuate much change in any other St. Louis County municipalities. (That may be why many of the commission’s changes require state legislative approval, so it would apply to the region – as opposed to just Ferguson).

For his part, Gehardstein said he hoped the commission “doesn’t disband without formulating some ongoing monitoring group that follows up with their recommendations.”

“We know that there will either be a verdict or a settlement in the Ferguson case with the Department of Justice,” said Gerhardstein, alluding to a potential consent decree for the Ferguson Police Department. “That will be a strong template that can be used by other law enforcement agencies in the region. And that can really fold into these recommendations and hopefully help them toward reform.”