Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Monitors kept melee in control

Shots rang out; cops knew whom to call

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WINTON HILLS - When a police suspect shot himself here Monday night, prompting angry neighbors to begin shooting at police, the officers didn't fire back.

•   In-cruiser video
•   Police press conference
Instead, they called for help - from neighborhood monitors with the city's Human Relations Commission.

One who got the call was Hilliard Herring, the long-time manager of the neighborhood community center.

When Herring talks, people here listen - and believe what he says.

Herring and 20 other commission monitors immediately hit the streets to dispel a rumor that police officers had shot and killed the suspect.

The monitors told a growing and increasingly angry crowd that police had not fired at Antwand Yett, 19, of Winton Hills. Yett had killed himself.

The incident started about 8:50 p.m., when Cincinnati police officers Michelle Bradley and Bryce Bezdek saw a Chevrolet Suburban cross the center line on Winneste Avenue. They followed it, then flipped on their emergency lights. The SUV stopped at the dead end of Craft Street.

Yett then shot himself, but the officers, who were still in their cruiser with the windows up, did not hear the gunshot. A videotape from their car, released by the police Tuesday, shows Bezdek walk up to the driver's-side window and look inside. He apparently realizes Yett has shot himself and Bradley calls for medical crews.

Bezdek then opens the door to the SUV and takes out a 9mm handgun, which officers said was lying on Yett's left leg, partially under his left hand.

Almost immediately, rumors raced through the housing complex that police had shot and killed Yett and that another man in Yett's SUV had jumped out and run through the Winton Terrace public-housing project, telling people police had killed his friend.

Neither was true and officers never fired - even after they were fired upon, Chief Tom Streicher said Tuesday.

But in the chaotic aftermath, many in the crowd of at least 150 onlookers didn't believe the officers. A half-hour after Yett shot himself, five shots were fired at officers and medical crews. One television van was set on fire; another's windshield was cracked by a rock.

The monitors' role Monday - as it was after the riots three years ago and following Nathaniel Jones' death in November after a struggle with police - was to get the truth out to residents.

Tuesday, Streicher credited the monitors with helping quell Monday night's short but intense melee. It was the sixth or seventh time in about two months his officers have been shot at, he said.

"There's so many guns out there,'' he said, "it's unbelievable.''

Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Carl Parrott ruled Yett's death a suicide. Yett had shot himself through the left temple, Parrott said.

Streicher said he hopes someone in the community will come forward with information about who fired the shots at officers and emergency medical workers.

It wasn't just officers who could have been hit, but residents and firefighters, he said.

"Bullets don't discriminate,'' the chief said. "Everyone was at risk who was there.''

Monitors have credibility

Both the police and monitors say that many residents in the community are more likely to believe monitors - most of whom either live or work in city neighborhoods and are minorities - than police or other city officials.

"It's a totally different culture that (the monitors) have to relate to," said Cecil Thomas, executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, which oversees the monitor program. "They speak the language.''

Herring, a monitor for more than 15 years, had just finished walking the streets in Westwood Monday night, talking to teens and parents about summer jobs.

He was driving home when his cell phone rang and Lesley Jones, who coordinates the monitor program with Thomas, told him to head to Winton Terrace. There was trouble brewing.

Crowd was frustrated

When Herring arrived, he helped dispel the rumors circulating through the neighborhood, and helped calm the crowd.

But after talking to people, he said Tuesday, he found that their concern was not really about police, but more with the lack of jobs for young African-Americans.

"Young people were saying, 'Are there going to be jobs this summer?' " Herring said. "You just allow them to vent. They can cuss me out and call me all kind of (derogatory names) and whatever.

"What we represent is different than what the police represent," he said, "even though we're saying the same thing."

The monitor program started in the 1970s after some teen dances got out of hand. There now are about 30 monitors, who are paid between $15 and $19 an hour, depending on their seniority. That money comes from a $55,000 grant from the city, which Thomas said isn't enough and has to be stretched. The police department, he said, usually pays the monitors when they respond to a problem like Monday night's.

Monitors apply for the work. Those who are chosen go through training in crowd management.

Many of them, Thomas said, are well-known in their neighborhoods. That makes people respect the monitors and in turn listen to them during crises, Thomas said.

Herring and other monitors were back in the neighborhood Tuesday night, as were members of the Peace Down the Way Coalition, a group that started calling for an end to street violence in 2002.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, among the founders of the coalition, said in a statement that young black men told him Monday night "they feel the police are harassing them and they are killing each other and there is just no hope.''

The neighborhood remained tense Tuesday. An Elmwood Place officer, who followed a suspect into the neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, called for help from Cincinnati officers after a crowd gathered as he tried to arrest the suspect. But the officer made the arrest and cruisers quickly left the area without any problems.

Streicher said he hoped residents would listen to the monitors and believe the truth, "and pray for the family of Mr. Yett.''


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