Cincinnati tries talking about race

700 residents discuss their racial differences in nonadversarial sessions


CINCINNATI - Talk has been sounding more precious than cheap this summer along the deep racial divide laid bare in civil rights protests and running violence on the streets here in the spring.

For one thing, 700 city residents listened and talked about their racial differences in schools and barbershops Thursday night, prompted by a television and Internet show organized by the local news media.

But this exercise in repairing civic morale was being dwarfed by an unusual and far deeper effort to mine candid talk about grievances as the means for settling a pending racial profiling lawsuit against the city and the police.

Wary of the usual courtroom adversary techniques for such a delicate issue, Judge Susan J. Dlott of U.S. District Court had called time out in the suit in March, only weeks before the underlying issues exploded in the streets as blacks protested against the police and a city curfew was imposed to end bouts of vandalism.

Dlott, searching for an alternative to the courtroom struggle over race, appointed as the court's special master Jay Rothman, a mediator experienced in two decades of conflict resolution in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and other global trouble spots. The four days of subsequent street violence confirmed what a trouble spot Cincinnati had become.

The judge has asked Rothman, 43, an Ohio native, to propose a consensus settlement by studying the impassioned, informed views of Cincinnati residents. He and his staff at the ARIA Group, a private mediation firm in Yellow Springs, Ohio, are midway through 10 months of extensive interviews and follow-up negotiations about grievances and goals with about 4,000 residents, blacks and whites, representing a cross-section of eight major interests in the city.

One of the eight groups, young people up to age 25, has been quietly consulted all summer, eliciting 750 responses particularly encouraging to Rothman because none of the respondents demanded anonymity. Their views and complaints were put through data analysis and returned in summary forms to 30 of the young people in a follow-up discussion at which they then chose 10 of their peers to produce a final three-page list of proposals.

The list boils hundreds of views down into five proposals for improving police-community relations through respect, cooperation, less confrontation and more investment of resources.

"Both sides feel threatened," one youth said. "You must give respect to get respect," said another. "African-American youths in our city are not given enough reasons to find hope," said a third.

In similar fashion, city police officers and their families are being approached for their grievances and advice. About 180 have responded, and Rothman intends to have twice that number before their consensus gathering in November. The other groups being interviewed are white and black adults and multicultural residents, officials of the police and the city government, religious and social work professionals and business leaders.

"This was the judge's idea, to really try and go deeper," said Rothman, who has a doctorate in international relations and is a specialist in "identity-based conflict," in which clashing groups are heard out in detail and taught to seek mutual goals from common grievances. His goal, after applying consensus-building methods to the groups separately and finally in an 80-person gathering of all eight city interests in December, is to refine a single proposal for improving the city's police-community relations that all parties to the lawsuit might accept.

Rothman, scholar in residence at the McGregor School at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, said he had never heard of conflict resolution being applied this way as an alternative to a federal civil rights suit. But whether between Jew and Arab in Jerusalem or black residents and the police in Cincinnati, he said, the common complaint underlying group-identity conflict is the same: "There's not enough mutual respect."

In the lawsuit, the city's black leaders in the Black United Front and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the city and the police, contending that they engaged in years of systematic racial profiling and excessive use of force. They point to the fact that all 15 suspects killed by the police in the last six years were black. This pattern is also the subject of a Justice Department investigation.

The Fraternal Order of Police denies bias, accusing critics of stereotyping officers and undermining law and order. But the issue turned into a crisis in April when street protests and vandalism by blacks broke out after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man who was reported to be fleeing the police. The police force is 28 percent minority, while decades of white flight have seen the city's black minority increase to 43 percent.

The exhaustive effort to forge a common prescription from clashing parties is costing $460,000, with help coming from the Andrus Family Foundation, the city and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

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