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Reflections on Riots & Race

A decade later, differing views persist on causes, aftermath

By Kevin Osborne · April 6th, 2011 · News

Riots. Civil unrest. Uprising.

How a person characterizes the events that occurred in Cincinnati during the early days of April 2001 reveals a lot about his or her mindset.

During the early morning hours on a warm Saturday, on April 7, two off-duty Cincinnati police officers in Over-the-Rhine recognized a passerby, Timothy Thomas, as a person wanted on open warrants. The officers walked toward Thomas, who ran.

The foot pursuit quickly was joined by several on-duty police who were in the neighborhood, including Officer Stephen Roach. As the various officers chased Thomas, they reportedly were unaware that the 14 open warrants for Thomas were for misdemeanor offenses such as not wearing a seatbelt and loitering.

The 19-year-old man ran down a darkened alley to try to escape his pursuers. That’s when he apparently frightened Roach while coming around a corner. The officer, who initially said he thought Thomas was reaching into the waistband of his pants for a weapon, shot and killed Thomas at about 2:20 a.m.

Much later, Roach would tell police investigators he lied: He was running with his finger on the gun's trigger -- violating department policy -- and the weapon discharged as he jumped back when Thomas startled him. Roach quit before he could be fired, and now works for a suburban police department.

With the Police Department tight-lipped about what occurred and refusing to divulge many details in those early hours and days, rumors swirled and tensions mounted over the weekend. With the police chief out of town at a conference, it seemed to many people like no one was in charge of handling the city’s official response. A similar situation had occurred after the shooting death of another black man, Michael Carpenter, during a March 1999 traffic stop in Northside.

By Monday afternoon, Thomas’ mother, Angela Leisure, appeared at a City Council meeting accompanied by the Rev. Damon Lynch III, then leader of the Black United Front, and dozens of angry supporters. She demanded answers about what led to her son’s death. Confused council members turned to police supervisors for details, who declined to provide any citing a pending investigation. Tempers flared, council members fled their chambers and ultimately canceled the meeting.

A dark chapter in Cincinnati’s history was about to begin.

That night, a rally at police headquarters in the West End saw protestors turn the department’s U.S. flag upside down on its pole and hurl rocks and other items at the building. After a few hours, police warned the crowd to disperse. When it didn’t, officers fired beanbag bullets and pepper spray canisters at protestors.

During the next two days, scattered violence occurred in Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and random areas in a few other neighborhoods. It included assaults on unarmed people and the looting and burning of some businesses.

By the third day, then-Mayor Charlie Luken declared a citywide nighttime curfew, along with calling in the Ohio State Highway Patrol to relieve tired officers who had worked around the clock to help quell the violence. The strategy worked, and Luken promised a federal review of the police practices by the U.S. Justice Department. Also, he implemented a program to hold a community-wide conversation about race relations.

To this day, however, many residents disagree about the root causes of the violence.

Uprising: Some people believe the rebellion was the natural outgrowth of a hostile and out-of-control Police Department that had killed 15 African-American men in confrontations during a five-year period, a time in which no white suspects had been killed. Surely white criminals weren’t more orderly and cordial than their black counterparts, critics said; it was the police response that was different.

Riots: Other people placed the blame squarely on the suspects themselves. “If they had cooperated, they wouldn’t be dead,” went a common refrain. “Don’t they know how to act?” This viewpoint generally held that the Queen City treated its black residents just the same as whites, thank you very much.

Civil unrest: Still others believed the violence was the culmination of larger trends that spanned decades including vast economic disparities between black and white residents, limited job opportunities and overzealous prosecution for minor offenses, the destruction of stable black neighborhoods for public projects like highways and a pervasive attitude of callousness and neglect.

Say what you will, though, about the tactics and tragic events of those violent days and the months of civic soul-searching that followed. The fact is experts from the Justice Department did find considerable room for improvement and recommended numerous changes to how Cincinnati Police do their jobs. The pace of police killing African-American suspects during encounters dropped significantly. And various indicators like the mortality rate show the city’s black neighborhoods still suffer disproportionately.

CityBeat asked a half-dozen people who were involved in the events during the tumultuous days and weeks a decade ago to share their thoughts on why the unrest occurred and whether race relations have improved. Here are their responses.

The Mayor: Charlie Luken

(Luken was a longtime City Council member who served from 1981-90 and from 1999-2001; he served as a directly elected mayor from 2001-05. Between those terms, he was a U.S. Congressman and a news anchor for WLWT-TV. Luken was mayor in ‘01 when the unrest occurred; although the position largely was a ceremonial one then, with little authority, Luken took charge of the city’s response and declared a curfew on the third night of the unrest, as well as called in the Ohio State Highway Patrol to relieve tired police officers. The violence subsided after the curfew, and Luken asked for a U.S. Justice Department review of the Police Department. He now works as an attorney.)

On Jan. 4, 2001, I stood in front of one of Cincinnati’s oldest and most conservative institutions, the Rotary Club, to deliver the State of the City Address. The audience was full of business people, boosters and mostly suburbanites.

At the end of the speech I opened it up for questions and someone asked, “Mayor, what is the city’s biggest problem?” And I gave them the answer nobody wanted to hear.

“Race relations,” I said. They didn’t want to hear it because it made people uncomfortable, sometimes feel guilty and lost about how to fix it. But it was true.

When I took office, the city was a race-relations tinderbox. Serious issues concerning police-community relations were ignored during the ‘90s and before. They could not, I told the Rotary Club, be ignored any longer.

Four months later, when Timothy Thomas was shot, many Cincinnatians had never heard of Lorenzo Collins or Roger Owensby Jr., and the violent reaction in the streets was a surprise. That wasn’t the case in the African-American community where the Thomas shooting was instead seen as the latest in a long line of injustices.

The tinderbox had ignited. The riots were lawless, destructive to innocent citizens and businesses and dangerous for our police and fire personnel. At the end of the day, the riots solved very little. But the vastly different reactions to the shooting and riots were a clear signal our city had a long journey ahead.

It was the resulting actions of the city and community leaders that made the difference and makes Cincinnati better today.

The first and most significant action was when I wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice and requested a formal review of the policies and procedures of the Cincinnati Police Department. I did not have the full support of City Council, and very little support in the Police Department, but this was an important and historic step. Along with the Collaborative Agreement, this process — although difficult at times — resulted in a changed Police Department. Today, Cincinnatians should be proud to know that their Police Department is at the leading edge of the most progressive police-community relations in the United States.

Next, we brought together a diverse group of Cincinnatians to form Cincinnati CAN (Community Action Now). Again, this wasn’t always an easy process, but the efforts of Cincinnati CAN and other organizations helped our city begin to better understand different perspectives on race relations and chart a course for improvement.

We did more, too:

• Cameras in police cruisers brought some objectivity to the “he said, she said” that often takes place after a complaint is filed against an officer;

• The introduction of Tasers revolutionized how police dealt with potentially violent situations and the use-of-force shootings have declined dramatically;

• The new Citizen Complaint Authority became a model to the nation and an authoritative outlet for citizens’ concerns;

• Issue 5, which we campaigned for and passed, allowed the city to hire police leadership from outside the civil service process. For the first time this year, we will use this process to select a new chief.

Some will say we didn’t do enough. Maybe. Some will say the riots, boycott and difficulties we faced did permanent damage to the city. Not likely. And some will say that poverty, discrimination and injustice still exist, particularly in our inner-city neighborhoods. Definitely.

Yet the fact is that today there is visible progress. The Police Department has rebuilt trust with our citizens. And I would say race relations have improved dramatically.

And look at Over-the-Rhine. The changes we began in that neighborhood are producing positive results every day. I smile ear-to-ear these days when I walk along Vine Street.

Ten years ago, I hoped that we would be able to unite and take action to improve our city. Today, I’m proud of what we did together in the wake of the riots. We have far to go, but today our city is a better place.

The Activist: The Rev.

Damon Lynch III

(Lynch is senior pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church, which will soon move from Over-the-Rhine to Roselawn. In 2001, he was president of the Black United Front, which called for a boycott of downtown businesses until police changed their tactics and more jobs were available for African Americans. Lynch briefly co-chaired the CAN advisory panel created by Luken, until he was kicked off for refusing to call off the boycott.)

Cataclysmic events can either move a people forward on their search for fairness or set them back. The events of April 2001 had the effect of setting back those that were fighting for fairness and equality in the city of Cincinnati.

The civil unrest, the protest, the boycotts, the class-action lawsuit and subsequent Collaborative Agreement all gave us an illusion of power. We believed we were not just bringing the city to its knees with our actions but also awakening it to the realities of police misconduct and the tragic effects of social and economic disparities.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III talks to an officer about demonstrators.

We were in the moment, freedom fighters! We sang, we prayed, we marched. And those in power waited. We filed lawsuits, we boycotted and we called for heads to roll! And they waited. They waited until the fires died down literally and figuratively, and slowly Cincinnati went back to business as usual, with a few minor variations because of the efforts of many.

But those few changes in relations and perceptions can in no way mask or mitigate the continued disregard for hurting people in Cincinnati.

In the 10 years that followed April 2001, Cincinnati City Council passed a Housing Impaction Ordinance, in effect saying there are too many poor people in Over-the-Rhine.

Next, council passed a panhandling ordinance, making it a crime to ask alms in downtown Cincinnati.

Both of these ordinances, coming on the heels of the unrest, said that poor people — not poverty — was the problem.

Later, corporate interests were given the development rights to Fountain Square and major parts of Over-the-Rhine, stripping the community of any meaningful participation and self-determination.

Ten years later: Cincinnati has a new tallest building, The Banks is open for business, Washington Park is under renovation, the casino is under construction and a new downtown high-end hotel just opened for business.

Yet this rising tide of economic progress has not lifted all boats.

Poverty and despair grip parts of our city with vise-like strength. The voices of the unemployed and underemployed have been muted by the sounds of ribbon cuttings and back-slapping on projects they didn’t work on.

Ten years later we have yet to embrace the philosophy, “What’s good for Cincinnati is good for all Cincinnatians.”

April 2001 was a moment in time that those of us who lived through it will never forget, but what’s needed in Cincinnati is not a moment but a movement — a movement that is embraced by all Cincinnatians to make our city the fairest, most livable city in America.

Cincinnati, there is still unfinished business from 10 years ago and we don’t need civil unrest to motivate us to act. We just need the will to want to be better. I challenge you, Cincinnati, to recommit to the same energy we all had after the civil unrest and let’s dig in our heels, put our heads together and work for a better tomorrow.

The Attorney: Al Gerhardstein

(Gerhardstein is a civil rights attorney who was involved with a case about the CPD’s hiring and promotional practices that resulted in a 1981 federal consent decree requiring more black people and females to be added. He filed a racial profiling lawsuit against the CPD in March 2001, which resulted in the Collaborative Agreement, a negotiated settlement that overhauled police training under a federal court’s oversight.)

“It’s like a cat chasing a mouse.” “You get an adrenaline rush.” “You just get excited by the chase.”

That was how Chief Tom Streicher described the reaction of Cincinnati police officers chasing Timothy Thomas through Over-the-Rhine on April 7, 2001.

Officer Stephen Roach, of course, won the race and was the first to reach Timothy. Roach followed him alone down a dark alley, gun drawn. Moments later, Timothy was dead. No matter that Timothy was unarmed. No matter that he was wanted only for driving without a license and failure to wear a seatbelt, both misdemeanors.

Chief Streicher was testifying before City Council when he described the chase. Streicher even told stories about how he and other officers used to stage foot races with young people in Over-the-Rhine. Making it all sport. Council listened as if it was acceptable to shoot dead a nonviolent young man. An uprising followed Timothy’s shooting. And everyone asked why.

Everyone except the more than 400 black men and women who had wept and stammered through their own stories of nightsticks and guns turned against them. The Black United Front gathered them into a class-action which was filed in federal court in March 2001. Too late. The pot was already boiling.

Fast forward 10 years. Council, again out of step, seriously considers outsourcing the Cincinnati Police Department to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. The black community overwhelmingly says, “No!”

African Americans clearly prefer a department that has established mental health response teams; that is tracking all traffic stops by race to ensure fairness; that has installed cruiser cams in its patrol cars; that has reigned in its use of deadly force; that engages the community in problem-solving; and that is accountable through the Citizen Complaint Authority and its employee tracking system.

The sheriff can claim none of these reforms.

How did we get here? Through a strong federal judge, Susan Dlott, and a strong magistrate, Michael Merz. (They outlasted the politicians who cater to those with short horizons.)

Through a strong monitoring team headed by Saul Green, now deputy mayor in Detroit. Through committed African-American community members like Iris Roley, Donna Jones Baker, Ross Love, Christopher Smitherman, Gwen Robinson, Dwight Patton and many others who agreed that only a court order would have the staying power to force needed change.

Through members of the broader community who were willing to promote and even fund change: Kathy Merchant, Tom Cody, Michael Fisher and others from the business and philanthropic sectors.

Through Angela Leisure, Timothy’s mother, who challenged us as a community to make his death the last one.

Through a few astute City Council members including David Pepper. Through the Fraternal Order of Police. That’s right, the FOP. Urged on by longtime attorney Don Hardin, the FOP membership voted to join the Collaborative and helped redesign policing in Cincinnati.

Jay Rothman helped guide a broad dialogue that resulted in five goals shared by the police and the entire community, which served as the foundation for the entire agreement. After a rocky start, the police administration got on board and eventually embraced all the reforms. The Community Partnering Center, Avondale Pride Center and Elementz Youth Center continue to spread the message.

Are we done? No. We still taze too many people. We still have a few officers who abuse their power. We still have some young black men who run because they do not yet trust that the police will be fair.

But we are much better off than 10 years ago.

And, by the way, if Timothy were running through Over-the-Rhine today, the response would be guided by a foot pursuit policy that requires police to work in teams and that requires them to learn about who they are chasing before blindly using deadly force. So we are making progress; chasing trust and gaining.

The Asst. Police Chief: Richard Biehl

(Biehl was a 21-year veteran of the CPD and an assistant chief when the unrest occurred. He retired in 2004 to become the first director of the Community Police Partnering Center, one of the reforms sparked by the Collaborative. He left in 2008 to become police chief in Dayton, Ohio.)

American policing includes an often difficult, painful and traumatic history of the relationship between law enforcement and the community it serves, particularly communities of color.

This is certainly true of policing in Cincinnati over the three decades that I served as a Cincinnati police officer and, subsequently, as the executive director of the Community Police Partnering Center.

In 1980, I began my career with the Cincinnati Police Department. The year before, three Cincinnati officers were killed in the line of duty. These tragic and brutal murders were preceded in the prior half-decade by other Cincinnati police deaths at the hands of citizens and also citizens being killed by Cincinnati police officers.

One year later, as I embarked on my career as a street officer, then-Chief Myron Leistler came to meet with district police officers and mentioned the possibility of a “long, hot summer,” referring to community/police tensions, and urged police officers to be judicious in the performance of their duties.

It was a reference that I would hear repeated throughout the majority of my police career by police supervisors and police officers, as if potential community/police conflict was forever looming.

In the two decades following my entry into the department, I — along with the majority of men and women of the CPD — worked to improve community/police relations. Ultimately, these efforts and those of community leaders and citizens were insufficient as everyone realized when civil unrest emerged following the fatal wounding of Timothy Thomas.

Much has been written about the police reform that followed, as well as the call for “accountability” and engagement of citizens in performing their civic duty to be co-creators of public safety, so I will not elaborate on the efforts in implementing the Collaborative Agreement (and the Department of Justice Memorandum of Agreement).

The question is whether the Cincinnati community is better for those efforts? Given the absence of economic boycotts combined with the movement of national organizations holding conventions in Cincinnati, the results of repeated surveys indicating that the perception of “race relations” as an issue in Cincinnati has been declining, the reduced use of force by Cincinnati Police with reduced injuries to citizens and police officers and national and international recognition for Cincinnati Police initiatives — the answer to this question is an unqualified “yes.”

It would be a grave error, however, to interpret this evidence of progress as an indication that community/police relations do not need to receive priority attention. All relationships require continued commitment and effort in order to flourish.

In fact, all of the progress of the past decade could have occurred without the tragic death of Timothy Thomas — along with the civil unrest and its aftermath — had police, community leaders and citizens been more thoughtful and diligent in their efforts to forge better relationships between police and the community they serve and to implement more effective but less intrusive police strategies, and had community members more fully owned their responsibility to support and create public safety.

The Collaborative Agreement was not a five-year program but rather a path to better community/police relations and improved public safety, and one that will never be appropriately or effectively advanced by violence driven by public dissatisfaction with police actions or by unnecessary arrest or unjust use of force by police.

The brighter future for public safety in Cincinnati depends on continuing to embrace “mutual accountability” in fostering the goals of the Collaborative Agreement.

The Grieving Father: Roger Owensby Sr.

(Owensby is the father of Roger Owensby Jr., a 29-year-old man who was killed in a confrontation with police in November 2000. The younger Owensby, who had no criminal record, allegedly was stopped because he was suspected of being a drug dealer, although the reasons given changed over time. He was cooperative until police tried to handcuff him, which resulted in an altercation. He died in the back of a police cruiser, which the coroner said was possibly due to a chokehold gone bad. Officers were found to have violated police procedures, but were acquitted of criminal charges. The elder Owensby now lives in North Carolina with his family.)

I have been asked to put to words how I felt about the unrest or riots some 10 years ago, and what — if any — changes have come about since 2001.

It is hard to think about those days of riots and destruction of a city I grew up in and fought for in the military. To think I served my country and my city for 22 years in the United States Army, and my son, Roger Jr., served eight years, a fact many tried their utmost to cover up.

Friends of Timothy Thomas mourn near the spot where he was shot.

On March 27, Roger Owensby Jr. would have turned 40 years old. Above my head, as I write, is a photo of Roger Jr. and me in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with our arms around each other’s shoulders and smiles on our faces. And I think to myself: “What if, and why?”

The riots and unrest started way before the death of my son due to some unjust killings, beatings and mistreatment of blacks by the city police. Let me make this very clear: Not all the police. But just like other groups, there are bad apples that make the other 99.9 percent look bad. The problem is the protection of the bad police by the good police, “the thin blue line” and the corruption of the then-county prosecutor, Mike Allen.

Through the years of mistrust and mistreatment of blacks, the woodpile got higher and higher. The last log on the pile was the death of Roger Jr. The death of Timothy Thomas was the match that lit the fire.

Has there been a change in the city I was born in and lived in for most of my life? I do not know. There has been a change of leadership from the Mayor’s Office to the Prosecutor’s Office, and now I read that Chief Streicher is retiring. I think very highly of the chief, his hands were tied by the contract the police has with the city. He did fire them, but they were rehired. Why? The contract that the FOP has with the city.

I would say there has been some change.

In October of last year, I lost my mother, Essie Owensby. While back in Cincinnati, my wife and I were driving on the Cross County Highway and were stopped by the police. I looked down at my speedometer and I was doing 65 in a 55 mph zone. As I pulled over, I kept my hands on the wheel and waited for the officer. The officer said, ‘Sir, do you know why I stopped you?” Surprised, I replied I thought I was going too fast. He asked for my proof of insurance, driver’s license and registration, then walked away.

The officer came back a few minutes later, looked at me and my wife and said, “Are you the Roger Owensby that lost his son a few years back?” I said yes. “We use your case in the police academy for training,” he said. Training to do what, I replied. He did not say for what but he did say he had just joined the police force when my son was killed, he was sorry for what happened and called it wrong. I thanked him and he told me to slow down and have a nice day. My wife and I sat there for a moment, looked each other in the eyes and had no words to say.

Yes, there have been some changes. But how deep do they go? How far up the chain of command does it go? Just what are they using my son’s death as training to do what? No one will know if a change has come to the city until something happens again and we see if the truth and the quickness to keep the people of the city — black and white — informed to what has happened. Of course, my family and I wish it will never happen again, so others don’t have to feel the pain of a loved one lost in that manner.

As I sit here, it’s March 27th at 12:01 a.m. Happy birthday to my firstborn son, Roger Owensby Jr. I hope you are looking down to see how much your daughter has grown. She is a fine woman; she’s in college and doing well. I did my best to take your place.

I wish to someday come home to Cincinnati and be at peace with the world before I die.

The Educator: Iris Roley

(Roley was a Black United Front member involved in filing the class-action lawsuit against police, and later in negotiating the Collaborative. Working with the ACLU, she helped educate the community about the police reforms and now serves as education chair for the NAACP’s local chapter. Roley is on an advisory panel helping select Cincinnati’s next police chief.)

As we remember the unnecessary, unjustifiable and untimely death of Timothy Thomas 10 years ago, we often remember the unrest that ensued. What is regrettable is that we don’t remember the robbery that occurred.

The death of Mr. Thomas robbed him and his family of the greatest treasure, his life. In life there is opportunity. There is no tribute in death that can replace the opportunities that life offers.

The unrest that occurred was, in my opinion, a manifestation of the unresolved problems of racism and economic disparities in Cincinnati and in America. The seeds of racism are like weeds in an untended field; they will grow and overtake the field if the field is not cultivated and the weeds rooted out.

Unrest in a society often happens when people, especially young people, have had enough. The shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man, by a city of Cincinnati police officer was when the community said by its actions “enough.” In fact, the killing of 14 unarmed black men was more than enough. It was too much! (Editor's note: Several of the 14 suspects were, in fact, armed but not all.)

A lawsuit had been filed in the Sixth Circuit U.S. District Court against the city of Cincinnati and the Police Department on March 14, 2001, prior to the shooting, by the Black United Front and the ACLU. This led to the Collaborative Agreement, which over the past decade has resulted in the community being able to hold the Police Department accountable for its actions and allow the community to be involved in how it is policed.

The false issue of race relations clouds our view of real solutions and the core issues at hand. All citizens want to be treated fairly in all aspects of life; African-Americans, as citizens, are no different. Until the killing of an unarmed black man by the Police Department is seen as an injustice by all, then, no, there will be no change.

The same economic disparities that plagued us 10 years ago still plague the African-American community now. African-American businesses received less than 2 percent of products and services procurements by the city of Cincinnati in 2009, and African Americans are at least 47 percent of the city’s population. African-American contractors, builders and suppliers have received less than 5 percent of a $1 billion project to build Cincinnati Public Schools, while 75 percent of the students are African Americans.

“How are race relations?” is not the question after 10 years. The question is, “Are the races being allowed the same opportunity of self-determination, economic growth and the pursuit of happiness for children and family?”

The answer to this question will be the determinant of the 10th year and all those to come. Moving forward, can we as citizens of Cincinnati all strive to be on the right side of history?



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