Tuesday, November 14, 2000

Police coverup alleged, denied

Federal agencies investigating last week's deaths

By Robert Anglen and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Police Chief Thomas Streicher reacts at a special City Council session Monday.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Federal investigators on Monday started criminal and civil-rights investigations into the deaths last week of two African-American suspects at the hands of police.

        The announcement of action by the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's Office led to a special four-hour City Council meeting Monday during which Councilman Todd Portune asked City Manager John Shirey to resign.

        Mr. Shirey refused.

        After Mayor Charlie Luken encouraged council members to contribute to a fund established for the family of Roger Owensby, 29, the College Hill man who was suffocated Nov. 7, Mr. Portune accused the city manager of admitting that the police division was trying to cover up the facts surrounding the man's death.

        Chief Thomas Streicher is personally supervising the investigations into the Owensby case and that of Jeffrey Irons, 30, of Chicago, who was shot by police Nov. 8. The chief said nothing is being covered up and that Mr. Shirey, in many conversations, has never indicated any concern about a coverup.

        Council members also called for a special prosecutor, an immediate grand jury investigation and a new policy against racial profiling. Some members of Cincinnati's African-American community called for the federal help because they believe Mr. Owensby was stopped by police only because he was black.

        Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman and Chief Streicher both said that's not true, that Mr. Owensby was sought by officers that night because one of the officers had tried to arrest him several days before for suspected drug activity. He escaped then, and they knew only his street name, “L.A.” and what he looked like.

        Mr. Owensby died after a struggle with five officers. The county coroner said he died of either a choke hold or from officers “piling on.”

        The officers involved in the Owensby arrest have exercised their constitutional right to not speak to investigators about what happened. The city could compel them to do so, but then would lose the ability to prosecute any of them criminally if necessary.

        The officers could change their minds, FOP lawyer Don Hardin said.

        “All the posturing I'm seeing makes me wonder about the good faith part of this,” Mr. Hardin said. “When the officers feel comfortable that they're not being skewered, all this may change.”

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said it's too soon to say when the Owensby case will be ready for a full review by his office, then possibly by a grand jury. He meets today for the first time with the homicide detectives who are investigating.

        Councilman Charlie Winburn will preside this afternoon at the funeral for Mr. Owensby.

        The body of Mr. Irons will be taken back to Chicago by his family. Mr. Irons was shot to death after police say he shoplifted at the Pleasant Ridge IGA, then took a sergeant's gun and shot another officer with it.

        Council members Paul Booth and Minette Cooper said they called Monday's meeting because “the community has reached a crisis.” They said too many African-American men have died at the hands of police.

        They introduced policies at the meeting that would require police to wear digital recorders at all times, prohibit racial profiling and create a hot line for citizens who think they've been subjected to racial profiling.

        A majority of council would have to approve the motions.

        Council did vote in favor of taking bids for a cultural audit, which could cost as much as $750,000 for consultants to assess the police and fire department on race relations.

        Mr. Luken said he was angry about how the city administration has handled the case from the beginning. He noted a refusal by police officials last week to even define the cause of death listed by the coroner in the Owensby case.

        That was followed by a report given to council members over the weekend about both cases that left more questions than answers.

        Mr. Luken said on the police shooting — where the facts “most benefited police officers” — the report appeared detailed and complete, while the information about Mr. Owensby's case was vague and incomplete.

        “You can't treat us or the public like we are stupid,” Mr. Luken said.

        He also said he was angry that City Council members didn't know until the weekend that the five officers involved in the Owensby case were refusing to cooperate.


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