Thursday, September 27, 2001
Victim's point of view part of justice, too
By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Judge Ralph E. Winkler understands the defendant's point of view.
He understands that Officer Stephen Roach was scared when he encountered Timothy Thomas in a dark alley. Officer Roach felt threatened when Mr. Thomas pulled up his baggy pants rather than raise his hands in the air as commanded. Officer Roach made a split-second decision to pull the trigger and shouldn't be second-guessed, the judge says.
Judge Winkler, who tries criminal cases in Hamilton County Municipal Court, is probably familiar with young black men who appear to have little respect for the law. Maybe that's why, in acquitting Officer Roach of wrongdoing, the judge blamed the victim for causing his own death.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Judge Winkler, who is white, would have a hard time putting himself in the shoes of Timothy Thomas, who was African-American.
He would have had to imagine what it was like to be a black male teen whose minor encounters with police snowballed into a series of costly fines, missed court dates and probable jail time.
He would have had to picture himself living in neighborhoods stricken by crime and troubled relationships with police. He would have had to imagine himself sometimes being mistaken for a criminal, being stopped and questioned often by police, being presumed guilty until found innocent.
Mistaken for criminals
Judge Winkler probably grew up playing a game of cops and robbers in which the cops were the good guys. In Mr. Thomas' neighborhood, that's not automatically assumed.
African-Americans are more likely to have negative interactions with police, more likely to be mistaken for criminals, more likely to rack up misdemeanor infractions and court fees they can't afford to pay.
And African-Americans, particularly males, are more likely to run from police.
In his decision, Judge Winkler called the shooting a split-second reaction to a very dangerous situation created by Timothy Thomas. He failed to address why police officers pursuing Mr. Thomas were never told that he was wanted on misdemeanors.
The officers who knew Mr. Thomas best testified that the 19-year-old was not a violent young man. They didn't pull their weapons because they knew it would violate procedure to run with your gun drawn, the safety off, your finger on the trigger.
Why didn't Officer Roach follow procedure? Judge Winkler's decision didn't address that.
Nor did he address why Officer Roach changed his story, first saying the gun accidentally went off and later saying he felt threatened by Mr. Thomas and had to protect himself.
More than hindsight
Judge Winkler said he didn't want to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking.
But those of us who fear ending up on the wrong end of a police officer's split-second decision, who fear being mistaken for a criminal, need more than the judge's hindsight and armchair critiques.
Judge Winkler was the only one in this triangle of justice with time to weigh all the evidence and consider his options.
Too bad he couldn't see things from the victim's viewpoint.
Denise Smith Amos is an editor at the Enquirer.
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