Sunday, January 14, 2001

Cop Island

        Past the bullet-proof glass, where a young man with trembling fingers is describing the size of a knife he was robbed with, through a locked door, up an elevator, at the end of linoleum that can't decide if it's moldy green or seasick gray, is a place Cincinnati cops call “Carpetland.”

        It's busy with meetings and ringing phones and the soft clatter of computers, like any ordinary office. But here the workers carry guns and “customers” are often scared witless.

        For Police Chief Thomas H. Streicher Jr., the wood-paneled office with the panoramic view of the city's junk drawer is an island. It's lit like a convenience store — he works 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. a lot lately. But it's still an island.

        Chief Streicher was eight days into his new job — two years ago in March — when Michael Carpenter was shot and killed by two cops. His “honeymoon” was a one-night stand. The body blows kept coming, following the same race-conflict script of white officers and black suspects — each dialed up a little hotter than the last. He's been to cop funerals and council tongue-lashings. He's been called “racist” and more creative names. And in the eye of the tempest, he has found peace in the pride that comes from wearing a badge for 30 years.

        “You can be happy or angry. What you can't do is let it affect how you do your duty,” he said. “They're not blasting me because I'm Tom Streicher. They're blasting me because I'm the police chief. But it can be draining at times.”

        Anyone who thinks he coddles bad cops should ask him about an arbitrator's decision to reinstate a fired cop who body-slammed an elderly man with Alzheimer's. “I'm flabbergasted that anyone could come to that conclusion,” the chief said. “In my opinion it was unnecessary and excessive use of force.”

        He believes the officer did not tell the truth about mistaking a paint brush for a knife. “Why should we subject another officer to work with someone who can't be trusted to tell the truth? Now I have to ask, "Do I trust him to go back onto the street?' Should I tell society, "Here he comes'? I have relatives who are 69 years old. I don't want them thrown to the ground.”

        His law for cops: "If you see an officer break the law, bring him to me in handcuffs.”

        The alligator at the door lately is the indictment of two officers for the death of black suspect Roger Owensby on Nov. 7. “We're all swallowed up by the process,” he said.

        Chief Streicher did not defend or accuse the cops. The Owensby grand jury testimony is secret, even to him. But he wishes people would take a walk in beat shoes and imagine how it feels to all the other cops.

        “Nobody wants to know what cops know. They see the underbelly, the very bowels of society, the ugly, underhanded, vile, slimiest things people do. Everyone just wants cops to go out and deal with it, but don't tell us about it.”

        Cops are taught there's no such thing as an “unarmed” suspect in a struggle, and plenty of cops have been shot by their own guns to prove it.

        “Every one of us has rolled in the street. And when you get up, you think, "That was bad. I came close to losing my life.' ”

        “This uniform is not armor,” he said. “We have emotions.”

        “Twenty-three cops created 100 percent of the serious discipline problems. That's just 2.3 percent of the force. And 2.5 percent in society causes 95 percent of the crime. We're no different, just a microcosm of society.”

        Some people gulp Maalox. Some kick the dog. When Chief Streicher gets stressed out, he leaves his office to be with some cops.

        “We are at a historic period in this department, when we must elevate to heights as never before. We must always show courtesy and respect and allow people to maintain their dignity as human beings.

        “When people think of the Cincinnati Police, they should think, "When the white hats are here, everything is OK, we're safe.' Everyone wants fairness, honesty and dignity.”

        I don't think many beat cops would transfer to Carpetland if they could see the crocodile jaws of pressure that surround the chief's office. But Cincinnati should be grateful that a good man named Tom Streicher is there. The light is on.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.


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