Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Angry crowd demands answers

Tear gas ends demonstration at police station;
Protesters charge cover-up in latest fatal shooting

By Jane Prendergast and Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A grieving mother and 200 other African-Americans took over City Hall Monday afternoon, demanding to know why a Cincinnati police officer shot an unarmed man.

Mounted police and officers lined up around police headquarters Monday night keep the angry crowd at bay.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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Police fired bean-bag ammunition and tear gas to break up the crowd.
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        “You took a part of my life from me. ... I demand to know why,” said Angela Leisure of Golf Manor, mother of the slain man, Timothy Thomas.

        It took three hours of angry accusations, threats and claims of a police cover-up Monday afternoon before Councilman James Tarbell offered at least one partial explanation: The officer thought Mr. Thomas might have had a gun in that dark Over-the-Rhine alley ear ly Saturday morning.

        After the stormy meeting at City Hall, the protest moved several blocks north to police headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive, lasting until midnight, when police used tear gas and bean-bag ammunition to disperse the remnants of a crowd that earlier had swelled to 1,000.

        The crowd had gathered outside headquarters as darkness fell — some mothers pushing babies in strollers; other people hurling bottles, rocks and insults as officers in riot gear took up positions at the station entrance.

        Near midnight, some in the crowd began to throw bottles and police responded with tear gas and then fired bean bag ammunition. No injuries were reported.

        Anthony DeWayne Lackey of Over-the-Rhine said he joined the protest to make sure Cincinnati police officers understood the community's outrage.

Angela Leisure (seated), mother of Timothy Thomas, asks for answers at Monday's council meeting. At left is her son Terry Thomas.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        “We're mad because they're supposed to protect and serve,” Mr. Lackey said, “not kill.”

        They were still angry about the fatal shooting early Saturday morning of Mr. Thomas, 19, and the deaths of 14 other African-American men at the hands of police since 1995. At least two of them had fired first at police officers.

        Mr. Thomas, the Over-the-Rhine man, ran from officers who knew he had 14 warrants out for his arrest: three for driving with an expired driver's license, four for seat belt violations, five for driving with no driver's license and two for obstruction of official business.

        At least 70 officers, some on horseback and others in cruisers, blocked streets around police headquarters and tried to control the swelling crowds. Police reported no arrests and no serious injuries late Monday, although a stone smashed a glass door at the station entrance.

        The protesters stood within a few feet of the officers, screaming at them to “stop the killing!” Others chanted, “No justice, no peace!”

        As the crowd grew in the evening, dozens of members of the Nation of Islam arrived to join the protest. “We're here to protect our people,” said Larry Muhammad. “We're here to keep the calm.”

Angry demonstrators fill council chambers.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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A demonstrator confronts Police Chief Tom Streicher.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Earlier in the afternoon, protesters refrained from violence as they pushed in on City Council members from all sides. They were not mollified by members' promises to change the police hiring system and to find a new way to hire the police chief.

        The jeering crowd demanded to speak with Police Chief Tom Streicher, City Manager John Shirey and police Lt. Col. Ron Twitty. All of them quickly appeared, but were unable to give direct answers to what happened that night.

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III, president of the grass-roots civil-rights group Cincinnati Black United Front, threatened to have members of the group bar the doors. When committee Chairman John Cranley tried to leave during a recess that he hoped would calm the situation, some protesters pushed and shoved him. Visibly shaken, he had an escort when he returned to the chamber.

        Council members tried several times to restore order during the meeting, but their attempts were drowned out by chants of “We want answers,” and a few angry expletives. Mr. Cranley pounded a gavel and called for order, but the crowd shouted back: “Put the police in order! Put the police in order!”

        Councilwoman Alicia Reece — one of the few officials allowed to talk — excited the crowd even further when she demanded that city administrators appear to answer questions from the audience.

        “Every member of the council, from the mayor on down, needs to be here today,” she said. “Leadership needs to deal with the diversity that exists in the city.”

        The crowd pushed into areas normally reserved for the council members, crowding behind the dais where the mayor normally sits. They stood on desks, they pushed chairs out of the way and yelled from the balcony. They pushed so close to the police chief that three plainclothes officers created a human barrier around their boss.

Protesters raise their arms in solidarity at the scene of the fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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A protester says "I accuse you" to officers guarding the entrance to District 1 headquarters.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Chief Streicher repeatedly said he could not elaborate on what happened that night because the investigation continues. People agreed to leave only after Mr. Tarbell offered a hearsay explanation: Officer Steve Roach fired after he thought Mr. Thomas started to pull something from his waistband. Mr. Thomas was not armed.

        “We just wanted to know what the cop said,” said attorney Ken Lawson, who accused officials of a massive cover-up. “Had (Mr. Thomas) been near a car, they would've said he tried to back over the officer.”

        Scotty Johnson, president of the Sentinels group of black Cincinnati officers, said council members got a taste of the frustration felt by the African-American community.

        “These people might have been insignificant in y'all's life, but they were significant in our lives,” said Mrs. Leisure, referring to her son and 14 other African-American men killed by Cincinnati police.

        Chief Streicher had released few details of the shooting in a news conference before the meeting. Both he and Safety Director Kent Ryan started by expressing their condolences to Mr. Thomas' family.

        The chief said Officer Roach fired 25 feet or less from Mr. Thomas. Investigators were still trying to better determine the distance. A videotape of the incident exists, but was effectively sealed Monday under a grand jury subpoena.

        Officer Roach, 27, a former Oxford firefighter and dispatcher, joined the police division in July 1997. His record includes many commendations, including one from the chief in June 1999 for a traffic stop that resulted in the arrests of six armed felons.

        His record “shows tremendous promise as a police officer,” the chief said. “He is incredibly mature-acting for his age — very, very sound fundamentally as an officer.”

        Enquirer reporters Kristina Goetz, Bill Weathers, Dan Horn and Ken Alltucker contributed to this story.

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