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Published: Sunday, 4/6/2003

Did Cincinnati miss chance for change in race relations?

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

CINCINNATI - As Rayshawn Price sat near the alley where a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager two years ago, he didn't hesitate when asked whether Cincinnati has changed.

“No, we still have shootings and killings, drugs and poverty,” said Mr. Price, who is among the 45 percent of young black men in Cincinnati who are unemployed.

On April 10, 2001, three days after Officer Stephen Roach killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas after trying to arrest him on misdemeanor warrants, rioting erupted downtown and in Over-the-Rhine, the predominantly-black, low-income neighborhood adjacent to the central business district.

Arson, clashes with police, and beatings of white motorists made world news.

But many citizens, black and white, saw an opportunity for change in the aftermath of Cincinnati's worst rioting since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn.

James Clingman, a University of Cincinnati professor and business consultant, said on April 20, 2001: “If men and women of good will would simply stand up and say, `This is wrong. We don't want to live in this kind of city,' things will change.”

But two years later, black activists including Mr. Clingman say the police department, business leaders, and city hall have squandered that opportunity.

“This is a city that has dug in its heels and instead of working to effect change is trying to paint the outhouse white - and it still stinks,” said Juleana Frierson, a member of the Cincinnati Black United Front, a civil rights group.

“The city has instituted delay tactics from the beginning,” Mr. Clingman added.

The Black United Front is leading a 21-month-old boycott of downtown entertainment and tourism that has led to canceled performances by Bill Cosby, Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, and Wynton Marsalis. Groups including the Progressive Baptists have canceled conventions.

The roots of the boycott can be traced to September, 2000, after downtown restaurants closed during two festivals popular with blacks.

“Cincinnati is the Birmingham of 2003,” said the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of an Over-the-Rhine church and president of Black United Front. “It has become the center for the 21st century civil rights movement. “

Ken Mattie also believes that Cincinnati is troubled.

A barber in the Westwood neighborhood, Mr. Mattie said race relations are worse now than two years ago.

Mr. Mattie, who is white, blames black activists including Mr. Lynch, whom he refers to as the “lowest of the lows.”

“They're always demanding. I don't think we'll ever please them. The more you give them, the more they want,” Mr. Mattie said.

Councilman David Pepper said the city has taken several steps over the last two years to address some of the “underlying causes of the 2001 unrest and ongoing community tension.”

He recently listed 26 items covering economic opportunity, police-community relations, government and election reform, neighborhood revitalization, and education reform.

“My hope is that we become a model of how to effectively address issues such as police-community relations and economic inclusion,” Mr. Pepper said.

The commission that Mayor Charlie Luken formed shortly after the riots said several projects are under way to share economic opportunity with blacks.

Last week, Procter & Gamble announced it would invest $30 million to help a minority-owned company create 200 jobs in Cincinnati's empowerment zone, where firms can receive tax breaks.

Bu two years after the fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas, who was wanted on 14 misdemeanor warrants including traffic violations such as not wearing a seat belt, white and black residents continue to debate why protests turned to violence and why tension remains.

In the six years before the police shooting of Mr. Thomas, Cincinnati police officers - white and black - fatally shot 15 men. No whites were killed.

Cincinnati last month passed the fourth anniversary of the death of 30-year-old Michael Carpenter, 30, who was shot after two officers stopped him for driving a car with expired tags.

Officer Brent McCurley, who is white, fired nine shots after Mr. Carpenter refused to get out of the car. Police said Mr. Carpenter dragged Officer Michael Miller II, who is black, about 15 feet. Officer Miller fired one shot.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said the shooting was justified. The city's Office of Municipal Investigations said the officers had erred by failing to tell Mr. Carpenter to turn the car's engine off.

Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach, who fatally shot an unarmed black, male teen, was acquitted Sept. 26, 2001. Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach, who fatally shot an unarmed black, male teen, was acquitted Sept. 26, 2001.
AP Enlarge

Mr. Carpenter's family has sued the city and the two officers in federal court, seeking unspecified damages.

William Kirkland is among several black activists urging the city to settle the lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial later this year.

Mr. Kirkland said there is a discrepancy over whether Mr. Carpenter was killed in the car or after being pulled out.

“This case is more egregious than the Timothy Thomas case. The people do not know the facts. The trial is going to bring the facts out. You have a potential for a repeat of April, 2001,” said Mr. Kirkland, a former city council candidate who works for the U.S. Postal Service.

But others continue to argue that the rioters were interested in neither police brutality nor the tragic death of Mr. Thomas, whom they said would still be alive if he hadn't run away from Officer Roach.

Neil Luken, who has worked at the Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine since the age of 12, said: “People saw on the news it was a chance to get away with stuff. It was a free license until the curfew was declared and the police stepped in.”

Since the April, 2001, riots, there have been three fatal shootings involving white officers and black suspects. Ms. Frierson of Black United Front said the group's statements urging nonviolence have calmed the streets. She refers to the April, 2001, riots as the “rebellion.”

One year ago the city agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging 30 years of racial profiling by the police department and a separate U.S. Department of Justice investigation into police use of force.

That settlement, referred to as the “collaborative agreement,” requires the city to adopt a “community problem-oriented policing” approach in which citizens and police are trained to work together to reduce crime.

Last week, Saul Green, the Detroit attorney and former U.S. attorney appointed by a federal judge to monitor the agreements, said the police department has been slow to make changes.

But Councilman John Cranley said the police department has complied with a Justice Department review of “use of force” policies, and is cooperating with a new civilian complaint authority.

“It is a new day in Cincinnati,” said Mr. Cranley. “The issue is not about police brutality. It is crime. It is homicide. It is about an 82-year-old woman in my neighborhood being raped and killed. We can have the reforms we have committed to, but we can't let this city die.”

Mayor Luken said city hall is committed to reforms but is growing weary of disputes over the collaborative agreement.

“At the end of the day, all of that is paper; and the fact of the matter is what our citizens care about is safe streets and good police-community relations, and that's pretty much it,” he said.

Neil Luken, 38, has lived in Cincinnati his entire life. He said the press has focused on the “negatives” and not given much attention to the “positives,” such as the popularity of the Main Street entertainment district in Over-the-Rhine and the opening of the new riverfront stadium for the Cincinnati Reds.

Prayers were offered April 15, 2001, where the teen was killed in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district. Prayers were offered April 15, 2001, where the teen was killed in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district.
AP Enlarge

There were 66 murders in 2001, 65 last year, and 20 so far this year. “When people talk about the murders, that's almost 90 percent drug-related,” said Neil Luken. “If you're walking down the street in Cincinnati, your chances of getting shot are slim and none. It's just that the cops aren't as aggressive with the drug activity as they were before, when I guess they used profiling and went after these guys.”

Neil Luken said he doesn't advocate racial profiling, but he said the police division needs to have a bigger presence in Over-the-Rhine.

Sharon Koehler, a white Northside resident, said her neighborhood supports the police department and helps them identify suspects. She said black activists have “put handcuffs on the police.”

“I want them off. Since the Timothy Thomas incident, the criminals and the drug dealers have overrun our community. I want to put the razor-wire back into our laws. Once you commit a crime, you have forfeited your civil rights,” she said.

Lt. Kurt Byrd, a spokesman for the Cincinnati Police Department, said arrests have increased and anyone who believes police are leery of doing their jobs is wrong. He said the department is doing a better job of publicizing its community relations and more responsive to the press and the public about police actions.

But Mr. Kirkland said those changes aren't enough. His slogan is “Prison for the police.”

Mr. Kirkland said city leaders use a double standard.

“They keep saying we should focus on black-on-black crime. But when black people kill black people, they are arrested, charged, and go to trial and nine out of ten times they are convicted. When police officers unjustly kill and brutalize African-Americans, they are seldom charged, rarely go to trial, and certainly they are not convicted,” he said.

Officer Roach, who said he thought Mr. Thomas was reaching for a gun, was acquitted in September, 2001, of misdemeanor charges in the shooting death. He resigned from the Cincinnati police force and now works for the Evendale Police Department in suburban Cincinnati.

Nate Ford, a former Toledo Police Division assistant chief, is trying to help defuse the tension in police-community relations.

Mr. Ford in February started his new job as executive director of the Civilian Complaint Authority, the new agency that investigates complaints against Cincinnati police.

The agency - formed through the collaborative agreement and the Justice Department pact - is expected to have more investigators than its predecessor.

“All officers obviously need to ensure their own safety. What they also need to do is anywhere you go in a city, you should give fair and impartial treatment regardless of where you are. ... When I look at a citizen allegation, I will look at whether people are treated differently in one area compared to another,” he said.

Mr. Ford is investigating the Feb. 9 incident in which Officer Michael Schulte, who is white, fired seven shots and killed burglary suspect Andre Sherrer in the Northside neighborhood.

Mr. Allen, the Hamilton County prosecutor, concluded the shooting was justified and wouldn't be referred to a grand jury because Mr. Sherrer tried to grab Officer Schulte's gun. Mr. Sherrer did take Officer Schulte's aluminum baton from his gun belt, and he struck the officer with it three times, knocking him to his knees, police said.

Mr. Patton, vice president of Black United Front, said business leaders are the key to accomplishing change in Cincinnati.

“These companies run Cincinnati with a hidden hand, and the police, whose hand is shown, are often deemed by the public as the people who run the city. But in fact it is the CEOs,” he said.

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican and former mayor and council member in Cincinnati, said he is trying to work with Mr. Lynch, business leaders, and city hall so that “bringing the boycott to an end will seem like it was not an exercise in futility.”

“The next [five] weeks around the second anniversary will determine whether the confrontation is protracted or a workable solution can be found. My goal is to enhance commerce, not stop it,” he said.

But many black activists don't share Mr. Blackwell's goal - and they vow that the boycott will continue.

“We're putting the moral conscience of white people on trial,” said Mr. Kirkland. “If white people stop being selfish, then black people will stop being spiteful.”



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