Sunday, January 14, 2001

People tell of police actions

Stories may be basis for lawsuit

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The subject of alleged racial profiling by police, long simmering across the country, is about to bubble over in Cincinnati.

        A lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city and its police force is in the works, and a local attorney is trying to turn several individual cases into a separate class-action suit.

        Saturday, African-American residents from throughout the city registered their stories at four information- gathering sessions organized by the Cincinnati Black United Front for a potential class-action suit by lawyer Kenneth L. Lawson.

        Cincinnati police officials have previously acknowledged that racial profiling — when minority citizens are stopped only because of their appearance — had occurred in the past. But they have denied there is a systematic problem within the division.

        Those at the Saturday sessions willing to talk tothe Enquirer told of being pulled over, detained, handcuffed and even physically abused, even though they say they weren't doing anything wrong.Many refused to comment and to be photographed, saying they feared reprisals by police.

        “I hope these suits get to the bottom of this and stop it, because I and other people are tired of being pulled over for no reason,” said Pauline Flowers, a Roselawn insurance agent.

        Ms. Flowers, 28, said she was heading home in May with her 12-month-old son when she was pulled over, detained and handcuffed because she matched the description of a robbery suspect. She said she was later released with no charges.

        These and other stories came out at sessions that were part of a 90-day information collection period, which include Saturday sessions over the next two weekends.

        Mr. Lawson is trying to gather enough cases to convince a judge that he represents a class, or a group of potentially wronged persons.

        He said earlier this week that he wants to merge seven or eight existing lawsuits into one class action suit, and would seek monetary damages. The Cincinnati Black United Front previously was helping organize the ACLU suit, but has instead backed Mr. Lawson's suit.

        Black United Front volunteers helped organize Saturday's sessions at Swifton Commons Mall in Bond Hill, the Millvale Community Center in South Cumminsville and two other locations. They estimated about 60 African-Americans turned out to share their stories.

        The ACLU suit is still likely, organization officials said earlier this week, but would seek only to change the system that creates the likelihood of racial profiling.

        Cincinnati Public Safety Director Kent Ryan, who oversees the police and fire divisions, would not comment Saturday on individual allegations or on the potential lawsuits.

        He did say that Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. and Assistant Chief Ron Twitty are on a statewide task force that is helping determine what data officers should collect on traffic stops and when it would be collected.

        Mr. Ryan said city police track race during a traffic stop or pe destrian stop only when a citation is issued or arrest made.

        Many complaints filed Saturday concerned detentions that resulted in no citation or arrest.

        Chief Streicher and Assistant Chief Twitty did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police president Keith Fangman said he doesn't think city police officers were racially profiling drivers and pedestrians.

        “And I would know, since I have to represent officers for internal affairs and for the OMI (the city's citizen-run Office of Municipal Investigation),” Mr. Fangman said. “If it's a pervasive problem that some in the black community seem to think it is, the evidence just isn't there and the pattern isn't there.”

        Hyde Park resident George Webb, 65, disagreed. He recounted being stopped after leaving a restaurant by his home, saying officers told him he matched the description of a robbery suspect.

        “They said the person they were looking for was in their 30s,” Mr. Webb said. “I know I look young, but I don't look 30. And the complaint was about a panhandler, not a shoplifter.

        “This has happened to me six or seven times in my life. No one trusts the police anymore, and when that happens, nobody wins, because the police can't do their job and the people don't get the protection they deserve. Hopefully, this will change all that.”

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