Jun 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The lessons from Cincinnati's 2001 protests against police brutality

Dion Jackson protests against police violence in downtown Cincinnati while holding a sign that says "I'm unarmed. Don't shoot."

Dion Jackson protests against police violence on April 12, 2001, in downtown Cincinnati. Photo: David Maxwell/AFP via Getty Images.

On April 7, 2001, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas — unarmed and wanted for minor misdemeanors like not wearing a seatbelt — was fatally shot while running from police in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Why it matters: In the wake of the 2001 riots that followed his killing, Cincinnati overhauled its policing policies, which could prove constructive for cities looking to do the same today.

  • Thomas was the fifth African American killed by Cincinnati police in seven months, CNN reported at the time.
  • Several days of violent protests and civil unrest followed. Five months later, a jury found the white officer not guilty.

The city took several steps:

  1. Adopted a very specific use-of-force policy that banned batons, rubber bullets and chokeholds. Also instituted mandatory training for law enforcement on implicit bias, homelessness, drug abuse and de-escalation.
  2. Increased transparency by forming a fully funded, independent citizen complaint authority that publicly investigated allegations against officers.
  3. Changed policing model by targeting repeat violent offenders over minor crimes.
  4. Automatic body cameras: Newer technology has been implemented to automatically turn on body cams when an officer gets out of the car or pulls a gun or taser.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who was a member of the city council during the 2001 riots, said these actions have instilled more trust and transparency between the police force and the public — and he said it's also reduced both arrests and serious crimes by 50%.

Protests in the city have been turbulent: A police officer was shot on Saturday, but he was not hurt as the bullet struck his helmet. Over the last several nights, Cranley said the vast majority of agitators arrested by the police have been white.

  • "There are many things that are racially unjust here. We're not perfect. But we do think we have made some real strides," Cranley said. "It's a never-ending, continuous improvement."
Go deeper