Saturday, April 21, 2001

Lawsuit charges bias in curfew arrests


One expert doubts case will get far

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A federal lawsuit alleging that African-Americans were unfairly targeted during the citywide curfew was filed Friday against the city of Cincinnati, Police Chief Tom Streicher and unnamed Cincinnati police officers.

        Cincinnati lawyer Ken Lawson filed the suit in U.S. District Court. He asked that it become a class-action case on behalf of several hundred African-Americans arrested in the predominantly black neighborhoods of West End, Walnut Hills, Avondale, Evanston and Over-the-Rhine.

        There were 623 curfew arrests made during the April 12-16 dusk-to-dawn curfew.

        African-Americans comprised 85 percent of all arrests, and 88 percent of the arrests were made in mostly black neighborhoods, according to an Enquirer analysis of 90 percent of the arrest reports.

        Police officials said curfew enforcement was focused on areas that had the most violence and that African-Americans were not singled out.

        Christopher Smith, acting director of Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice in East Lansing, Mich., said the lawsuit will face an uphill battle because of the courts' reluctance to rule on police action during periods of unrest.

        “It's difficult to say definitively whether there's provable discrimination because there's information you don't know,” he said. “The courts are loathe to interfere with police discretion. If they perceive certain neighborhoods as the trouble spots, then it's no surprise that arrests come from those neighborhoods.”

        Mayor Charlie Luken set the curfew to quell two days of riots in predominantly black neighborhoods after the April 7 shooting death of Timothy Thomas. The unarmed African-American teen was shot by Cincinnati Police Officer Steve Roach.

        But Mr. Lawson said in the lawsuit that “police used the curfew as an excuse to harass, arrest, jail and otherwise victimize over 800 African-Americans.”

        Nathaniel Livingston of Avondale and Damon Smith of College Hill are the main plaintiffs.

        The lawsuit said Mr. Smith was arrested for a curfew violation while Mr. Livingston “could not move about freely as white residents” during the curfew.

        Mr. Luken said Friday that he needs more information before he could say whether the curfew unfairly targeted African-Americans.

        But he said he was offended when two Mount Adams restaurants stayed open past the 8 p.m. curfew Friday.

        “Everyone in all our neighborhoods should obey the curfew. That's why I made it,” he said.

        Many African-American religious leaders are convinced that there was discriminatory enforcement.

        “Without a doubt,” said the Rev. James W. Jones, first vice president of the Baptist Ministers Conference. “Why that would be questioned, I don't know.”

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