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.
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.
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)
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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
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.
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)
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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
"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
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:
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