Saturday, March 29, 2003

City seeks to replace attorneys

Council: Suing police, promoting boycott not fitting with agreement

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Black United Front should be allowed to bail out of the city's landmark police-community relations agreement - but only if their lawyers go with them, City Council members say.

If they do, the city would continue to work through the collaborative agreement on police-community relations, under a statement approved by the Law and Public Safety Committee Friday.

The most recent crisis facing the year-old agreement is the Black United Front's announcement last week that it no longer wanted to serve as the "class representative" for the class-action lawsuit on racial profiling, which led to the collaborative agreement. The group, led by the Rev. Damon Lynch III, said it wanted to focus on promoting a national boycott of Cincinnati to raise attention to police brutality and what it calls "economic apartheid."

Several national civil rights leaders are expected come to Cincinnati next weekend in an effort to escalate the boycott.

Councilman David Pepper said the Black United Front's continued promotion of the boycott was turning the collaborative agreement into a "farce."

Under City Council's resolution, which Pepper drafted, the city would only continue to work within the agreement if:

• Remaining plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the agreement select a new class representative that is large enough and broad enough to reflect the black community. That entity "must not actively support the boycott," the resolution said.

• Plaintiff's lawyers involved in the implementing the agreement no longer represent the Black United Front, or any other client suing the city for alleged violations of the agreement.

Though not mentioned by name, it was clear that City Council was targeting plaintiff's attorney Kenneth L. Lawson, whose practice almost exclusively includes criminal defense and civil rights cases against police.

Lawson called it the "Shut Ken Lawson Up Act."

"I will not be silenced. I will continue to represent people in cases against the Cincinnati Police Department," he said.

Another plaintiff's lawyer, Alphonse Gerhardstein of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, accused the city of trying to pick its opponent in court.

Mayor Charlie Luken said the collaborative agreement was "doomed to failure" as long as those helping to improve police-community relations were also suing the police department and urging a national boycott of Cincinnati.

Other council members agreed. Pat DeWine and John Cranley said one of the goals of the agreement was supposed to be reducing crime. But the Black United Front has argued that arresting suspects should be a "last resort" to dealing with criminal activity, they said.

"The plaintiffs do have a commitment to reduce arrests. I'm not ashamed to say that. That doesn't mean we're in favor of crime," Gerhardstein said. "In state prisons, 54 percent are African-American, compared to 12 percent of the state population. That disparity isn't just explained by more crime being committed by African-Americans. It's explained by discrimination. We need to look at how we define crime and look at our measures to fight crime."

Steve Sunderland, a Northside activist who has been working on police-community relations from the agreement, said there was plenty of blame to go around. The city has done almost nothing to implement the agreement, he said.

Other activist groups were also critical of the Black United Front. At one point, public testimony at Friday's meeting turned into a gripe session by several splinter groups critical of the Front's role in the collaborative and the boycott.

"The problem has been the Black United Front. They have not represented the African-American community. The white power structure picked the Front to lead the community," said Nathaniel Livingston, who leads one of two groups calling itself the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati.


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