Sunday, December 30, 2001

Tests of justice: Officers acquitted

Three police trials, three not guilty verdicts. The city is split again. As a federal investigation suggests reforms, cops on the street feel added pressure...

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The packed courtroom was almost evenly divided. Blacks on one side, whites on the other.

At the Hamilton County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach holds hands with his wife Erin Roach during an afternoon recess in his trial.
(Enquirer photo by Glen Hartong)

| ZOOM |
        Everyone was waiting for the verdict in the trial of Stephen Roach, the white police officer charged with negligent homicide in the death of Timothy Thomas. The shooting had sparked Cincinnati's riots in April.

        Many said they came to municipal court that September morning "hoping for justice." But as the judge read the verdict, it was clear that one side of the courtroom defined justice very differently than the other.

        "Not guilty," the judge said.

        Blacks groaned, shook their heads. A few began to cry.

        Whites nodded their approval and embraced.

        Some of the spectators were family members, so their reactions were not surprising or necessarily related to race. But for other spectators ... and for the rest of the city ... race seemed to be a factor.

Roger Owensby Sr. and his wife, Betty, parents of Roger Ownesby who died in an arrest by Cincinnati police, listen to the verdict.
(Enquirer photo by Michael E. Keating)

| ZOOM |
        The same racial divide was evident a few months later, when two white officers were acquitted in the November 2000 asphyxiation death of Roger Owensby Jr., another black man who died in police custody.

        For many African-Americans, the verdicts reinforced the belief that the justice system treats blacks more harshly than whites. For many whites, the verdicts were the product of a system that they trust to do the right thing.

        "If we don't respect the due process of law, we are nothing," Mayor Charlie Luken said after the Roach verdict.

        No riots erupted, but the anger was palpable.

        "People were hanging on every word out of the judge's mouth, and every word was demoralizing,'' the Rev. Damon Lynch III, leader of the Cincinnati Black United Front, recalls.

        He watched the Roach verdict on TV in the basement of his church in Over-the-Rhine, along with a dozen or so members of his congregation. "We felt pain. Pain for the family, pain for the city," he says.

        As the police trials wound through the courts, so did the trials of dozens of people charged with riot-related crimes. None were permitted to plea to lesser offenses, and nearly all were convicted.

        "I said this from the beginning: The quickest way to encourage this kind of activity is to be soft on it," Prosecutor Mike Allen said.

        "The vast majority of the people want me to come down hard."

        Many police felt they were being treated like criminals, too. They complained that officers were under too much scrutiny. Police put themselves in danger every day. They're trained to properly use force, they said, and sometimes they have to.

        Officer Matt Martin, an African-American, worried about what would happen in May after he shot and wounded a black man wielding a knife. "If I shoot this guy," the officer thought as he raised his gun, "am I going to start another riot?"

        "There's a lot of animosity toward police," Officer Martin says now. "A lot of officers are feeling the pressure."

        The pressure increased when the U.S. Department of Justice came to town to investigate the police division.

        Officers were wary, but African-Americans welcomed the investigation. If the legal system in Cincinnati wouldn't give them justice, they said, a federal investigation might.

        In October, the Justice Department announced it had found problems, from the way officers use physical force to the way they respond to citizen complaints.

        Reaction to the report was as divided as the reaction to the Roach verdict. Whites were cautious. Blacks wanted immediate action.

        Mayor Charlie Luken said he didn't think everything in the report was "gospel." Police Chief Tom Streicher said the recommendations were no surprise.

        "We work with this stuff every day," the chief said.

        African-Americans thought those comments sounded a lot like business as usual. They also worried about the tone of the report, which emphasized "cooperation" and described the findings only as "recommendations."

        Rev. Lynch couldn't help but think of the half-dozen other reports about police and race relations that had been written since the 1960s. All of them had been set aside, ignored.

        He feared the Justice Department report would soon be collecting dust like the rest.

        "We're still at the status quo," Rev. Lynch says now. "Nothing has shaken the system to do anything differently."

Cincinnati 2001: Year of Unrest
Prologue to turmoil: "A very tense time"
The trigger: Shooting 'ignites furious response'
The riots explode: A city's dark week
Summer of blood - guns rule the streets
- Tests of justice: Officers acquitted
Binding wounds: What can be done?
What comes next?: Good examples few
WARD BUSHEE: A chance to talk honestly ... and to act
2001: A timeline
Unrest photo timeline
Jim Borgman on race

The Verdict
Comments on the verdict

    Police Officer Stephen Roach was acquitted on Sept. 26 of all charges in the shooting of Timothy Thomas, the incident that sparked April's riots. What was said on the day of the verdict:

    "The shooting was a split-second reaction to a very dangerous situation created by Timothy Thomas that, under all the facts and circumstances heard at trial, was a reasonable reaction on the part of Police Officer Roach."
... Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Ralph E. Winkler, on exonerating Officer Roach

Complete text of verdict

    "The officer clearly took a man's life unjustifiably, and now he walks."
... Rev. Damon Lynch III, leader of Black United Front

    "The fact remains, he killed my son."
... Angela Leisure, mother of Timothy Thomas

    "I just want to tell Mrs. Leisure how sorry I am about what has happened to her son. I would give anything to change the outcome of what happened that night, but unfortunately I can't."
... Officer Roach

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 27, 2001

DOJ excerpts
Department of Justice recommendations

The U.S. Department of Justice, in the most expansive review ever of the 198-year-old Cincinnati Police Division, recommended that police:
  • Revise policies on use of force, including use of guns and chemical irritants.
  • Improve tracking of bad behavior by officers.
  • Change the way citizen complaints are handled.
  • Create a new, independent body to investigate serious allegations of officer misconduct.
  • Improve communications to street officers.
  • Improve training of recruits and experienced officers.
  • Interact more with community groups.
Teams of police officers are researching all 99 recommendations contained in 23 pages from Justice. Chief Tom Streicher wants to respond to the Justice Department by mid to late January.