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Published: Saturday, 5/19/2001

Chicago police could tutor their peers in Cincinnati

If a grand jury had indicted a white Cincinnati police officer on felony charges in the death of an unarmed black suspect, it wouldn't have made a lot of difference.

The riots in April after Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed Timothy Thomas emphasize the intense racial divide between blacks and whites.

It's sad that in the 21st century the friction between black people and white police officers remains so intense.

It should concern all Americans.

Cincinnati is not the only city with racial tension and where black people are angry about police treatment. Indeed, as state Treasurer Joe Deters has noted, some believe in violence. But maybe that's because nobody listens until there are disruptions.

Part of the problem is revealed in remarks like that made by Mr. Deters, a former Hamilton County prosecutor. He said Cincinnati officials should talk about the process of police reviews after shootings with “legitimate” blacks.

What are legitimate blacks? Will legitimate blacks talk with legitimate whites?

Perhaps that attitude is pervasive in Cincinnati and contributes to the city's shameful distinction. In Cincinnati alone since 1995, 15 black men have been killed by police. Mr. Thomas, 19, was wanted on misdemeanor warrants, for mostly traffic violations.

The same day a grand jury indicted the officer for negligent homicide, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would investigate “patterns and practices” of the Cincinnati police department, including allegations of excessive force and racial profiling.

To its credit, Cincinnati is now recording the race, gender, and age of people stopped by police to gain insight into whether allegations about racial profiling are valid. But it comes a little late.

The hostility between blacks and white police officers is decades-old. Schoolchildren are taught that the police are our friends. They are supposed to be. But that is not always the case between black people and white law enforcement.

The Cincinnati Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio have filed a federal lawsuit blaming the city for maintaining the practice of racial profiling for three decades.

Considering Cincinnati's history of racial discord, none of this may mean much.

For example, 20 years ago and again 14 years ago, Cincinnati officials agreed to hire and promote black police officers.

But several years ago racism was still found to be unrelenting in the department. That conclusion came from a Cincinnati police review panel.

Another significant announcement occurred the same day as the grand jury's decision and the Justice Department's investigation.

A wrongful death lawsuit was settled between the city of Chicago and the family of LaTanya Haggerty for $18 million.

Ms. Haggerty, 26, was unarmed when she was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in June, 1999. That happened after a 31-block police chase of the car she was in which was being driven by a male companion.

That incident had an all-too familiar ring: Ms. Haggerty, a black woman, was not armed. She had a cell phone.

However, it is different from the recent shooting in Cincinnati on two counts: Four police officers refused to obey their superiors' commands to stop the chase, and the officer who shot and killed Ms. Haggerty was a black female.

The outrage over the black community-white police officer issue is not lessened by the tragedy in Chicago. What happened there was just as horrible.

Yet Chicago is responding in a way that Cincinnati and other cities should note.

The period of training for new Chicago officers has been lengthened from 22 to 29 weeks, and officers get more intense training about when to use deadly force.

In addition to more diversity training and emphasis on the importance of a courteous demeanor, officers are reminded of the necessity of obeying orders.

That ought to be a no-brainer.

Chicago's action should make a difference between its police and the people they are to protect.

Cincinnati should quit messing around and follow suit.

That city must face the reality of how serious its problems are and address them before festering problems explode. Again.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

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