Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Police chief disarms critics

Streicher gets good reviews after bad week

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Police Chief
Thomas Streicher

(Michael Snyder photo)
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        Chief Tom Streicher watched as yet another angry crowd descended upon police headquarters. It was Saturday afternoon; mourners had just buried the man shot a week before by one of his officers.

        He could see the animosity building again between the stone-faced officers in riot gear and the protesters demanding answers. Tired and frustrated after the week of riots, he wondered what he should do to calm them. He'd already begged for help from ministers, prayed with strangers in Washington Park.

        He walked outside and straight into the crowd.

        “I just had the gut feeling that it was the right thing to do at the right time,” he says. “I thought to myself, "Maybe if they have the opportunity to really vent their frustrations at the police division, maybe that will help.'”

        Chief Streicher stayed accessible and visible — in the middle of the riots, the clergy, the activists and the national media — throughout a week that was as tough as it gets for a police chief. With a few exceptions, he gets good marks for his performance.

        “He's handled the last week in a professional and solid way,” Mayor Charlie Luken says. “I have been with him a lot over the past week, and I have been impressed with his sensitivity on these issues.”

Streicher walked into an angry crowd that had marched toward police headquarters Saturday.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        Whether he's the right man to steer the 1,020-officer Cincinnati Police Division through this race-relations mess remains to be seen. City Council convenes today to talk about a new way to choose police chiefs, so members will have more flexibility the next time. And some, including the Rev. Damon Lynch III, still want him to quit now.

        He says he doesn't walk away from fights.

        “Why would I quit?” he says. “What's that going to accomplish?

        “I think the best way to handle any kind of controver sy is to just deal with it head-on. Sometimes you've got to swallow a bitter pill. People just want to yell at somebody.

        “If that's what it takes, I'll stand there and get yelled at.”

        Saturday's debate outside police headquarters may have set the tone for how Chief Streicher, 47, will handle the coming months. He's thinking about what to do next and how to start mending the divide between his cops and the people for whom they work.

A bad week

        Chief Streicher first heard about the shooting of Timothy Thomas, 19, a week ago Sunday. He was on his way back from a police conference in Chicago and heard something about a police shooting on the radio news. He hadn't been informed about the shooting the night before; police procedure is to defer to the brass in charge while the chief is away.

        He called Capt. Vince Demasi on his car phone and got the first details about how Officer Steve Roach, a four-year veteran the chief considers a fundamentally sound officer, fired one shot in a dark alley off Republic Street. Mr. Thomas was not armed.

A demonstrator confronts Streicher at city council chambers last Monday.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        The week would get much worse: Monday, Mayor Luken and Councilwoman Alicia Reece called for a new way to choose chiefs. At an afternoon council committee meeting, people angry about Mr. Thomas' death swarmed council chambers, demanding the chief and others answer questions.

        By day's end, his boss and good friend, Safety Director Kent Ryan, had been admitted to a hospital suffering from chest pain. Protesters had broken windows and were rallying outside District 1 headquarters.

        His mother used to tell him sometimes that things have to get worse before they get better, he says. The week would get worse.

        Tuesday brought the city's first riots since April 1968. Wednesday, Chief Streicher begged a group of 50 clergy to help by walking through the streets of Over-the-Rhine to quell the anger. The meeting didn't go as well as he'd hoped. Too many people still had questions about why an officer had killed Mr. Thomas.

        He also had some things to answer in his personal life. He responded in court documents to an allegation of physical abuse leveled two weeks earlier by his wife of nearly 25 years.

        He had said he didn't want to comment, to protect his family from more embarrass ment. But in his court documents, he said one thing “must be addressed” — that her allegation was meant only to punish him and inflame the personal situation. They had been working on a dissolution of their marriage for some time and had already divided up property.

        Later, driving around to check out the damage and check on his cops, he got rear-ended by a man charged with driving drunk.

        Wednesday night, Officer Andrew Nogueira was shot in the stomach. Amazingly, the buckle on his gun belt stopped the bullet. Other officers looked for the shooter. Fires burned in more neighborhoods. Looters trashed more stores.

A hands-on chief

        For the most part, Chief Streicher's handling of the riots draws good reviews from city officials, other leaders and his officers.

        “He started walking about to the guys at the posts and shook their hands,” says Capt. David Ratliff of the chief's visit Wednesday night to Peebles Corner in Walnut Hills. “He kept saying, "How are you? Are you OK? Do you need anything?'”

Streicher helps diffuse tense situation in Washington Park Saturday.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman praises the chief for his unflappability.

        “He has a unique, almost uncanny ability to remain calm in the most stressful of situations,” the union leader says. “He's a hands-on chief. He showed that this week. No one can say he was calling the shots from some cushy office over at headquarters.”

        Officer Fangman faults him, though, for not calling for the Ohio State Highway Patrol sooner to relieve tired officers. He also says the chief should have been more vocal in his support for the officers involved in the killings of 14 other African-American men since 1995. Those who died were committing violent acts or posed an imminent threat to a police officer, Officer Fangman says.

        Some business owners complain that not enough was done to stop looting. He explains that protest-control strategy means trying to minimize property damage, but not always preventing it.

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch remains critical of the chief for not immediately removing from street duty the officers involved in Saturday's bean-bag shooting of peaceful protesters. Chief Streicher says that investigation continues and that an announcement should come soon.

        Two police lieutenants in town from Long Beach, Calif., credit the chief and his officers for their restraint in using the bean-bag and rubber-bullet guns. They did not have those less-than-lethal weapons when rioting broke out in their city after the 1992 beating of Rodney King.

        The chief won't rate his own performance.

        In a nationally televised news conference Friday, he credited the citizens of Cincinnati for complying with a citywide curfew the night before.

        “I think what I can say to you is that the citizens of Cincinnati have elected to regain control of their city,” he said.

        He also cites fine showings by the SWAT commander, Lt. Col. Richard Janke, as well as the rest of his command staff and the 1,020 men and women who work for him.

        “I think it has gone pretty well,” the chief says. “I'm proud of what the officers have done. But I've had better weeks.”

Getting advice at UDF

               This week started better. Easter Sunday, he went to Mass near his apartment in Price Hill and was surrounded by supporters. Later, he visited the grave of his father, Thomas H. Streicher Sr., a retired Cincinnati police sergeant who died in 1985.

        Monday morning, he stopped for coffee at the United Dairy Farmers store in Evanston. And with the same thought he had Saturday about listening to real people, he talked to Harold Spivey.

        Mr. Spivey was making a fresh pot. An Army veteran, Mr. Spivey recognized the “full-bird colonel” on the chief's uniform and “all the gold” on his hat. He knew this guy was the boss of the Cincinnati police before Chief Streicher introduced himself.

        “He asked me, "What should I do?” Mr. Spivey says. “We just talked about the way things are going. I told him he should have a forum where people get to talk. Some kind of situation where both parties can have some type of rapport.”

        Chief Streicher said OK.

        Community members say he'll continue to be able to draw out that kind of support and advice as long as he keeps his paramilitary demeanor in check and connects with people the way he did Saturday and in the UDF.

        “He needs to let that other side of him come out,” says Tom Jones, president of the Avondale Community Council and a council candidate who butts heads with police over what he thinks is too little drug enforcement on Burnet Avenue.

        “He is a likeable person. People need to see that Tom Streicher.”

        The chief hasn't finalized any plans yet. But he says he's not ready to quit, even though he's eligible to retire from his $104,000-a-year job in August with full benefits after 30 years on the force.

        No serious efforts are under way to oust him, despite City Council's review today of new ways to select a chief.

        Chief Streicher knows he has some things to do — both inside the police division and, mostly, out. He plans to make good on one promise he made to a woman, Rosemary Parker, in the Saturday crowd.

        As she was pointing her finger at him and yelling at him for what she called feigning ignorance, he pointed back and asked her, essentially, to put her time where her mouth was and join a committee he might establish to work on the issues.

        She was taken aback by the request. But she agreed.

        “There's no sense in dancing around things,” he says. “When it comes time for it, you just need to have the stomach to stand there and listen to what people have to say.”


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