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Published: Monday, 4/30/2001

Local blacks can relate to anger fueling turmoil in Cincinnati

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Rev. Sylvester Rome saw the unrest in Cincinnati on television and admitted he has empathy with the rioters.

Mr. Rome, a pastor at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Toledo, said he understood the pain that created the turmoil. He said he could feel the anger and frustration many blacks there felt about the police department and the shooting death of an unarmed man.

That's because Mr. Rome dealt with the same turmoil, anger, and frustration when his brother, James Rome, was shot to death by a Toledo police officer in 1999. That shooting was the first of five police shooting deaths in Toledo in a little over 11 months.

In the middle of those shootings was a Rodney King-like videotaping of a black, mentally disabled man being beaten by a white police officer on the porch of a Woodruff Avenue residence in June, 1999, that many felt could have created a flash point for racial tension.

“Nobody wants to see [riots],” Mr. Rome said. “There comes a point where people feel the powers-at-be won't listen to you any other way. The people in Cincinnati don't condone violence and criminal activity, but we're not even going to court. Our court has been found at the end of the barrel of a cop's gun.”

The shooting death of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by a Cincinnati police officer detonated the city's Over-the-Rhine district into a war zone of racial tension. Businesses were damaged and looted during three days of rioting. Mr. Thomas was the fifth black killed by police since November.

“After every shooting, there were forums, committees set up, talks at city council, but nothing came from it except another black being killed,” said James Klingman, a University of Cincinnati professor and writer. “They talked ad nauseam. There is a lack of respect for blacks here by police officers and that lack of respect comes from fear of the unknown. They don't know blacks or the neighborhoods.”

Unlike Cincinnati, Toledo didn't explode in civil unrest after the Rome shooting or any of the other incidents in 1999 or the start of 2000.

How was Toledo able to come through relatively unscathed? The answers are as varied as the people who have opinions on race relations.

The shooting deaths in Toledo differ from the ones in Cincinnati in several ways. The main difference: Three of the five men killed by Toledo police over the 12 months beginning in February, 1999, were black; one was Latino, and the other was white.

They were:

  • James Rome, 43, was shot and killed Feb. 27 as he sped toward an officer who had stopped him in a parking lot on Ewing Street between Nebraska Avenue and Tecumseh Street in the central city. He was driving a stolen vehicle.

  • Manuel Otero, 26, was killed March 29 when three officers shot him at Jay and Yondota streets on the east side as he walked toward them with his hands wrapped in a cloth, holding an object officers later found was a screw driver. He was shot nine times. Otero had been driving a stolen vehicle.

  • John Napier, 32, of Monclova Township, was killed Aug. 10 in a police car after he struggled with two officers on I-475 in West Toledo as they were taking him to the psychiatric unit of Flower Hospital.

    Mr. Napier, who had threatened to commit suicide, lunged from the back seat and tried to grab the steering wheel. Mr. Napier grabbed the gun of the officer driving the car. The gun discharged, and the other officer in the car fired his gun, striking Mr. Napier in the neck.

  • James E. Walker, 32, was shot Nov. 10 in the 3100 block of Cottage Avenue by officers responding to a report that a suspect shot another man and was beating him. Police said they ordered Mr. Walker to stop the assault, but he ran away, turned, and pointed a handgun at them.

    One of the officers fired a shotgun, striking Mr. Walker in the back. Police recovered an empty 22-caliber handgun.

  • George Woodard, 48, was shot and killed Feb. 9, 2000, when an officer said Woodard leaned into his cruiser with a knife after asking for identification. Woodard slashed at the officer several times, cutting his hand, before the officer fired eight shots, killing Woodard at the scene.

    Woodard, Rome, and Mr. Walker were black. Otero was Hispanic; Mr. Napier was white.

    After the first two shootings, a neighbor videotaped the police beating of Lordrick Okeke on June 9. The incident began when Officers John Rose and Sally Donovan responded to a call of an intoxicated man in the 1100 block of Woodruff.

    Mr. Okeke ran from inside of one of the houses, threatening and screaming at the officers. When the officers told him he was under arrest and tried to handcuff him, Mr. Okeke struggled free and bit Officer Rose's hand, nearly severing the officer's finger.

    The partially obscured videotape, taken by Willie Shy, showed Officer Dan Wagner beating Mr. Okeke with his baton following the incident with Officers Rose and Donovan. Mr. Okeke suffered a broken arm in the incident.

    A police internal affairs investigation cleared Officer Wagner of any wrongdoing. In September, Lucas County Common Pleas Judge William Skow ruled Mr. Okeke was not guilty by reason of insanity on charges of felonious assault and assault of a police officer.

    Mr. Okeke has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against some of the officers. In all of the shooting cases, the department's firearm review board ruled the shootings justified.

    City Councilwoman Wilma Brown, chairwoman of the city's safety committee, said Toledoans were able to find some common ground after a series of talks and a community forum.

    Ms. Brown credited police chief Mike Navarre with breaking the ice with the community.

    She said Chief Navarre's answers to questions may not have always been popular, but she and others always felt they had access to him.

    “I thought it was very important at the time,” Ms. Brown said. “He always answered questions and he had statistics. You always need to share information and not give people the impression that you're trying to hide something.”

    Toledo school board trustee Larry Sykes, whose son lives in the Cincinnati area, said dialogue may have been the difference, but he didn't see Toledo's black community as passionate about the police shootings as African-Americans in Cincinnati.

    He was surprised by the lack of outrage in the black community following the deaths of Lakniesha White, 6, and Tiffin'a Gipson, 11. The girls were struck and killed by a vehicle driven by Richard Gonzales in April, 1999. Mr. Gonzales was acquitted of misdemeanor vehicular homicide charges.

    “I don't think we have enough of a concern about black lives here,” Mr. Sykes said. “I'm not saying there should have been a riot, but when those two girls were killed and the police let the driver go, the parents were vigilant but where was the public outcry?”

    Mr. Sykes said the African-American community showed little response when two grand juries did not indict Mr. Gonzales on felony charges. Mr. Gonzales was acquitted of misdemeanor charges in Toledo Municipal Court.

    The parents of the girls charged that Mr. Gonzales, who had an open container of beer in his car, should have been given a breath test. But Officer Mark French testified that Mr. Gonzales passed field sobriety tests and he didn't think he could prove that speed, improper passing, or alcohol contributed to the accident.

    Mr. Klingman said any community can reach a breaking point when police officers don't respect its citizens. He said the lack of respect is a symptom of a bigger problem of respecting African-Americans and their contributions in general.

    Mr. Rome said he never made excuses for criminal acts but felt there is a clear pattern when blacks suspects are killed and not white suspects. “I just don't see black officers killing white” criminals, Mr. Rome said. “I wonder if the situation was reversed, how people would see it. This seems to be an area where Lady Justice takes off her blindfold.”

    Mr. Rome said he doesn't think Toledo is immune to riots, but doesn't think the African-American community has reached its breaking point. He said he believed there still is a disparity to the way blacks and whites are treated and the city needs to address the issues before the breaking point is reached.

    “I pray to God that we do live out Dr. [Martin Luther King, Jr.'s] dream that we all are viewed as equal,” Mr. Rome said. “People said that the riots are a cry for help. Their actions are not the cry. Their actions are the way to make sure the cry is heard.”



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