Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Federal scrutiny of police expands

Use of force will be focus of investigation

By Derrick DePledge and Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice announced a formal investigation Monday into whether Cincinnati police have used a pattern of excessive force that has violated the civil rights of residents.

        Lawyers from the department's civil-rights division will examine police training, supervision, disciplinary practices and citizen complaints over the past several years. Fifteen African-Americans have died in confrontations with Cincinnati police since 1995. Three were unarmed.

        “Our focus will be on assisting the city to solve its problems and rebuild trust among the citizens of Cincinnati,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said. “Trust is necessary for any police department to effectively protect citizens.”

        Mayor Charlie Luken, who asked for the investigation, said he hoped federal intervention would improve relations between the police division and the community.

        “We have nothing to hide,” he said. “We just want it to get better.”

        The April 7 police shooting of Mr. Thomas, 19, who was unarmed, triggered protests and riots by African-American residents who complained of decades of discriminatory treatment by police.

        The government's decision was timed to calm any further unrest as a grand jury in Cincinnati decided Monday whether charges should be brought against the police officer who shot

        and killed Mr. Thomas.

        Chief Tom Streicher said he hopes the federal government does not have any preconceived notions about finding problems within the division. He had been assured that investigators were starting with an open mind, he said, but received a notice Monday that sounded as if some things already have been concluded.

        “I think it'll serve to vindicate any allegations that are out there,” Mr. Streicher said. “I expected it because of the national spotlight we're in. I'm not particularly concerned with them coming here.”

        Under the 1994 crime bill, the Justice Department can investigate police for patterns or practices of abuse and seek court-enforced civil settlements to correct police behavior. If they detect criminal wrongdoing, investigators can refer the information for prosecution.

        The Justice Department has reached agreements with Pittsburgh; Steubenville, Ohio; and the New Jersey State Police, and is in court against Columbus. The department is investigating police in 14 cities and counties.

        Mr. Ashcroft said Monday that the department was in terested in working cooperatively with city and community leaders.

        The Justice Department offered to provide technical assistance to the police division during the investigation and to share its findings so the police and the city can opt to immediately make any changes necessary. In the past, investigators would take several months or years to release findings or recommendations.

        One Justice Department official, speaking on background, said the government was attempting to avoid an adversarial relationship with police and the city.

        “The objective is not to bring the city into court,” he said. “The objective is to fix the problems.”

        In 1999, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported some sloppy procedures used by Cincinnati police — such as firing at moving cars — but it found no unusual racial pattern in the use of force.

        Of the 15 deaths involving African-Americans: 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. 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 government's inquiry began shortly after the Thomas shooting and involved interviews with city officials, community leaders and private attorneys. The Justice Department will concentrate specifically on whether police have used excessive force.

        Keith Fangman, president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police, said he welcomes the justice department investigation into the division's training procedures.

        “These are the same training standards and procedures that have already been reviewed by the justice department and the FBI in some of the more controversial police intervention deaths,” Mr. Fangman said.

        But others said the latest Justice Department probe will be wider in scope than any previous investigation. And that, some community leaders say, should help solve some of the police division's most pressing problems.

        “We're glad the Justice Department is going to continue to investigate here,” said Norma Holt Davis, president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP. “Our ultimate hope is that justice will be done.”

        Ms. Holt said the justice department is right to focus its investigation on the use of lethal and non-lethal force by police officers.

        “This will reveal whether the perception that police use excessive force is a reality,” Ms. Holt said. “This could be a real opportunity for the community and the police to come together and fashion remedies.”

        In places like Pittsburgh and Steubenville, investigations ended with court-ordered changes in the police department. Those changes included mandatory tracking of police stops and new training programs for officers.

        “If their approach is helpful and non-confrontational, it could be a good thing,” Mr. Luken said.

        The investigation is separate from three other federal probes. The FBI will continue to monitor the city's review of the Thomas shooting, the Justice Department is looking into whether police acted properly when they fired pellet-filled beanbags at protesters after Mr. Thomas' funeral, and the FBI is investigating racially motivated violence during protests and riots.

        Jane Prendergast and Robert Anglen of the Enquirer contributed to this report.

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