Sunday, August 25, 2002

Twitty case: How car wreck came to inflame city's wounds

Special grand jury to begin work Monday

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Police Department was finally going to get some good publicity. The new, more citizen-friendly complaint process suggested by the U.S. Department of Justice was in place. Police compared the new complaint forms at all five district headquarters to having comment cards on your table at Frisch's.

        The four assistant chiefs were booked to talk about the new system on every television and radio station in town. Lt. Col. Ron Twitty, the only African-American assistant chief, was scheduled to talk on two black radio stations, WCIN and WDBZ, “The Buzz.”

        But as Police Chief Tom Streicher's command staff bragged to the media that Friday, July 12, the chief was across town at an 8:30 a.m. meeting with Hamilton County Sheriff Si Leis. He asked the sheriff to take over a criminal investigation into how Col. Twitty's city-owned Ford Taurus got wrecked early July 4. He told Sheriff Leis that he didn't believe the assistant chief's claim that the car must have been hit while he slept.

        Cincinnati was stunned at the allegations against the always smiling, always hugging guy so well known, particularly in the black community. The announcement of the assistant chief's suspension sent the city back into the throes of the same divisive issues that Cincinnati faced after the riots, the same issues that were supposed to be addressed with settlement of a lawsuit alleging racial profiling and decades of poor treatment of black citizens by officers.

        Race. Politics. Equal treatment.

[photo] Lt. Col. Ronald Twitty's damaged car
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        As a special grand jury convenes Monday to consider the case, behind-the-scenes accounts of the past six weeks show just how hurtful and divisive the incident has been.

        The chief knew this could be a racially charged case, but he couldn't tolerate suspicions of dishonesty.

        Col. Twitty, usually a smiling, effusive guy, stayed quiet and has declined all interviews. His supporters insisted he'd never lie. And radio talk shows had a field day.

        It all started with a $3,337 car accident and, maybe, a lie.

Skepticism and dismay

        The police chief looked at photographs of the 2001 gray Taurus and of the accident scene. He looked at the two-page police report, at the diagram of the Bond Hill street in front of Col. Twitty's house with a rectangle showing the Taurus' location. The car's damaged corner was marked with an X.

        It had been years since the chief investigated wrecks. But the questions came quickly:

        Where's the debris? Every officer is taught that pieces of metal and plastic fall straight to the ground at the point of impact. If not pieces of the Taurus, then pieces of whatever smashed into it.

        How could the car, hit hard enough to tear a chunk out of the left front bumper, not be shoved up onto the curb? The officer's drawing showed it perfectly parallel parked on the street.

        It was Tuesday afternoon, July 9, five days after Col. Twitty's car was damaged.

        The chief drove to the body shop at Fuller Ford in Queensgate. Though he had just learned of the accident from other officers, the Taurus was almost completely repaired. Col. Twitty, with whom he had worked for almost 30 years, had never mentioned the wreck.

        Rumors began circulating in the 1,020-officer department: Did you hear about Twitty's car? Some wondered aloud if Cincinnati's highest-ranking black cop, the only African-American ever to reach such a rank, would be subject to the same rules as everyone else.

        Over the next few days, Chief Streicher consulted with officers from internal affairs, traffic and District 4, which patrols Bond Hill and wrote the report on the car damage. He talked to the police department's legal liaison, Terry Cosgrove, and to Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen.

        Then, after handing the Twitty file over to Sheriff Leis on Friday morning, he went to see his new boss, City Manager Valerie Lemmie, at City Hall.

        She listened to Chief Streicher explain what he was about to do and why. Mayor Charlie Luken was in Columbus for the day. She instructed an aide to call him. At 11 a.m., the mayor learned what Chief Streicher was about to do in the face of mounting evidence that Col. Twitty might have lied.

        At police headquarters, Chief Streicher called Col. Twitty to his office. It was the first time the two long-time colleagues talked about the wreck. While sheriff's deputies investigate, the chief said, I'm taking your gun and badge.

        The assistant chief, who makes $111,000 a year as supervisor of the investigations bureau, would be on paid leave until the investigation was complete.

        Col. Twitty did not become angry or accusatory. He understood, the chief would say later, that this was a business decision.

        After he left the chief's office, Col. Twitty called The Buzz and left a message with the operator to tell morning talk host Lincoln Ware, whom he has known since the 10th grade, that he couldn't go on the radio to talk about the complaint system.

        He didn't say why.

Fear and loathing

        As Chief Streicher prepared to announce what he'd done, Ms. Lemmie went on the air with WLW radio host Bill Cunningham. They joked about her rumored personal relationship with the chief, a persistent joke around City Hall since they were photographed holding hands the day of her swearing-in in April.

        No nuptials, she told Mr. Cunningham, but I support the chief and think he's doing a good job.

        Later that day, she left for Geneva, Switzerland, to give a speech about racial healing.

        The police chief had aides call reporters and photographers from Cincinnati television, newspapers and radio together in the second-floor conference room. He'd get all the information out at once, he thought, squelch some rumors and not have to answer reporters' questions all afternoon.

        This would be the best way to handle this, he thought, the easiest way.

        Media representatives began to fill up the chief's second-floor conference room at police headquarters about 2:15 p.m. Aides copied and distributed Col. Twitty's 26-page personnel file.

        In it: his work history, back to 1967 when he earned $40 a week cutting grass at the Glenmary Sisters Convent on Colerain Avenue; copies of his five oaths of office, from the first as a recruit July 2, 1973, to his last, as assistant chief, signed “Ronald J. Twitty” 25 years and three days later; and 10 pages of commendations and thank-you notes.

        Reporters speculated on what was about to happen. Was Col. Twitty going to be promoted? The Buzz's Lincoln Ware wondered if Chief Streicher was going to announce his retirement. A reporter corrected him. Mr. Ware was shocked.

        The radio host wondered how the chief could do this to Col. Twitty. The chief routinely turned to his black assistant chief for help communicating with the African-American community.

        This news would be huge among African-Americans, Mr. Ware thought to himself. It would be a wake-up call for black officers and widen the rift between them and white colleagues. Black citizens, he knew, would see it as more reason they shouldn't trust the Cincinnati Police Department.

        The chief walked in wearing his dress uniform, taking the middle seat at the long, polished wood table in front of the clump of microphones and jangle of cords.

        He was brief and to the point: Col. Twitty is suspended. I took his badge and gun.

        He wouldn't reveal much evidence, saying he was a witness in the criminal investigation.

        Deb Dixon, a veteran reporter at Channel 12 and the wife of a retired Cincinnati police officer, asked, “Does this have to do with dishonesty?”

        “That's at the heart of it,” the chief said. “Yes, ma'am.”

        Mr. Ware dialed his station on his cell phone. The news went directly onto the air on the city's most popular black talk-radio station.

        And the 11-minute question-and-answer session the chief hoped would succinctly explain and inform instead inflamed and enraged.

        ×deck Anger builds; supporters lash out

        Sharp reaction came immediately. The board at the Buzz lit up with callers wanting to talk about the injustice shown to the city's only black assistant police chief. Mr. Ware left police headquarters, frustrated that he would be off the air all weekend while everyone wanted to talk about Col. Twitty.

        Cecil Thomas is director of the city's Human Relations Commission, a retired cop and Col. Twitty's former partner. He also knew right away the fallout of Chief Streicher's actions would be huge. There had to have been a better way, he thought, to deal with something so critical to the department and the black community.

        July 12 was Scotty Johnson's 40th birthday. The president of the Sentinel Police Association, the black officers' group, marked the day with an afternoon press conference during which he blasted Chief Streicher not only for what he did, but how publicly he did it.

        Col. Twitty, a 29-year veteran with a spotless record, didn't deserve this, he said. And no other assistant chief - they're all white - would be treated this way.

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III, leader of the Cincinnati Black United Front activist group, said it appeared the city had begun to “pick off” black leaders.

        Black officers insisted Col. Twitty wouldn't lie. Vice Mayor Alicia Reece called him a great coach who imparted life lessons along with baseball. Mr. Johnson called him one of the most honest men on the planet, a faithful churchgoer and just all-around nice guy.

        On WLW, Cincinnati's more conservative talk radio station, most callers backed the chief's actions.

        Meanwhile, some white police officers talked among themselves about how Col. Twitty didn't deserve his job because he got it, and other promotions, with help from affirmative action.

        Cincinnati police have a 1-in-4 rule that lots of white cops hate: one black officer must be promoted for every four white ones. That's a federal court order that African-American officers, fed up with what they saw as a promotion disparity, sued to get. In 1981, it helped Col. Twitty jump over 28 white officers to be promoted to sergeant.

        Twitty supporters questioned why Capt. Stephen Gregoire, the white commander of the department's Internal Investigations Section, was allowed to be involved in the early wreck investigation. Capt. Gregoire is among those over whom Col. Twitty has jumped. He's also next in line on the civil-service test for assistant chief.

        Still, voters last fall passed Issue 5, a measure allowing outsiders to be hired into city management positions for the first time in decades, which might mean Capt. Gregoire has no advantage to landing Col. Twitty's job.

        Mr. Johnson wanted to know why police Capt. Ken Jones, who did not take a department-required drug test last year, was moved to the communications department rather than taken off the job pending an investigation. And why wasn't there a news conference to publicly embarrass him about that?

        Capt. Jones is white.

        On Monday, July 15, the National Urban League reneged on its promise from the week before to hold its 2003 national convention here, citing treatment of Col. Twitty. It was to be one of the largest conventions for Cincinnati in the next two years, expected to attract about 5,000 people.

Media feeding frenzy

        Few actual facts became known. Col. Twitty was at Fricker's in North College Hill that night with some other Sentinels members. He called police a little before 7 a.m. to report that the car had been hit. He was on his way to play golf. Photos of the car show the headlight intact but a large hole torn in the left-front bumper. Chief Streicher didn't learn of the wreck until July 9, though policy required that Col. Twitty notify him.

        Meanwhile, the smear campaign, as Col. Twitty's lawyer, former federal prosecutor Sharon Zealey, called it, branched far beyond the details of the wrecked car.

        Reporters told of the assistant chief's failure to pay taxes for six years, dating back to 1986, and that his wages had been garnisheed to relieve the debt. Then, there was the leak that Col. Twitty had wrecked another city-owned Ford Taurus in 1999 - and hadn't properly reported it. He said he told whoever was sitting at the District 1 front desk that day.

        Then came the reported Twitty sightings early July 4 at McEvoy Park in College Hill. They conflicted with his claim that he was home by about 1 a.m. Former Cincinnati Herald publisher William Spillers told investigators he'd seen Col. Twitty there, but he wasn't clear to reporters on what time.

        When Mr. Thomas saw details about his friend's tax problems on the news, he knew Col. Twitty would fight back. The public embarrassment had gotten too ugly.

        “Col. Twitty,” he said, “is not going to let this go.”

        The debate died down. A month after the city learned about the wreck, talk-radio topics switched to the possible baseball strike, the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. The police department graduated one recruit class and started another.

        Supporters started raising money to help the assistant chief pay his legal bills.

        At the news conference to announce the legal defense fund, Col. Twitty sat silently in front of the altar of his church, New Friendship Baptist in Avondale. His wife, preacher and other friends said all Christians, black and white, should consider giving money if they care about fighting injustice. Footage of him at work played on a laptop computer behind them.

        His mother, in a bright blue suit and matching hat, said she was just as proud of her son then as she was the day she gave birth to him 52 years before.

        “He clearly gave us the signal that he is in this until the end,” said supporter James Lowry, former Lincoln Heights mayor. “And we are with him until the end.”

        They want exoneration and an apology.

        On Monday morning, a special grand jury begins hearing from Col. Twitty's accusers.


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