Saturday, September 29, 2001

Normalcy will take time

Roach looks forward to resuming life

        “You are free to go.”

        Stephen Roach bowed his head after the judge spoke, fought off tears and told himself:

        “Thank God, it's over.”

        Part of this 27-year-old beat cop's nationally known ordeal ended Wednesday with two not-guilty verdicts handed down in a Hamilton County courtroom.

        But there's a long way to go for this man whose face and deeds — but not his words — are so well-known to Tristate residents.

        He's back to work. But not back on the beat.

        After receiving death threats in April, he's finally back home sleeping in his own bed.

        But life for Stephen Roach is hardly back to normal.

        “Normal?” he asked in a low, soft voice Friday afternoon, two days after being found not guilty of negligent homicide and obstruction of official business.

        “What would that be like?”

        Nothing feels normal in his life. Even being called Stephen.

        “I only know myself as Steve,” he said.

Stephen Roach
Stephen Roach
        The rest of the world — via network news, national magazines and global newspapers — knows him as:

        Stephen Roach — the white Cincinnati police officer who fatally shot Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man with 14 outstanding warrants to his name who was fleeing police.

        The April 7 shooting touched off days of riots in Cincinnati and initiated months of continuing racial tension across the city.

        “What went on in that alley was a nightmare for everybody,” Officer Roach said as he sat on a sofa in the western Hamilton County home he shares with his wife, Erin.

        Wallpaper hung in strips — a work in progress — on the walls of the living and dining rooms.

        “We were remodeling before this thing happened,” Officer Roach said.

        “This thing” is how he describes the tragic incident of April 7.

        He doesn't say, “the shooting.” He gets choked up saying “this thing.”

        The wallpaper hangs where he stopped working with his wife.

        “We've never gotten back to it,” he said. “We put a lot of stuff on hold. We were thinking about building a new house. We haven't talked about having kids for a long time.

        “The only time we've mentioned kids is when we say how lucky we were we didn't have kids when this thing happened.

        “We got a death threat and we picked up things in 15 minutes and were out of here. We hit the road and didn't come back home for five weeks.

        “Through it all,” he added, “Erin showed so much strength. She kept the whole family together — her folks, my parents, us. She put everything into perspective. She kept telling me that no matter what happened, we had each other.” Erin was asleep at the other end of their bilevel. She works nights as a police dispatcher.

        As he spoke, Officer Steve Roach was giving his first interview since April 7. It might be his last.

        “It seems like everybody's called, wanting me to talk,” he said, wearily. “Radio. TV. Dateline NBC.

        He doesn't want to talk. He just wants his life back. He hopes someday things will be as close to normal as they can get after months of being in the spotlight, after months of being second-guessed.

        After months of waiting for his story to be told in court, he has much to say, people to thank and plans for the future. But his to-do list for the time being does not include chats with media types.

        “I'm tired of looking at cameras and having microphones shoved in my face and people asking me, "How does it feel?'

        “I had enough of that,” he said, “during the trial.”

        The trial he mentioned concluded Wednesday with what he calls a “just” ending. He was found not guilty of charges stemming from the death of Timothy Thomas.

        In breaking his silence of six months, Steve Roach picked his words carefully.

        “I still have a pending civil trial,” he said. And the city still has several rounds of investigations to complete. So he could not give details of what went on when he came face to face with Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley early the morning of April 7.

        Even the mention of the date causes his eyes to glisten and emotions to cloud his voice.

        “I still can't believe all that has happened in the city in the last six months,” he said, “because of something that took just seconds to occur in that alley.”

        Officer Roach has been overwhelmed by support he's received from the community, from his fellow officers — “those guys have given their time and their money while they still go out and do their job” — and from people he's never met in towns he's never visited.

        Thousands of people have contributed more than $56,000 to his defense fund.

        “I get checks for $1,000 from people I don't know. Some of them are anonymous. They send a bank check. And they leave no name or address.

        “I've written thank-you cards to everyone who sent money before the trial. I'll write the others now.

        “But for the anonymous donors, this is my only way to say thank you for giving money to someone you don't know, someone who couldn't tell what happened, someone you believed in because you believe in what the police do.”

        Officer Roach's police powers were suspended after the shooting. Since May, he's worked, without his weapon, in the police impound lot. A most unglamorous assignment.

        He works with three other officers at the lot. When a car is impounded because of being illegally parked, abandoned, etc., it's towed to the lot. Officer Roach inspects the car, logs its particulars into a computer and waits for the owner to show up.

        Some car owners have arrived and noticed his name tag.

        “Some have said, "Oh, you're Officer Roach,'” he noted. “And they may have had bad thoughts about me. But they've never said anything.”

        He told me he has heard only good things from the public since April 7. At first, he and his wife were afraid to go out. They shied away from restaurants and grocery stores.

        “The first time I was recognized, someone just came up and wished me good luck.” The well-wishing has not stopped.

        Wednesday night after the not-guilty verdicts were read, he and his wife went out to eat at a Red Lobster on Colerain Avenue.

        “A waitress came up and said congratulations.”

        Thursday morning, after work, he and his wife went to breakfast at the downtown First Watch. No one interrupted their meal.

        But they could not leave without being spotted.

        “An African-American gentleman stopped me on the street.

        “He said, "I just want to say thanks.'

        “He said he really appreciated what I said after court that day.”

        In his lone post-trial statement, Officer Roach read an apology to Timothy Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure.

        “He said: "I know it's a tough time. You're not going to be able to say much. There's not much you can say. But, you did the right thing.' ”        

"I miss the work'

        Officer Roach hopes to return to police work.

        “But only when the time is right,” he said.

        Now is not the time. Offer him a chance to pin on his badge, pick up his gun, strap on his holster and get back into a cruiser and he will decline.

        “I miss the work,” he said.

        “Being a police officer is what I always dreamed about doing. I love it. I never missed work. I never took days off. I loved the routine. I loved helping people.”

        But he will not let his heart get in the way of his head.

        “I still have problems dealing with this thing,” he said. “It's going to take time.

        “If there's one thing I've learned from this thing, it is to be patient. Things take time.

        “So, it wouldn't be right to come back, for me, for the Cincinnati police, for the city.”

        For now, he's content to go to the impound lot. Put in his hours. And go home.

        He knows when he goes out, he will be recognized. People will ask how he feels.

        “I'm all right,” he says.

        He doesn't tell them about the nightmares. He won't talk about when his mind wanders and he replays the shooting over and over and over in his head.

        “It's like a videotape. And it never stops. Sometimes, it's fast. Sometimes, it plays slow.”

        He'll just say, “I'm all right.”

        “I've talked to other officers who have been in these things. They tell me you never forget them.

        “So, I know I'm going to have my good days and my bad days.”

        The sun was shining Friday. What kind of day was it for Steve Roach?

        “Today,” he said, “is a good day.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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