Thursday, November 16, 2000

Council doesn't act on outrage

Shirey stays; police policies on hold

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken described the meeting as “a new low.”

        Despite its outrage and criticism of the city manager's handling of the investigation of a man who suffocated while in police custody last week, the Cincinnati City Council took no action Wednesday against John Shirey.

        Despite promises to craft regulations on racial profiling and set up a hot line for victims of police discrimination, the council deferred these policies.

[photo] Council didn't vote Wednesday on the fate of City Manager John Shirey, despite the presence of protesters.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Despite its stated desire for a law that would require police officers to wear digital recorders at all times, the council asked for a report in 30 days.

        Despite its demands for an independent prosecutor to review the case, the council backed off that suggestion.

        For two days, a majority of council members have been hammering the city manager and police administrators about the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby and demanding more answers.

        But instead of getting any closer to discovering what happened, council members Wednesday lashed out at the media, the police, the city manager and one another.

        Residents — who told stories of police abuses and of being stopped and questioned because of their skin color — watched as council members accused one another of inaction, trying to manipulate the investigation and using Mr. Owensby's death as a political platform.

        The Hamilton County coroner has reported that Mr. Owensby died from a choke hold or from people piling on top of him after police officers stopped him inside a gas station mini-mart.

        Police Chief Thomas Streicher told the Enquirer that police had been looking for Mr. Owensby for several days, since he allegedly assaulted an officer as he escaped arrest.

        Although no warrant was issued for Mr. Owensby, Chief Streicher said that is because police knew only his nickname. What happened at the gas station remains unclear because the five officers involved have exercised their Fifth Amendment right and are refusing to talk to homicide investigators.

        Chief Streicher told the council Wednesday that he still doesn't know what happened and that nothing has been determined.

        But in a private memo to council members Wednesday, Mr. Shirey said that one of the five officers involved in the fatal arrest is the same officer who tried to arrest Mr. Owensby previously. That detail came from a police sergeant who talked to the officers at the gas station after Mr. Owensby died, Mr. Shirey said.

        “The deeper we get into this, the more problematic it becomes,” said Councilman Todd Portune, who on Monday asked the city manager to resign over his handling of the investigation. “This trickling out of information is destroying public confidence.”

        For months, a majority of council members has criticized the city manager for hiding information and releasing reports after their offices were closed. Those complaints were raised anew after Mr. Owensby's death, with council members complaining that the manager has allowed police administrators to treat them and the public with disdain.

        Several members said this week they would likely vote to fire Mr. Shirey, but — in a repeat of several other occasions when Mr. Shirey's job seems to be in jeopardy — the council didn't vote.

        “We can bring an end to this once and for all,” said Councilman Charlie Winburn, who after the meeting referred to some council members as “cowards” for not voting.

        He said council members ought to tell Mr. Shirey privately what they think and the city manager could “add up the votes ... and then can step down in admirable way.”

        But Councilman Phil Heimlich said now was not the time. He chided council members for demanding information from the police and the manager.

        “The City Council should stay out of this,” he said, adding that firing Mr. Shirey would not help solve the riddle of Mr. Owensby's death. “I can assure you that the police department and the Hamilton County prosecutor don't need our help.”

        He acknowledged telling police union president Keith Fangman and Mr. Winburn privately two weeks ago that he would vote to fire the city manager. But he said he didn't think the manager should be fired as a fallout of the Owensby case.

        Since a special meeting Monday, called by council members Minette Cooper and Paul Booth to discuss the number of African-Americans who have died at the hands of police, Mr. Shirey has met with members of the local Baptist Ministers Conference about helping to define racial profiling.

        Since 1995, 13 people have died in confrontations with police and all have been African-American.

        Both Ms. Cooper and Mr. Booth pushed for policy changes Monday, but all of those were held for reports or referred to council committees for discussion, including a new policy on racial profiling.

        While Mr. Booth and Ms. Cooper have also expressed frustration at the city manager, neither took any action against him Wednesday.

        Other residents said they didn't care about definitions or new policies and demanded that Mr. Shirey be fired along with Chief Streicher and Public Safety Director Kent Ryan.

        “The Cincinnati Police Department is out of control,” said Herb Smith, a professor of race relations at the University of Cincinnati.

        He warned that the community at some point will decide the police are enemies.

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