Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Officer indicted on least serious charge


Too lenient, says victim's mother

By Howard Wilkinson and Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati police Officer Stephen Roach was indicted Monday on the least serious charge possible in the death April 7 of an unarmed African-American teen-ager that triggered days of protest and rioting.

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        The city held its breath as indictments for misdemeanor negligent homicide and obstructing official business were read by Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen during a televised news conference at 6 p.m.

        Although there was swift denunciation of the charges as too lenient, protests on a rainy Monday evening were peaceful.

        The grand jury indictments came hours after the federal Justice Department said it was opening a civil investigation into the use of force by the Cincinnati Police Division. The department will examine police training, supervision, disciplinary practices and citizen complaints.

        Officer Roach is the third officer to be charged in four months in the death of a suspect.

        A conviction for negligent homicide is punishable by six months in jail. Negligence is defined in law as a “substantial lapse of due care.”

        Obstructing official business is punishable by 90 days in jail. The charge resulted from conflicting statements made by Officer Roach, 27, on the day of the shooting and three days later, Mr. Allen said. He declined to elaborate.

        Mr. Allen refused to detail the evidence that led jurors to opt for negligent homicide. However, he said, he agreed with their findings.

        “They made the right decisions,” he said.

        While many in the streets of Cincinnati's predominantly black neighborhoods expressed anger and frustration that the shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley April 7 did not lead to more-serious charges, there was no reprise of the rioting that gripped the city a month ago.

        “So far, it has been relatively calm. I only hope it will continue that way,” City Manager John Shirey said.

        Angela Leisure, Mr. Thomas' mother, expressed her disappointment with the grand jury's decision.

        “It's very hard for me to call for peace because there is no peace inside of me,” she said.

        Ms. Leisure said shooting incidents like the one involving her son will continue until police officers are held accountable.

        “Who's to say it won't happen again?,” Ms. Leisure said.

        Mr. Allen said he understood the frustration.

        “A lot of people in the community have expressed their opinions as to whether or not Stephen Roach should be charged with any crime, and those opinions vary widely as to what charge would be appropriate,” Mr. Allen said. “It is important to point out that none of these people had the opportunity to hear all of the facts surrounding this tragic incident.”

        As soon as the indictments were announced, Cincinnati police officials suspended Mr. Roach's police powers and said he would be assigned a desk job pending the outcome of his case.

        Mr. Allen said the 11-member grand jury that heard the evidence against Officer Roach — a jury made up of whites and blacks — had numerous options, including felony counts of murder, manslaughter and reckless homicide.

        The grand jury heard from 20 witnesses, including Mr. Thomas' mother, police officers on the scene and officers who investigated the case. Other witnesses included the coroner who performed the autopsy on Mr. Thomas, a firearms expert and civilians who witnessed part of the confrontation.

        Grand jurors also viewed aerial and ground-level pictures of the scene and inspected the clothes Mr. Thomas wore the night he was killed and the weapon Officer Roach used to shoot him, Mr. Allen said.

        Officer Roach shot Mr. Thomas once after a foot chase. Mr. Thomas was wanted on 14 outstanding warrants for minor offenses. Because the charges are misdemeanors, prosecution will be transferred to the city prosecutor's office and heard in front of one of Hamilton County's 14 Municipal Court judges.

        Peaceful protests sprang up Monday night, with hundreds of people gathering around police headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive in a driving rain.

        Some of the protesters outside police headquarters were led there by the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine and leader of Cincinnati Black United Front.

        The Thomas funeral was held in the Rev. Mr. Lynch's church on April 14 and the pastor — a consistent critic of police methods — was named by the mayor to be one of three co-chairmen of a city race relations panel.

        The pastor said he does not believe the misdemeanor indictments will solve the problem of police-community relations.

        “For the second time in four months, an officer has been indicted for the taking the life of an unarmed man,” Mr. Lynch said. “It's time we take a hard look at our city.”

        The two others, Robert “Blaine” Jorg and Patrick Caton, were indicted in January for the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby Jr. He was asphyxiated in police custody in a Sunoco parking lot in Roselawn.

        Officer Jorg, the only one charged with a felony, remains suspended without pay. Officer Caton returned to work, now assigned to the impound lot.

        The Rev. Peterson Mingo said people who gathered at New Prospect church planned a peaceful demonstration sometime today at Fountain Square.

        “We're not about busting windows or tearing up things. We're here for peace,” the Rev. Mr. Mingo said.

        Officer Roach's attorney, Merlyn Shiverdecker, said he is relieved his client will not face felony charges. But he said the misdemeanor indictment still is a serious allegation.

        “We're disappointed there was an indictment for any criminal charge,” Mr. Shiverdecker said.

        Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken — who was prepared to declare another state of emergency, as he did four weeks ago — praised Mr. Allen and the grand jury's work.

        “I'm encouraged at the response to the clergy and the leadership. It is much better today than it was three weeks ago. We must have gotten somewhere.”

        While police in Over-the-Rhine and other black neighborhoods were watching to see if early evening rain would dampen the chances of violence, Police Chief Thomas Streicher was assigning Officer Roach to desk duty — standard operating procedure when a police officer is indicted.

        The police chief watched alone on a small television in his office at police headquarters as Mr. Allen detailed the charges against the officer the chief has described as a mature, solid professional.

        Chief Streicher said he didn't yet know what desk job Officer Roach would be assigned to do.

        “I've got to put him in a place where he doesn't go out and function as a police officer,” Chief Streicher said.

        The shooting that produced the indictments against Officer Roach was the latest in a string of deaths of black males in police custody in recent years. It touched off two nights of riots in Over-the-Rhine and other mostly black neighborhoods on April 10 and 11.

        After the second night of violence, Mr. Luken declared a citywide 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. On April 16, with calm restored, he ended the curfew and announced formation of a race relations commission.

        Over the course of the violence, dozens were injured, more than 800 arrests were made and arson damage was put at more than $250,000. The city estimated overtime costs and damage to city property at between $1.5 million and $2 million.

        A Hamilton County grand jury on April 20 indicted 63 people on felony charges related to the unrest.

        Monday, as the city awaited word from the grand jury, shop owners on Over-the-Rhine's main thoroughfares hammered particle board covers on their shop windows, in anticipation of a return to the vandalism and looting that put many of them temporarily out of business in April.

        In an effort to gauge the mood of neighborhood residents and try to cool passions, Mr. Luken walked up and down Elm Street in Over-the—Rhine mid-afternoon Monday, accompanied by a group of neighborhood religious leaders and social service providers.

        Over-the—Rhine residents by the hundreds sat on stoops and stood on street corners on Elm Street in the muggy heat Monday afternoon.

        In the usually busy Main Street entertainment district, police officers on motorcycles kept watch over the businesses after a group of protesters overturned garbage cans and broke a window.

        Nadir Halbert, aware only that Officer Roach was indicted on two misdemeanors, walked back and forth on Main Street, turning his handmade black and white sign to passing cars. It read: “Where is justice? Why do they shoot and kill just us.”

        The grand jury report on Officer Roach came the same day that Cincinnati police began collecting detailed information on all traffic stops, regardless of whether charges are filed. The data collection was ordered by City Council to learn whether police engage in racial profiling.

        Last week, City Council agreed to an unprecedented mediation approach to try to settle a federal racial profiling lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Cincinnati Black United Front.

        On Monday, as the county prosecutor's news conference ended, Chief Streicher noticed the pouring rain outside his office window.

        “What are the chances of that?” he said. “What are the chances that, right after Mike Allen finishes, it starts to rain like that?

        “That's luck. That's amazing.”

        Robert Anglen, Jane Prendergast, Sheila McLaughlin, Kristina Goetz and Dan Horn of the Enquirer contributed to this report.

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