Find Mediators Near You:

The Cincinnati Police-Community Relations Collaborative as a National Model for Improving Police-Community Relations Today


The US is now facing national crisis and vigorous discussion about the faults of its criminal justice system, particularly around the African American community and its encounter with the police. This is an opportune moment to take stock of lessons learned from The Cincinnati Collaborative, hailed as national model for police-reform and improving partnership and problem solving between police and community.

As it becomes increasingly clear that new approaches are needed for a comprehensive re-evaluation about the way police and community encounter each other and ideally jointly address problems of crime and disorder, what was accomplished in Cincinnati beginning in 2001 and continuing today provides some hope and direction for the future.

In reflecting on the unprecedented success of this process, we believe that it was derived from a complex intersection of leadership from the top, deep and broad engagement from the bottom (i.e. police and community members), and wide institutional support and engagement (i.e. “middle-out”). This interlocking system of top-down, bottom-up and middle-out engagement and leadership created a firm foundation and complex cooperation that fostered cultural, social and structural changes that have lasted and become more robust over time. It should be quickly added, however, that there were many faults and limitations with this process and its outcomes and these lessons too should be mined and shared for future improvements.

The main lessons learned is that what succeeded in Cincinnati was a complex interplay for systems level change from the top-down, to the bottom-up and the middle-out in dynamic intersection among them.

One: Policing a Tragic Profession

Policing is a tragic profession. Racism is not more concentrated in policing than most other fields.  As the front line representatives of government, however, Police officers both represent the system and are responsible for the use of direct coercive force.  This role often places them in direct interaction with the underbelly of American racism – both structural and attitudinal.  Police-Community conflict is a symptom of government-community conflict and exposes the ongoing legacy of racial conflict in America.  We too often look to solve police-community conflicts by entering an adversarial process that will identify both a winner and a party to blame.  To enhance relationships, we must not only help police and community work for mutual gain, but pay attention to the underlying identity issues that make police-community relations matter so much in the first place.  Identifying shared interests are critical, but without acknowledging that identity issues such as the need for respect, dignity, control over destiny are at the core of the conflict, any attempts at crafting lasting solutions to police community conflict will fall short.

This need to focus on identity both enhances and complicates the job of any person or group seeking to resolve conflicts between police and community.  Race and racial identity are both complex and central features of American society.  Too often we assume that because policing is an extension of our legal system, legal models will help us solve policing problems.  Police-community conflicts, however, are social problems inseparable from issues race, and courts have long struggled to effectively solve such ongoing social conflicts.  A legal framework is necessary but not sufficient for such a problem.  Only when properly sequenced within a process that surfaces and engages issues of identity, defines the history of the conflict (and maps the larger social and political s in which it is embedded) and uses this shared understanding of the problem to craft an agreement based on shared interests, values and mutual accountability, can courts create a truly new dynamic for police-community relations.

In addition to a focus on identity issues as a central, organizing lens for this work, a number of other lessons have been extracted from our work in Cincinnati Ohio in 2001-2002. In looking back at what made the collaborative successful in its early days (during which 3500 participants took part in a visioning and goal setting process and set a new agenda that was later sanctioned and enforced by the federal court), we can identify at least four key features: 1. There was powerful institutional support (the US Federal Court Judge and a committed donor/sponsor), 2. There was innovative leadership and process  (top down, middle out, bottom up), 3. Tremendous community engagement was galvanized, 4. The media was enrolled as allies and a clear and powerful message was created and shared.

1. Institutional support – The Cincinnati Police-Community Relations Collaborative began when a civil right lawyer, Alphonse Gerhardstein, choreographed a delicate dance between a US Federal Judge, Susan Dlott, a foundation head, Stephen Kelban of the Andrus Family Fund, and myself, a conflict resolution specialist, to explore an non-litigious way to address accusations of racial profiling from leaders in the African American community against the police department in Cincinnati, Ohio in February, 2000.

2. Innovative Leadership – Once the Judge determined that a court battle might not be constructive to dealing with what she understood to be a conflict over attitudes and identities (she had been a domestic relations attorney previously and brought this experience to bear in this matter), and hired me to serve as her Special Master (with support from the foundation and advocacy of Gerhardstein) we brought together leaders and representatives from the Black United Front, The ACLU, the Police Leadership and Union, City Officials (their lawyers and reprentative of the Mayor). Together as a steering committee for the collaborative, constituted of these previous adversaries who had planned to face off in Court in litigation, we adopted and adapted a process that would ensure massive participation from citizens to set a new agenda from the bottom up (see Rothman, 2013). Six months were spent gathering goal, value and action oriented data about the future of police-community relations in Cincinnati and building consensus on five key strategic directions.

3. Community Engagement – Through a carefully crafted process based on stakeholder input and participation at individual, group and collective levels, input was gathered from 3500 citizens organized in to eight stakeholding groups (Police Officers and their families; African American citizens; Youth; Educational, Business and Foundation leadership; Social Service Leadership; white citizens; and other minority groups (e.g. Latinos, Jews, LGBT, etc.). Through a scaling up process by which input was analyzed and then feedback to those who gave it in stakeholder meetings internal consensus was reach within each of the eight groups. For example, 750 individual youth shared something like 2000 individual goals that were then organized in to five goal categories. Forty youth volunteered to participate in a “feedback session” in which they dialogued about the data as analyzed, regrouped and redeveloped goals statements in their own language as they reached consensus on their platform of goals. After each of the eight group reached their internal consensus, ten representatives from, and selected by, each group met and reached overarching agreement on five strategic goals for improving police community relations. These were later scrutinized in a public hearing, as the case was transformed in to a class-action suit as it went back to the court, and after a few months the goals began core to a fifty page agreement that was lauded by the then US Attorney General, who participated in the signing in the Cincinnati City Counsel offices,  “as the best model for improving Police-Community relations in the US.”

However, it should be quickly added that the citizen involvement was not all peaceful and collaborative. In fact, a good case can be made that had preceding riots not occurred (several months after the launching of the collaborative– not before as most erroneously believe) the Collaborative would not have gotten off the ground. Indeed, for the several months it was being organized (February-May, 2000) until the riots broke out in response to a shooting of an unarmed African American male by a police officer in May of that year, the collaborative was limping and almost DOA. However, with the riots (or disturbances or unrest – each naming had a different social political meaning ascribed to it – see Rothman, 20xx), and perhaps in particular with the constructive role played by the media in advocating for the Collaborative as a promising way out of the quagmire, the Collaborative got legs.

4. The media – Right from the start of the collaborative, we hired a media consultant. She used her outstanding connections to local media to get the collaborative in to the front and editorial pages of all major and community papers in the City, in the radio and on television news. At some point we went national and even got covered several times by the National Public Radio and one time were featured in a major story in the New York Times. This was a major success for and by the process and was undoubtedly one of the reasons we were able to recruit so much participation. For example, several times during the process there were front-page stories and invitations to citizens to participate. The New Times Story came out just when the Collaborative was facing tremendous internal resistance and this gave us external credibility that helped move us forward.

What we lacked – So as not to suggest that this was a cakewalk, the collaborative process was faced with mighty resistance throughout. While police and city representatives were on the Steering Committee, they were also very often highly skeptical if not at times outright hostile to the effort. For example, City Counsel finally agreed to co-sponsor (with the foundation) the process on a split vote of 5-4 in a very raucous counsel meeting (said one reprentative to me: Dr. Rothman, if you’d like to run a community process, we can’t stop you. But don’t ask us to support it. That would be abdicating our role as elected officials. To which the Archbishop of Cincinnati Dioceses responded during public comment: this process must go forward; it is providential that it does: he may well have caused the swing vote). Moreover, even those who agreed to the process whole-heartedly often undermined it when it went against different interests (the Black United Front for example launched a boycott against city business at the same time that these business were finally sponsoring the collaborative – it cost in all some $400,000 of which the city and Andrus Foundation paid half). At one point in a face off between the Mayor and the head of the Black United Front, the Judge told me unless they could agree to work better together she would pull the plug. They never did; but neither did she end the collaborative (even after a fairly failed mediation I conducted).

Nonetheless, this was clearly a successful collaborative process. The proof of this success was immediate with the signing of the agreement, the investment of 10’s of millions of dollars in changing policing, building a community based “Police-Community Partnering Center,” the hiring of the first African American Police Chief in the City’s history and more than a dozen years later holding up locally, with problem solving policing becoming more and more the norm as provided for as a core component of the original agreement, as being pointed as was said then, a “national model for police-community relations.”



The Cincinnati Model for Improving Police-Community Relations has been an exception to the rule of worsening police-community relations, leading to increasing violence and social unrest. It should become more “normal” and adapted for use in creative and deeply collaborative problem solving throughout the US (and beyond) in the years ahead. 


For more information see Rothman, Jay (ed.) (2012). From Identity-Based Conflict to Identity-Based Cooperation. Springer: New York. And an Interactive Website about Cincinnati Police-Community Relations Collaborative



Jay Rothman

Jay Rothman, Professor of Creative Conflict Engagement, Graduate Program on Conflict Resolution, Management and Negotiation, Bar Ilan University, Israel.  Mr. Rothman is the former President of The ARIA Group and Special Master/Mediator to US Federal Judge following Riots in Cincinnati, Ohio 2001.     MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


End of the Cold War: The Marriage of Mediation and the Court System

"We are gathered here today to join these two parties in holy matrimony. If anyone here objects to this union, speak now, or forever hold your peace." As we turn...

By Jeffrey Krivis

Psychological Aspects Of Divorce: A Primer For Mediators and Collaborative Lawyers

Divorce is an action born out of lost hope by one or both partners about their marriage. It is important for mediators and collaborative lawyers to be aware of the...

By Offra Gerstein

Rising Above Office Conflict: Nov. 17 Training for HR, Management & Leaders

Rising Above Office Conflict is a 1-day, fast-paced training for HR, Management and Leaders. This training will take place on November 17th, 2023 from 7:00 am-3:30 pm Pacific Time, with...

By Clare Fowler