Thursday, March 15, 2001

Suit claims 30 years of bias by city police

ACLU, activists seek mediation, end to hostility

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Black activists and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Cincinnati on Wednesday, asking a federal court to end what they say has been 30 years of unchecked discrimination by police officers.

        The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, promises to delve deeper into operations of the Cincinnati Police Division than other similar suits filed nationwide. It lists a variety of dramatic allegations:

[photo] Lawyers and members of the Black United Front at a press conference announcing their federal suit against Cincinnati. They are (from left) Scott Greenwood of the ACLU; Jackie Shropshire, Willie Ford, Juleana Frierson and Iris Roley, all of the Black United Front; and lawyer Al Gerhardstein.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        • A family stopped — in their brown car — by officers, guns drawn, looking for a silver car.

        • A man shooting dice who was punched, kicked and beaten while witnesses begged officers to stop.

        • A pregnant woman, handcuffed and searched with her husband and plopped into the back of a cruiser, by officers looking instead for two black men.

        “Why is it that you have to handcuff somebody and search the car, even after you know it's not the guy you're looking for?” asked lawyer Ken Lawson. “This has got to stop.”

        Filed by the Cincinnati Black United Front and local lawyers Al Gerhardstein, Scott Greenwood and Mr. Lawson, the lawsuit proposes a mediation process.

    The lawsuit accuses Cincinnati police of:
    • Stopping, detaining and searching people based on race.
    • Discriminatory enforcement of traffic and other laws.
    • Using excessive force against black people.
    • Retaliating against black people who request officers' IDs.
    • Searching city housing units without consent.

    It accuses city officials of:
    • Tolerating such police actions.
    • Rewarding officers who have high arrest records in predominantly black neighborhoods.

    Lawyers who filed the lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Cincinnati alleging racial discrimination say they're fighting more than 30 years of bad blood between police and African-Americans.
    Some of that history:
    • Race riots in 1967 were triggered, in part, by black people protesting officers' use of an anti-loitering law. Residents claimed the law was used to harass black people.
    • Cincinnati was among eight cities whose riots were studied by the national Kerner Commission in 1967. Its report the following year put much of the blame for the riots' causes on white people's prejudices against African-Americans and said black people still suffered from segregation, police abuse and other discrimination.
    • In 1978 and 1979, white officers killed four black people and black people killed four white officers. That led to a march on City Hall by 600 officers' wives and a protest by officers. A mayor's panel in 1979, including Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, reported to council that the city seemed to not care about handling reported misconduct properly.
    • In 1981, a federal consent decree ordered that Cincinnati police recruit classes be 34 percent minority and 23 percent female. That ruling remains in place.
    • Since 1995, Cincinnati officers have killed 14 suspects, all of whom were black.
        It suggests hiring international expert Jay Rothman of Yellow Springs, Ohio, who has taught conflict resolution to Catholic and Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland, as well as to Israelis and Palestinians.

        Juleana Frierson, chief of staff for the Black United Front, said the civil rights group has three goals:

        • Getting the facts, including counting the numbers of black drivers stopped versus white.

        • Winning a determination that Cincinnati officers' behavior violates black people's rights.

        • An order that makes the city stop officers' “general attitude of hostility toward African-Americans.”

        Businessman Bomani Tyehimba, the original plaintiff in the suit lawyers now hope to enlarge into a class action, said he felt that hostility when he was stopped in February 1999 in front of his son's Avondale school.

        He was ordered out of his van at gunpoint, he said, after which officers kicked his feet apart, rifled through his pockets and asked him about money he carried. He then sat in the back of a cruiser for 20 minutes. He said his 7-year-old son watched the entire process.

        The lawsuit, expected for months, brought no public reaction Wednesday from the city, which has a policy against racial profiling.

        Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman, who has said officers would have to be out of their minds to risk their jobs just to single out black people, was out sick with the flu.

        Chief Tom Streicher said he had not yet seen the lawsuit. He maintains that, though he is no longer working the streets himself, he does not think racial discrimination is a problem that pervades his 1,020-officer division.

        Chief Streicher has urged City Council's law committee to pass legislation encompassing more than simply counting by race the number of drivers stopped by police. He wants something, he said, that gets at the more-complex issue of what is in officers' hearts.

        Law Committee Chairman John Cranley says the ordinance he hopes to propose to the full council March 28 likely will include collection of drivers' races, but also will detail an independent process for analyzing that information.

        Recent debate over alleged mistreatment of black people by officers is keyed to the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby Jr. He was asphyxiated in police custody after his arrest in the parking lot of a Roselawn gas station. Two officers await trial in the death, indicted on charges of assault and involuntary manslaughter.

        Lawyers have asked for the initial hearing to be scheduled quickly, but no timetable had been set as of Wednesday.

        The suit is the 17th nationally involving the American Civil Liberties Union, said Mr. Greenwood, a Cincinnati lawyer and general counsel for the ACLU's Ohio chapter.

        Most of the others have sought — and obtained — court-ordered counting of drivers stopped by police by race. This lawsuit proposes to delve much deeper than that, given the suit's detailed allegations.

        The suggestion of a cooperative process marks a difference in this round of the years-old debate, Mr. Gerhardstein said. The lawyers hope city officials embrace the idea.

        “We went to court because we've tracked 30 years of promises by the city,” he said. “We need to have a set of promises that are enforceable.

        “If the city refuses to address our concerns, the courts will.”

- Suit claims 30 years of bias by city police
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