Monday, April 16, 2001

Search for solutions begins

Council will let citizens speak out Tuesday

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati's political leadership Sunday took its first steps to address the problems that lie beneath the racial violence of the past week.

Members of Timothy Thomas's family - from left, his father Orlando Harper, brother Terry Thomas and sister Smiley - pray for him Sunday in the alley where he was killed.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        While thousands of Tristate residents worshipped on Easter morning and prayed for peace, Cincinnati City Council announced a meeting Tuesday where citizens can have their say on the unrest that followed the April 7 shooting death of an unarmed black teen-ager by a white police officer in Over-the-Rhine.

        City Council, which has not met for more than a week, will also address at the Tuesday meeting a proposal that many black Cincinnatians have wanted for years — a change in the way the police chief is hired and fired.

        The nine days since the last council meeting was a period unlike any the city has seen in more than 30 years, and continues to draw national and international attention. On Sunday morning, the president of the Cincinnati police union argued with the president of the national NAACP about police conduct on two network TV news programs.

  Mayor Charlie Luken said he hoped the city-wide curfew could be dropped today. He said he pushed back Sunday night's curfew from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. because of the peacefulness of the previous three nights and the Easter holiday.
  “We felt it could be done because people have responded really well,” said Mr. Luken.
  There were no reports of trouble on Cincinnati streets Sunday night — the fourth night under curfew.
  “Hopefully, we have seen the worst,” Mr. Luken said.
        The events began with the death of Timothy Thomas, who was shot to death by Cincinnati police Officer Steve Roach after a foot chase. The officer has been placed on paid administrative leave.

        A Hamilton County grand jury may start hearing the Thomas shooting case as early as today, according to Hamilton County Prosecutor Michael Allen.

        After two nights of increasingly violent and destructive street riots, Mr. Luken declared a state of emergency Thursday, imposed a curfew and asked for help from the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which sent 125 officers to assist Cincinnati police.

        Rob Butcher, the Reds' director of media relations, said no decision has been made about Tuesday's home game with the Milwaukee Brewers, which is scheduled to start at 7:05 p.m. Mr. Butcher said Reds president John Allen would meet with city officials this morning.

        City Council — which canceled its regular meeting last Wednesday after the first round of violence in Cincinnati streets — will hold the special meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers.

        The meeting, the mayor said, is designed mainly to give citizens a chance to speak out.

        Council had planned to hold its regular Wednesday afternoon meeting last week in the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center to accommodate the large number of people expected to attend in the wake of the Thomas shooting.

        But after violence and vandalism swept through Over-the— Rhine and downtown Tuesday afternoon and evening, city officials canceled the meeting — the first cancellation of a regularly scheduled council meeting in anyone's memory.

        Mr. Luken said he believes the decision was the right one.

        “I guess every decision I've made lately has been second-guessed, but I don't see how we could have held a meeting under those circumstances,” Mr. Luken said.

        Now though, the mayor said, the time has come for the city's elected leaders to hear from the public and start considering measures that could address some of the black community's concerns.

        The shooting of Mr. Thomas was the 15th death of a black male in police encounters in six years, a fact that has led to simmering anger in the city's black community.

        Of the 15, six were armed with guns, another took away an officer's gun. One was armed with a knife, one wielded a brick, another held a board with nails in it.

        Three, including Timothy Thomas, were not armed.

        Two of the incidents involved suspects in cars, one of which ultimately dragged an officer to his death in September 2000.

        The curfew-driven peace has done little to ease the tensions between the African-American community and Cincinnati police.

        All of today's regularly scheduled council committee meetings have been canceled, but Mr. Luken and Vice Mayor Minette Cooper called the special meeting for Tuesday afternoon to consider a charter amendment that would change the way Cincinnati's police chief is chosen.

        The charter amendment has yet to be drafted and Mr. Luken said most of the meeting will be devoted to hearing from members of the public.

        “We thought it was important to give people a chance to speak out,” Mr. Luken said.

        The charter amendment proposed by Ms. Cooper would do away with a system of selecting the police chief that limits the choices to the assistant chiefs. If the charter amendment is put on the November ballot and passed, the city manager would be allowed to hire anyone from anywhere in the country.

        Mr. Luken said Sunday he wants to add a provision to the charter amendment that would give City Council the power to amend state civil service rules. The current rules make it next to impossible to fire a police chief.

        The reforms Ms. Cooper and Mr. Luken are proposing have long been advocated by many of Cincinnati's black Baptist ministers, who on Sunday morning were leading their congregations in worship and dealing with the aftermath of the violence in their communities.

        One of those ministers, the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church and chairman of Cincinnati Black United Front, said a meeting for young people would be held at 5 p.m. today at New Friendship Baptist Church in Avondale to discuss the events of the past week and where to go from here.

        Changing the way the police chief is selected, the Rev. Mr. Lynch said, would be a step forward.

        “We need to be able to select people from outside this current culture,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch said.

        The Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York preacher who made his national reputation as a critic of the police, made the rounds of black churches Sunday.

        “We must say that what has happened to this young man in Cincinnati must be a wake-up call to this nation,” the Rev. Mr. Sharpton said at New Friendship Baptist Church in Avondale.

        “Otherwise,” the Rev. Mr. Sharpton said, “we are going to continue to see these kinds of uprisings because people cannot live in communities where they have to be afraid of the cops and the robbers.”

        The Rev. Mr. Sharpton went on to an Easter morning appearance at New Prospect Baptist Church.

        From the Elm Street church, he walked to the alleyway at 13th and Republic streets where Mr. Thomas was killed April 7, and where a small group of neighbor hood residents had gathered for a prayer vigil.

        The racial unrest in Cincinnati continued to receive national attention.

        Police union President Keith Fangman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume shouted each other down on two national network talk shows.

        Mr. Fangman — a vigorous defender of the police officers he represents — spoke to a TV camera in a room at the FOP Lodge on Central Parkway, wearing his dress uniform and sitting in front of a wood-paneled wall filled with portraits of slain Cincinnati police officers. Mr. Mfume, who was in Cincinnati the past several days, appeared on the shows from Washington.

        On ABC's This Week, Mr. Fangman said that, while he does not know if Officer Roach was “innocent or guilty,” he accused Mr. Mfume and other black leaders of “falsely reporting that these 15 black males — 13 of them armed with deadly weapons - were killed by white officers.”

        “You never heard that come out of my mouth, Mr. Fangman,” Mr. Mfume said.

        “We need to stop finger-pointing on race,” Mr. Fangman said. “Twelve of the last 14 police officers killed in Cincinnati were killed by black males. If I were to say that, because of that, all black males want to kill police officers, that would be a racist, inflammatory statement to make.”

        Mr. Mfume said the rioting that took place this week in Cincinnati was not the result of just the Thomas shooting.

        “It has been 20, 25 years of neglect, of frustration, of profiling, of a second-class feeling,” Mr. Mfume said. “White and black citizens have for all that time been pleading for somebody to take a look at what was going on.”

        The FOP president responded by saying that black leaders have not addressed what he considers to be the real problem - “black on black” crime. Of the 238 murders in Cincinnati since 1995, 80 percent of them have been black people killing black people, he said.

        After the taping, Mr. Fangman said he is defending police and talking about black-on-black crime “because you don't hear the political leaders in this city doing it.”

        “When we are just inundated with criticism saying that the majority of officers are racists, I have to speak out and say this is not true,” Mr. Fangman said.

        Enquirer reporters Marie McCain, Jane Prendergast and Mara Gottfried contributed to this story.

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