CINCINNATI - As a former city police officer, Cecil Thomas believes the negligent homicide charge brought against a white officer for shooting an unarmed black man is probably the only charge that could lead to conviction.
But as an African-American and executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, he understands that many in the black community never will accept that.
"It sends the message that an officer can kill an African-American and get off with a misdemeanor," he said yesterday. "Many don't understand that, with murder, you have to prove criminal intent and that it was done purposely. If he was indicted on different charges, the prosecutor would have a tough time winning the case."
Negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum prison sentence of six months. The nine-member grand jury chose not to return an indictment for felony reckless homicide, carrying a maximum sentence of five years. This charge would have required prosecutors to prove that Stephen Roach, 27, acted with heedless disregard for the consequences of his actions.
Officer Roach has maintained that he thought Timothy Thomas, 19, was reaching for a gun early in the morning of April 7 when the officer shot him in a dark alley. Police had chased Mr. Thomas, wanted on 14 minor warrants, in the impoverished Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. He was the 15th black man killed by police officers, black and white, since 1995.
The U.S. Department of Justice has started an investigation of the police department.
Placed on leave pending the investigation, Officer Roach will return to the police force until his trial. But he will be relegated to desk duty. The officer, also charged with obstructing official business, was booked on the charges and released after posting $2,000 bond yesterday.
"Put cops who kill behind bars, not behind desks," read a sign carried during a peaceful protest of about 100 at Fountain Square in the heart of the city's business and cultural center.
City officials' worst fears of renewed violence in the wake of the indictment announcement have not materialized. Instead, protesters have begun what they said will be daily demonstrations under the nose of average Cincinnatians.
"We felt we needed to do something today to make a statement inside the city corridor where we're not ordinarily allowed to be," said the Rev. Damon Lynch, III, a leader of the protest.
The protesters at Fountain Square initially were turned away because they didn't have a permit. They crossed the street to the Westin Hotel and, a short time later, returned to the square to form a giant prayer circle. Police officers watched but did not interfere.
The mayor's office reported no arrests Monday night and early yesterday after the announcement of the grand jury's findings. There were several cases, however, of broken windows and other damage along the city's Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. Damage was estimated at $2,500.