Sunday, April 22, 2001

Strife takes toll on police

Officers' families feel strain, too

By Kristina Goetz and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        People spit near their cruisers, a sign of disrespect. Black officers hear “sellout” and “Uncle Tom.”

        They're threatened, blamed, reviled.

        Wearing the white hat of a Cincinnati police officer in this time of turmoil is to take insults for everything from mistakes made by police anywhere to social problems that have troubled Over-the-Rhine for decades.

        Jessica Lawrence, an officer's wife, said she has stopped wearing the police division sweat shirt she used to put on proudly. Her husband told her it might not be a good idea to show her allegiances right now.

        “It's sad,” she said, “that you have to be worried about being proud of them.”

        Only a couple of the 1,020 officers on the force knew Timothy Thomas, the unarmed man whose death April 7 sparked the violence. Many have never met Officer Steve Roach, who fatally shot him.

        Yet some, demoralized, rattle off exactly how many weeks, months or years they have until retirement.

        Others, as they cruise Cincinnati streets that were riot-torn 10 days ago, talk about looking for jobs in the suburbs — places they think regular citizens and city leaders surely must be more respectful and appreciative.

        “We're tired of being hammered,” said Officer Don Meece, a District 4 officer with 3 1/2 years on the force. “It's not physically tired. It's mentally tired.

        “We have been completely demonized.”

        The work has to continue, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

        Officers tolerate the jeers. From the people on street corners who make rude gestures. From the man on a Metro bus Friday night who couldn't figure out where he was going.

        From the juvenile accused of assaulting his girlfriend in the delivery room at University Hospital early Saturday. On his way to juvenile detention, obscenities flying, he blamed the riots on police, screaming from the backseat of a cruiser at the officer who'd been called to transport him.

        “My sentiments are the same as my fellow officers',” said Officer Excell Walker, a 16-year veteran, also in District 4. “And while it is part of the territory, the criticism and the bad press and the things we have endured in the last few months, we are human.

        “If anybody is going to tell you it doesn't hurt, they're lying or they're not human.”

Wives support force
        A group of officers' wives met Saturday morning to talk about the side of their husbands they said CNN and the rest of the national media didn't show. How one helped saved an injured dog on Glenway Avenue. How another dug an elderly woman's keys from under her porch where she'd dropped them.

[photo] Police wives Sharon Fangman, Gineen Enneking and Leslie Keller-Biehl
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        They're good men, their wives said, who do the best they can — who shouldn't be vilified.

        “It's very simple,” said Gineen Enneking, whose husband, Jerry, hasn't spent much time lately with their month-old daughter. “Just say, "We appreciate what you do.'”

        They think their husbands and the rest of the force are being sacrificed to appease a vocal minority. That particularly applies, they said, to the six SWAT team members facing an FBI investigation after beanbag ammunition was fired into the crowd leaving Mr. Thomas' funeral.

        “It's like, "Here, take them,'” said Sharon Fangman, whose husband, Keith, is the vocal president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “"Take our best. Does that make you happy?'”

        But the disrespect being shown Cincinnati police officers, some say, is a fraction of the disrespect shown by some members of the force toward blacks. At a special council meeting Tuesday, many Cincinnatians — black and white — expressed anger about the deaths of 15 black males killed by officers since 1995. Mr. Thomas, 19, was the last of those 15, and the fourth killed since November.

        The debate — about respect, racial profiling and the killings — went national, with Mrs. Fangman's husband appearing opposite black leaders such as Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, on news shows.

        Nevertheless, the officers' wives point out that Gov. Bob Taft, who attended the funeral of Timothy Thomas, didn't attend the funeral last fall of Officer Kevin Crayon, who was killed in a confrontation with an underage driver, one of the 15.

        The women know that, by virtue of marrying police officers, they signed on for some of this. The night work, the hours of wasted time in court, the quick departures from restaurants when he spots a drug dealer he doesn't want to see his wife and kids.

        Laura Fangman, whose husband, Paul, (Keith Fangman's brother) does undercover drug work, did not expect to see her 11-year-old son peek in on his sleeping dad just to make sure he had made it home.

        “We need them,” said Leslie Keller-Biehl, whose husband, Rick, is an assistant chief. “We need them to come home to us.”

        Officer Alvin Triggs, a District 2 officer with 4 1/2 years on the job, tried to stay focused last week on the positives in his life — a second son, Kyle, due in three weeks; and collecting hot dogs and potato chips for the kids who met Saturday to clean up Evanston.

        “It's real tough,” he said. “I've been a black man for 35 years. I asked myself, "Am I doing the right thing?' And I know I am. But we're human.

        “It's easy for people to sit up and judge,” he said. “All it takes is a second for my life to be gone.”

Chief is proud

        Chief Tom Streicher says he feels nothing but pride for the way his officers weathered the days of violence.

        “I couldn't be more proud of Cincinnati police officers after this, of how they handled themselves,” he said. “They should be very proud of themselves and their ability to address this kind of situation.

        “This was their defining moment.”

        But he's also worried about their morale, given the repeated calls for sweeping change in the division and given that six of their most well-trained colleagues now face a federal criminal investigation. .

        “We have to try to stay focused on what we can do,” the chief said. “The statement's been made. Now where do we go?”

Patrols must go on

        A class of 34 recruits is just over halfway through the Cincinnati Police Academy. They're scheduled to finish in mid-June.

        They will race to the “shots fired” calls like those made Friday night by fearful neighbors of Satisfy'n Place in Walnut Hills. They'll continue to call the SPCA like one officer did Friday night about a stray dog that was in danger of being hit by a car.

        They'll give directions and explain procedures a dozen times until the suspect understands.

        They'll spend an hour like Officer Thomas Rackley did Friday afternoon, trying to find the home of a pair of preschoolers found wandering in Northside. He bought them T-shirts and stuffed animals and brought them back to the station.

        The District 5 officer, on the job almost seven years, said he hasn't had much time to think about whether he and his colleagues viewed their community from a different perspective - or whether the community may now see the officers in a different light.

        “I was in Over-the-Rhine and people of all races were coming up to apologize for what was going on,” he said. “They were embarrassed and they didn't see any sense to what was going on.

        “All races were affected and these were people who didn't do anything to anyone. It was sad to us.”

        They'll also try to continue to focus on the thank-you calls they get from grateful people.

        “The phone practically rang nonstop,” Officer Michael Rees, a 2 1/2-year veteran in District 4, said of the days surrounding the disturbances in Cincinnati. “We had numerous calls from people saying, "Thank you, we appreciate you.'”

       Enquirer reporter John Eckberg contributed.

       The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN Wives of Cincinnati police officers say their husbands have been unjustly criticized. From left are: Sharon Fangman, wife of FOP president Keith Fangman; Gineen Enneking; and Leslie Keller-Biehl.


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