What Is And Isn't Working In Cincinnati's Landmark Police Oversight Board

Apr 7, 2021

A 2001 lawsuit led to what's now known as the Collaborate Agreement among the ACLU, the Cincinnati Black United Front, the city of Cincinnati and the Fraternal Order of Police. It required police to adopt community problem oriented policing, including the establishment of one of the first independent police oversight boards in the country: the Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA).

The CCA investigates all cases of serious police interactions like firing a weapon or when a person dies in custody. But it's just beginning work on some of the key goals.

Cincinnati is often cited as a model for other cities looking to establish police oversight boards. CCA Executive Director Gabe Davis says the city has a nearly 20-year head start.

"There are a lot of other models out there for how to do this work," Davis said. "We are unique in the sense that we have an investigative driven model. We're not there just to audit what's done by the police, but really there's an independent investigation with independent resources to do that. And that is quite unique, there are only a few jurisdictions that have that kind of structure."

The investigations are time consuming, with a complete review of all evidence, including body-worn camera footage. Investigators conduct interviews with officers and witnesses, and can issue subpoenas.

Budget cuts have kept the CCA short-staffed for years. That changed a couple months ago, soon after Davis took the helm — facing a backlog of 130 cases more than three months old.

Some are considerably older – like Ayanna Riley's complaint from more than two years ago. Officer Dennis Barnette saw Riley fighting with someone outside a nightclub. When he grabbed Riley, she flailed her arms and struck him in the face.

Then, as the investigation reads, "he referred to her as follows: 'racial slur slapped me in the face.' "

The CCA investigation wrapped up in time for the board to review at its February meeting — long after the police department completed an internal investigation. It determined Barnette violated the code of conduct and gave him a 56-hour suspension without pay. An arbitrator later overturned that discipline, leaving Riley frustrated.

"I had to pay my debt to society for the things that I did," Riley said. "I don't think it's going to be right that he doesn't pay his for the things that he did. I had to go through hell - the courts, fighting it and fighting it. They dropped my charge down but I had two years of probation I had to go through for my mistake. What did he have to go through for his?"

The CCA can't discipline officers directly. Davis says it can only make suggestions, such as "a set of steps that we thought would prevent future decisions from being overturned by arbitrators."

CCA Executive Director Gabe Davis at the February board meeting.
Credit CitiCable / City of Cincinnati

Investigations take up the vast majority of the CCA's time but are just one piece of its mission, which is to prevent misconduct instead of just responding to it. The group is supposed to analyze data, identify patterns, and do community engagement and mediation — most of which is on the back burner while they work through old cases.

'Where There Is A Will There Is A Way'

Iris Roley is no stranger to facing a huge challenge. Her work with the Black United Front 20 years ago is a big part of why the CCA exists today.

"Even in the beginning, it was met with much resistance," Roley said. "And I'm quite sure much resistance still applies to this day."

Roley says even with a tiny budget, the CCA has sent many policy recommendations to Cincinnati Police.

"But unfortunately, the police department rarely reports back and rarely enters into any dialogue regarding the recommendations."

That might change under Davis' leadership. He says he's encouraged by communication with Chief Eliot Isaac so far.

"I think all parties are working in good faith, and I think there's a genuine effort to really collaborate here on this," Davis said.

CPD will soon officially respond to recommendations from the past three years in a report under review in the city manager's office. A police spokesperson says department leaders are also encouraged by recent communication.

Read the full list of recommendations below (story continues after):

CCA Recommendation Report by WVXU News on Scribd

Davis says the first step to make progress is more funding. He's asking for about $430,000 in the next city budget. Thanks to federal stimulus funding filling the deficit, Davis is likely to get all the money he's requested.

Despite its shortcomings, the CCA is still a model for other cities. Iris Roley is often asked to give other communities advice about starting an oversight board.

"Do better than what we did — make sure that your independent oversight has powers to recommend policy and can do discipline," Roley said. "We're now there, that some of these agencies are doing a bit more than what we're doing in Cincinnati."

Roley has advice for Cincinnatians, too, who might be feeling the weight of everything that still needs to be done.

"Don't stop being hopeful," she said. "I would also say to those of us who have the ability and opportunity and the power to change things, to do it sooner than later. Stop dragging it out; you're dragging people's lives out."

Roley and Davis are hopeful full funding will make it possible to finally address all of the CCA's goals to work toward more equitable community policing.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated a 2002 lawsuit led to the Collaborative Agreement. The lawsuit was filed in March 2001; the story has been updated.

This article is part of WVXU's special series looking back at the civil unrest of 2001 on the 20th anniversary of the event. Read more here.

We acknowledge in 2001 it was common to call what happened in Cincinnati April 9-14 a "riot." So why aren't we calling it that now? Through re-examining the events of 2001 and similar occurrences over the past 20 years, we acknowledge "riot" is a racially fraught word that doesn’t depict the full complexity of these multifaceted situations. We believe words like "civil unrest" or "uprising” better reflect what occurred in Over-the-Rhine in terms of many people mobilizing to seek structural societal changes following the killing of Black men by Cincinnati Police.

To learn more about how Cincinnati Public Radio is addressing racism and inequality in our coverage and in our community, please see our Statement on Diversity and Inclusion, and share your feedback by emailing newsroom@wvxu.org.