Tuesday, March 06, 2001

Officers' hearts hold racial profiling solution, chief says

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In his first extensive public comments on racial profiling, Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher said Monday any proposed solution must “get at what's in the officer's heart.”

        “What's in his heart manifests itself someplace in his conduct. It's in there. We have to figure out a way to get at that,” the chief said. “We would have a national model here.”

        Cincinnati officials plan to seek federal or state grant money to develop a program they hope would put the city out front nationally in handling race relations problems.

        It's not enough to just log the race of drivers stopped by police, Chief Streicher told City Council's law committee. Crucial to solving the problem of racial profiling, whether it's real or perceived, is a broader approach, he said, a program that would review other contacts officers have with residents, not just in traffic stops.

        A “bad apple” cop isn't going to admit his biases just because City Council passes a resolution ordering him to, Chief Streicher said.

        Committee members are working on an ordinance Chairman John Cranley says likely will outlaw racial profiling, order the collection of

        race data and set out a plan for analyzing the data. They hope to have their version passed and to the full council March 28.

        The police division already has a policy prohibiting racial profiling. A new law would be a stronger version of that, Mr. Cranley said.

        Debate over racial profiling has bubbled up repeatedly in recent years, galvanized this time by the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby Jr. He asphyxiated in police custody after his arrest in the parking lot of a Roselawn gas station.

        The incident prompted council members to call for the ordinance; local lawyers to begin preparing a lawsuit against the city; and federal agencies, including the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice, to say they'll investigate. Two officers await trial in Mr. Owensby's death, indicted on charges of assault and involuntary manslaughter.

        Monday, officials including Mr. Cranley, Mayor Charlie Luken and Councilman Phil Heimlich, praised the chief for his honesty and open-mindedness on the subject. Still, others were left disappointed.

        “I'm sorry, I'm troubled by what I see here today, what I heard,” said Spc. Scotty Johnson, president of the Sentinels, Cincinnati's organization of African-American officers. “I keep hearing the word "perception.'”

        “Let's quit playing this game,” he said. “We have a problem.”

        He called for making racial profiling a “fireable” offense — the same as taking a bribe is now. Police administration and the safety department need to set an unwavering policy that any officers will lose their jobs if they single out people based on their race, he said, and they need to make good on that policy by actually doing any necessary firing.

        Fifteen witnesses were invited by Mr. Cranley to testify during what became a four-hour hearing. Among them:

        • NAACP President Norma Holt Davis, who said she's never really comfortable until her husband, a likely target for racial profiling because he's “tall, dark and African-American” gets home at night.

        • Fanon Rucker, president of the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati, who said the problem is bigger than racial profiling, that the city needs to address the pervasive hostility and greater show of force black residents experience.

        • Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman, who challenged a variety of points, including how officers should be expected to know a person's correct race without asking. He said officers “would have to be out of their minds” to risk their jobs to single out somebody because of his skin color.

        Robert Richardson, a 22-year-old electrical engineering major at the University of Cincinnati who plans to go to law school, spoke first. Being a young African-American male, he said, he has been the target of racial profiling repeatedly.

        “Yes, I totally believe racial profiling exists,” he said. “My dad has a 2001 Ford Expedition. He's always had nice cars. And ever since I was 16, police officers have felt the need to make sure I should be driving that car.”

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