Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Grand jury will probe shooting

Feds asked to investigate how police treat blacks

By Dan Horn and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A Hamilton County grand jury will launch an investigation as early as Monday into the Cincinnati police shooting of an unarmed black man in Over-the-Rhine.

        Prosecutor Mike Allen announced the move Wednesday after deciding evidence in the case justified a grand jury probe.

        The announcement came just hours after city and state officials requested a federal investigation into complaints about how Cincinnati police treat African-Americans.

        Although the two investigations would cover different ground, both would examine issues that have stirred anger and unrest this week in Cincinnati.

        Law enforcement expressed hope that the local and federal investigations will help ease the community's growing racial tensions. The trouble began early Saturday morning when Officer Steve Roach shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas after a brief chase.

        “It's a volatile situation,” Mr. Allen said while announcing the grand jury investigation. “The pulse of the community and the temperature of the community is a consideration.”

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        Even so, Mr. Allen said, the decision to go to a grand jury was based solely on the evidence.

        He said he reviewed photos from the shooting scene, diagrams, police reports, statements from police officers and a videotape from a police cruiser.

        “I've seen enough to make me believe it's appropriate to take the case to a grand jury,” Mr. Allen said.

        The grand jury's job is to decide whether a crime was committed, and if so, who should be charged with that crime.

        In this case, Officer Roach will no doubt be the focus of the investigation. He has told investigators he fired the shot because he thought Mr. Thomas was reaching for a gun in his waistband.

        No gun was found, however, and hundreds of protesters have spent the week complaining loudly and, at times, violently about how Mr. Thomas is the latest victim of police brutality. Fifteen black males have died in confrontations with Cincinnati police since 1995.

        The grand jury will look only at the case involving Mr. Thomas.

        Mr. Allen said prosecutors would begin presenting evidence as early as Monday. Grand jury proceedings are secret and evidence is presented only by prosecutors, not defense attorneys.

        The grand jury's job is to determine if there is probable cause that a crime occurred. If there is, the grand jury returns an indictment detailing the criminal charges.

        Mr. Allen said he met with Mr. Thomas' mother Wednesday and assured her the grand jury would “get a full and fair disclosure of all the facts.”

        The federal investigation would take a broader look at some of the issues related to the police division's dealings with African Americans.

        Although the investigation is not a sure thing, U.S. Attorney Sharon Zealey said she thinks it's likely the U.S. Justice Department will agree to look into possible civil rights violations.

        Requests for a Justice Department investigation have been made before, but Ms. Zealey said the recent unrest and the spate of incidents involving police will likely convince Justice officials to take action this time.

        “I think the more requests that come in and the more information that comes in, it certainly would mitigate in favor of the Justice Department moving to an investigation,” she said.

        State legislators Sen. Mark Mallory and Reps. Catherine Barrett and Samuel Britton asked for the investigation Wednesday. They want the Justice Department to examine the “patterns and practices” of the police division.

        “There is a very serious pattern here and it needs a full Justice Department investigation,” Mr. Britton said.

        To carry out such an investigation, the Justice Department would have to sue the city. Federal lawyers would then seek to prove it's more likely than not that Cincinnati officers violate residents' civil rights.

        The Columbus Police Department is fighting a similar lawsuit now.

        The first request from Cincinnati came in late 1999 from the Sentinels, a group of black police officers. They wrote a report saying they believed the city's management systems for training, misconduct investigation, supervision and discipline had failed.

        After Roger Owensby Jr. died in police custody on Nov. 7, Ms. Zealey sent another copy of the Sentinels' report to Washington.

        Cincinnati already has been sued in federal court by the Cincinnati Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union. They allege that police officers have committed a wide variety of discrimination against African Americans for years.

        Lawyers in that case met Wednesday, still talking about whether they can work together on some of the plaintiffs' demands for change. They will meet again April 19.

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