A Flexible, Credible Response to Community Crisis
The idea for the CIT had its origins when Columbus police and local residents clashed at a crime scene in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of South Linden. Different versions of what had actually happened at the crime scene spread quickly through the South Linden community, with some residents claiming the police had used excessive force in dealing with those present. At the request of some South Linden residents, the Commission had convened a small group of leaders and neighborhood residents to engage with police officials in a series of meetings where they could express the concerns of their community, listen to the police explanations for the actions taken during the incident, and recommend ways to improve police-community interactions.
The series of meetings was a surprising success. In the view of the Commission, the meetings "effectively addressed the concerns and lower[ed] the tensions" within the South Linden community. The Commission concluded that advance planning for such meetings to address future incidents would allow them to form quickly and benefit from a familiar format in which to engage with law enforcement and other officials.
The challenge in designing the Community Intervention Teams is that the membership is completely unknown until the team is formed. As a result, the design remains abstract: essentially a series of steps and ground rules that will allow the community members recruited in each crisis to engage quickly and effectively with officials whom they probably distrust.
The "team" in a CIT is a small, diverse group of respected and well-known "representatives" from a community upset over an incident of possible police misconduct that has become a symbol of broader concerns. According to the Commission, a CIT is meant to:
1. Receive the concerns expressed by the community;
2. Communicate these concerns to the Department of Public Safety, the Division of Police, and other relevant law enforcement agencies;
3. Give substantive feedback to the community on the explanations, positions, and responses of law enforcement; and
4. Work with the Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies to ease community tensions, correct any misinformation, and resolve community concerns.
The CIT process is designed primarily to guide the community reconciliation and healing process. It is not meant to limit the accountability of those responsible for mistreatment of community members or for institutional failures that may have allowed the mistreatment to occur. "During Columbus community forums where we initially presented and described the CIT process," explains James Stowe, Executive Director of the Commission, "one of the main concerns was that the CIT might fail to protect or circumvent the legal rights of individuals. We told them, this has nothing to do with personal and specific actions; we just want to make sure communication stays open [between the police and aggrieved communities] and help the community move to a different place."
Similarly, in designing the CIT process, the Commission had no intention of interfering with a victim’s ability to seek individual redress for a rights violation nor did it want to slow institutional reform that might help prevent the recurrence of these tragedies. Still, until Nasir Abdi’s death, no one could tell whether the CIT method might inadvertently limit these activities. When Abdi’s death led James Stowe to activate the CIT process for the first time, it was merely a loose mix of structure and process guidelines. It would require substantial improvisation with largely unforeseeable consequences.
Click Here to View The Executive Session Papers HRC #1
Human Rights Commissions and Criminal Justice
Marea L. Beeman, Series Editor
Building Trust After a Police Shooting:Community Intervention Teams in Columbus, Ohio
Prepared by Liza Khan for the Executive Session on Human Rights Commissions and Criminal Justice
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University