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News: Ticket to Die

Did a fatally flawed system cost Timothy Thomas his life?

By Maria Rogers · March 28th, 2002 · News
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  Timothy Thomas' death in this alley resulted from more than one cop's actions.
Jymi Bolden

Timothy Thomas' death in this alley resulted from more than one cop's actions.



Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach did not act alone when he killed Timothy Thomas.

Most of the fury over Thomas' death has focused on Roach shooting an unarmed man in a dark alley and then allegedly lying about it. But the other perpetrator in Thomas' death has gone largely unnoted.

Eleven months after the riot that followed the shooting, the police chief admits Roach should not have had his finger on the trigger. But Roach only fired the gun. The weapon was loaded and aimed by a system that set up Timothy Thomas for tragedy.

A CityBeat investigation of the 14 warrants and capiases from which Thomas was running last April shows police need not have been chasing him in the first place. Analysis of the traffic citations behind the warrants and capiases presents a textbook definition of racial profiling, aggravated by inept traffic-law enforcement and couched in a system that rewards cops for racking up tickets. Finally, as if to make the mix all the more perverse, come hints of a cowboy philosophy on the police department that creates a deadly game of urban tag.

Timothy Thomas did not deserve to die. Even Police Chief Thomas Streicher now admits it. But the truth is worse still.

By the numbers
Everyone knows two numbers about Thomas' death: He was the 15th African American killed by Cincinnati Police in five years, and he had 14 warrants and capiases for his arrest.

Other numbers, however, have gotten little attention in all of the investigations of his death, even though they tell more about Thomas' relationship with the law than do the numbers 14 and 15.

· Nineteen is the number of times Thomas appeared in court during three months of 2000: quite an attendance record for a man people accuse of ducking the law.

· Sixteen is the number of days Thomas spent in jail for his traffic violations. At one point, as court records show, Thomas believed he had served his sentence and was starting with a clean record.

· Two is the number of jobs Thomas lost for missing work due to court appearances.

· Ten is the number of times police stopped Thomas' car before deciding he should also be cited for having illegally tinted windows.

· Eight is the number of times police had Thomas in custody but, instead of arresting him, simply wrote more tickets.

· One is the number of addresses shown on all of the tickets, raising the question of why police didn't go there and arrest him. One is also the number of cars Thomas drove; he got all of the tickets in the same 1978 Chevrolet. He was anything but hard to find.

This is the short history of Thomas' driving problems. At 2:45 a.m. Feb. 29, 2000, two officers stopped him at 2538 Woodburn Ave., just a few blocks from his home. One officer cited him for loud sound, and his partner wrote a ticket for driving without a license. Six days later an officer cited Thomas for driving without a license and not wearing a seat belt. Six hours after that, a cop cited him for driving without a license and disobeying a traffic device. Four days later he was cited for driving without a license and not wearing a seat belt. Less than five hours later he was again pulled over and cited for driving without a license.

A week later an officer cited Thomas for driving without a license and not wearing a seat belt. Four days after that he was again pulled over, one door from his home, for driving without a license and not wearing a seat belt. The next day he received a ticket for the same offenses: driving without a license and not wearing a seat belt.

Twenty-seven days later an officer issued Thomas a ticket for driving without a license. Three days after that, he was cited for driving without a license, not wearing a seat belt, having a child in the car without a safety restraint and having an illegally tinted window.

Thirteen days later, on May 4, Thomas was cited for the last time, for driving without a license. In the course of 66 days, Cincinnati Police stopped Timothy Thomas 11 times, writing tickets for 22 charges. Eleven of the tickets were for the same offense, driving without a license.

Something is clearly wrong with such a system, according to Officer Scotty Johnson. Officers who stopped Thomas after he had already been repeatedly cited and had skipped court should not have let him go.

"He should have been arrested and held in jail until all of that was cleared up," Johnson says. After the third or fourth citation, "a physical arrest should have been made," according to Johnson, who is president of the Sentinel Police Association, an organization of black Cincinnati cops.

"In my 17 years of experience, if you keep re-citing a guy six or seven times in a month for the same violation, there should have been a physical arrest," he says. "Both parts of the system fumbled here -- the police along with the Hamilton County court system. The court dropped the ball on these along the same lines. The court could have consolidated all these citations and had it taken care of in one swoop."

Records at the Hamilton County Justice Center show Thomas' first stay in jail was March 24-27, 2000, for driving without a license and not wearing a seat belt. By that time, he had racked up eight citations for driving without a license. Yet his second stay, on April 2, 2000, was for not paying a fine for loud noise.

Thomas' final citation for driving without a license, on May 4, 2000, led to his being incarcerated until May 16.

Police spokesman Lt. Kurt Byrd says a person cited for driving without a license would have to park his car and not drive home. If other violations have occurred, the car might be towed, Byrd says.

But Angela Leisure, Thomas' mother, says he drove the car home after at least two citations for driving without a license.

Police cannot guard a car for 24 hours, Byrd says. Thomas could have returned to the car when they weren't looking, he says.

How many times can a person be cited for driving without a license before being arrested?

"There's actually not a number there," Byrd says. "Typically for the city of Cincinnati, we issue a citation with a mandatory court appearance."

The pattern of Thomas' driving history -- repeatedly cited for the same offenses, then allowed to go on his way -- raises serious questions about the way Cincinnati Police enforce traffic laws, according to Johnson.

"Are we now playing a game to get bumps on our work sheet or are we trying to keep somebody from violating the law?" he says.

At a March 19 meeting of the Law and Public Safety Committee, City Councilman David Crowley raised the possibility of ineffectiveness in the way police and the courts handled Thomas' driving offenses.

"Timothy Thomas might be dead today regardless of whether he was arrested and put in jail for six or nine months," he said. "But then again, if he got the table cleared, he might not have been."

Streicher did not try to argue the point.

"I respect that," he said. "That's a very good possibility."

Leslie Blade, a teacher at the University of Cincinnati, has been trying for most of a year to get the city to look at the pattern of police interaction with Thomas. She tried to get the Law Committee to study the issue when she spoke at its meeting May 14, 2001.

"His address is the same on all 12 tickets," Blade said. "If they're so concerned about picking someone up, he didn't move around. He was at the same address and again now we're here a year later and it turns into a mangled mess."

'Behavior that cannot be confronted legally'
As 19-year-olds go, Thomas apparently was not a bad driver. None of his tickets involved traffic crashes. They didn't involve speeding, let alone more serious charges. Indeed, only one of the tickets in Thomas' files was for a moving violation.

Of the 14 warrants and capiases Thomas was wanted on, eight were for operating a motor vehicle without a license and four were for seat belt violations.

A cop doesn't know a driver has no license until he pulls the driver over. The same is true of seat belt violations. These two offenses -- driving without a license and driving without a seat belt -- are often cited in studies of racial profiling by police. A CityBeat investigation last year, for example, showed Cincinnati Police cited more than twice as many African Americans for driving without licenses and for not wearing seat belts than they did whites -- even though blacks are a minority of the city's drivers (see Moving Violations issue of March 8-14, 2001).

Blade believes harassment was behind the extraordinary number of traffic tickets Thomas received.

"From Feb. 29 through May 4 -- so we're talking 65 days that this young man got 12 citations, which honestly I think is statistically impossible unless someone's hounding you," Blade told the committee. "I mean, it's just kind of obvious on its face."

Attorney Kenneth Lawson, who represents Thomas' mother, agrees. Lawson also represents the Black United Front in a lawsuit in federal court over racial profiling by Cincinnati Police. He has seen the pattern that swept up Thomas' life.

"All they're doing really is pulling him over checking him for drugs," Lawson says. "Their intent was to take him to jail, but not for traffic."

But for all his encounters with police, Thomas never had any drug charges on his record.

"Not everybody down there is dealing drugs and not everybody who runs from the police is doing something illegal," Lawson says.

Police frequently harassed young black men in the family's neighborhood in Evanston, according to Leisure. Police would jump out of cars and force the men to the ground and search them, only to let them go.

"I thought half of the young black men over there were profiled," she says.

Byrd says he is unaware of the incidents. Citizens who witness misconduct by officers should file complaints so police can investigate them, he says.

Police were less than discreet about their feelings toward those who lived in the neighborhood, Leisure says.

"Whenever they came, they would turn on their loudspeaker and tell people to get off their sidewalk," she says.

Once Leisure and her son Timothy watched as police threw a neighbor down and searched him in front of their apartment building.

"Tim was like, 'Man, Mom! They're always doing stuff like that. You know if it was nighttime it would be worse,' " Leisure says.

Thomas was terrified of police, his mother says. "He had been thrown up against the wall and on the ground with the kneecap in the back of the head in broad daylight," she says.

This happened twice, Leisure says.

"I witnessed both of those times myself," she says.

She also remembers the disrespect implicit in the way police asked young black men if they had any drugs.

"They would always call them by their first name," Leisure says. "It was black cops, too."

Why did Timothy Thomas run from police April 7, 2001? Perhaps the better question is why wouldn't he run.

"A lot of people are running from the police not because they're doing anything illegal, but because they're tired of being harassed," Lawson says.

At the May 14, 2001, hearing, City Councilman Jim Tarbell rejected the suggestion police had harassed Thomas.

"I can assure you that in my experience these police officers have a whole lot more to do than to hone in on any individual who has misdemeanor violations in the form of a personal vendetta," Tarbell said. "It simply doesn't happen in my 30 years of experience in Over-the-Rhine."

But then Tarbell unwittingly framed the case in the very terms used to define racial profiling: police action against people for reasons that have nothing to do with breaking the law.

"If there is something that seems unusual, it is usually because there is something else going on," Tarbell said. "There is another form of behavior that cannot be confronted legally, so they will use whatever means possible they can to address that individual's behavior. I'm not saying that's the case here, but that is frequently the case."

Tarbell then made a shocking suggestion: Perhaps police cited Thomas for minor violations but deliberately let him go on more serious ones.

"When you see, as we did here, safety belt violations, in my experience -- this is just my experience -- that would suggest there's something else going on, that there was a more serious violation such as running a stop sign and rather than give a ticket for running a stop sign, which is not going to be paid, they will stop the individual so as to see if there's anything else more serious going on," Tarbell said. "If they look at the record and yet another running a stop sign citation seems superfluous, they will do something to justify the fact that they stopped them and usually it will fall to the least of the offenses."

Byrd, the police spokesman, says he was not close enough to the situation to comment on the Thomas case. But speaking more generally, he offers an explanation for the frequency with which police stopped Thomas.

"You have a tendency to start noticing the same person, so that face implants in your mind," he says.

But that explanation leads right back to the first question: If Thomas were familiar to officers as a man wanted on multiple traffic tickets, why didn't they go to his house and arrest him? Thomas lived at the same Woodburn Avenue address for all of the year 2000. All of his tickets listed the same address.

"He was at the same address at all times," Leisure says.

The 480 Club and 'dead time'
Writing tickets often means police officers have to spend time in courtrooms. This, in turn, can translate to extra money in their paychecks. Perhaps the most odious explanation for giving Thomas so many tickets is the easiest to understand: overtime pay.

The arrangement can be lucrative. According to Byrd, if a first-shift officer testifies during his regular work day, he gets no additional credited hours --- it is considered part of his shift. If a second-shift or third-shift officer testifies in his off-schedule hours, he is credited three hours of time. This credited time applies whether or not the officer actually spends three hours in court.

"Five minutes or two hours -- you get three hours back," Byrd says.

It gets even better. For officers on third shift, there's also what's known as "dead time." Any time an officer goes into court within eight hours of getting off duty, they receive credit for "dead time." An officer who gets off work at 7 a.m., for example, gets two hours of dead time, at straight pay, in order to appear in court at 9 a.m.

Under federal law, an officer can accumulate only 480 hours of compensatory time during his career. After that is accumulated, the time spent in court is paid to the officer. An officer who has already reached the level of 480 accumulated hours receives pay for any additional hours credited for court appearances.

Byrd denies this creates an incentive for officers to write tickets. In fact, some of the officers dislike the system, he says.

"There's a lot of guys who like that 480," he says. "There's a lot of guys who dislike it."

But Johnson says the overtime rules can be a motivation for officers.

"Absolutely it's an incentive," he says. "Do we have officers that take advantage of the 480 compensation? Absolutely."

When an officer writes tickets that he knows are unjustified, Lawson says, he expects the drivers to make plea bargains, so the cop probably won't even have to testify.

"The chances of a cop having to commit perjury knowing that he's lying when he's writing a ticket is slim," Lawson says.

Even if cops testify falsely, they know a judge is going to believe them rather than the drivers, according to Lawson.

"I think a lot of tickets are written not only for court time," he says. "It's twofold. It's not only money, but it's also harassment. Yeah, overtime has something to do with it and I think harassment has something to do with it."

When Roach shot Thomas, police hadn't chased him for almost a year -- after twice chasing him the year before. He missed six court appearances between March and June 2000. But Thomas also appeared in court at least 19 times between March and May.

Leisure says he lost two long-term assignments with a temporary agency because he missed so much work due to court appearances. One job paid $11 an hour.

'I'm locking you up next time'
Sitting in her Golf Manor home, Angela Leisure looks with pain at copies of her son's traffic tickets. They're the reason given for his death.

"I know he had been trying to get it taken care of, but I also know he was frustrated, too," Leisure says.

Thomas and his fiancée had a baby. The couple was preparing to marry. After May 4, 2000, Thomas didn't receive another traffic ticket. According to his mother, he thought the mess was over.

On April 13, 2000, he pleaded no contest to driving without a license, and a seat belt charge was dismissed. Municipal Judge John Andrew West ordered Thomas to pay $200 and court costs by June 13.

During the trial, West noted Thomas had been cited three times for driving without a license.

"Don't come back on a fourth," West told him. "I'm locking you up next time. Understand?"

But West was apparently ignorant of the scope of Thomas' record. By that time, he had actually been cited eight times for driving without a license.

On May 16, 2000, Thomas again appeared before Judge West, after spending 12 days in jail. The judge sentenced Thomas to the 12 days already served. But that unfortunately only took care of one of the tickets -- something Thomas apparently did not understand.

"He thought it was over," Leisure says. "When he got out of jail, he said, 'Well, Mom, now I don't have to worry about the tickets.' "

Thomas quit driving after that date, she says, and the traffic tickets quit coming.

In another court transcript -- six days later, on May 22, 2000 -- Thomas seemed to indicate a belief his legal problems were nearing an end.

In the hearing, Assistant Prosecutor Alan Triggs told Judge West, "Mr. Thomas looks familiar to me, because I think he was just here last week. Mr. Thomas has one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine pending NDL (no driver's license) charges before you, which are on different dates. He was cited on Feb. 29, March 6, March 10, March 17, March 21, March 22, April 18, April 21 and May 4, all this year (2000)."

The judge then questioned Thomas about whether he was free on bail or locked up.

"No," Thomas said. "The cases was dismissed."

Thomas said he had served 12 days in jail because of the tickets.

But the prosecutor was skeptical.

"They're all NDL," Triggs said. "I can't see how they would all be dismissed. I think they need to all be consolidated if he's gonna get an attorney and have them work it out."

The judge then sent Thomas to get a public defender.

"Just a word to the wise: If you do not have a valid license, do not drive," the judge told Thomas.

Three days later Thomas was back in West's court, explaining he had gone to the public defender's office and was trying to get the cases rescheduled to June 14, 2000.

"Hopefully, we can get them done and over with," Thomas told the judge.

The proceedings concluded with West saying he wanted to verify who the public defender was before setting all the cases.

But Thomas never went back to court. His next contact with the police came in July and August 2000, running from officers when they chased him.

Almost a year went by before the police made contact with him again. This time, the last time, the chase turned deadly.

The thrill of the hunt
Both Johnson and Byrd say police don't have time to go to people's homes and arrest people wanted on minor offenses.

"You just don't have the manpower to run around and arrest people on minor misdemeanor capiases," Johnson says.

But if officers see a wanted person on the street, Byrd says, they have a duty to attempt an arrest.

"If you see a wanted person and he runs, generally younger policemen chase a fleeing subject," he says. "If we see him drive by or walk by, then we try to take the opportunity to make the arrest."

But officers have to decide when and how to chase suspects, according to Johnson.

"We're given a great deal of discretion, and who you chase and how much vigor you put into the chase is totally up to the individual," he says. "You have to use discretion on a lot of different things."

For example, if an officer sees a person run a red light on Reading Road when children are leaving school, he has to decide whether it is safe to chase that person. In light of the potential danger to children, Johnson says, he may choose not to.

"If you happen to be chasing someone on a misdemeanor violation and you feel it's getting dangerous, absolutely you have a right to stop," Johnson says.

According to Johnson, most foot chases involve younger officers. Every situation is different, and officers have to weigh whether a chase justifies the risk. Nothing in police policy says officers have to chase, he says.

In other words, Roach did not have to enter that alley. He could have halted the chase at any time.

"You're not obligated to chase anybody," Johnson says. "That's what the radio's for and that's what common sense is for."

Byrd admits police have a right to stop a foot pursuit.

"We can't run forever," he says. "There's a point either you've caught him or he's gotten away."

Or, as in Thomas' case, the suspect is killed.

If Thomas were wanted on nothing but misdemeanor warrants and capiases, why did Roach seem so intent on chasing him through a dark alley in Over-the-Rhine? Tarbell points out dispatchers hadn't explained Thomas was just a traffic-ticket dodger, not a danger to anyone.

But even if Thomas had been wanted on violent felonies, Roach had no justification for shooting him, according to Streicher.

"No matter what the charges were that a person's wanted for, the charges that he is wanted for, the warrants themselves he was wanted for, never ever ever can be justification for a use of force," he said.

The only time police can use deadly force is to prevent serious injury or death to the officer or another person, according to Byrd. Running from arrest is not grounds for shooting someone, Streicher said.

"Running from the officer never rises to that level," Streicher said. "You can be wanted for jaywalking and murder at the same time. Just because you're wanted for murder doesn't give me the authority to use force against you."

In the case of Timothy Thomas, the equation between crime and punishment is all the more uneven.

"Tim Thomas shouldn't be dead because he didn't have a driver's license," Johnson says.

If Roach didn't have to chase Thomas and had no cause to shoot him, what can explain the chase to the death on April 7, 2001?

In his testimony March 19 before the Law Committee, Streicher might have shed light on what happened, hinting at a kind of cowboy attitude played out in urban streets. Chasing people is not something police dislike, Streicher said.

"The cops like a good foot pursuit," he said. "It's fun. Catch a bad guy. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. There's kind of a competition between the cops and the bad guys out there. Chasing somebody is not this giant dilemma for us in policing. It's not. It's a matter of catch (sic) and mouse." ©

Cause of Death: Timothy Thomas' brief, tragic driving record
·Feb. 29, 2000, cited for loud sound and driving without a license

·March 6 at 4:50 p.m., cited for driving without a seat belt and driving without a license

·March 6 at 10:33 p.m., cited for disobeying a traffic device and driving without a license

·March 10 at 5:25 p.m., cited for driving without a seat belt and driving without a license

·March 10 at 10:20 p.m., cited for driving without a license

·March 17, cited for driving without a seat belt and driving without a license

·March 21, cited for driving without a seat belt and driving without a license

·March 22, cited for driving without a seat belt and driving without a license

·April 18, cited for driving without a license

·April 21, cited for driving without a seat belt, driving without a license, driving with a child not in a safety restraint and illegally tinted windows

·May 4, cited for driving without a license

·July 8, police chase Thomas, who runs; warrant issued for obstructing official business

·August 11, police chase Thomas, who runs; warrant issued for obstructing official business

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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