Sunday, January 13, 2002

Roach hiring divides Evendale

Outcry surprises village leaders

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In Evendale, as in other Tristate suburbs, folks watched last April as Cincinnati was wracked by the worst riots since 1968. Until April 7, most residents of Evendale were more focused on such issues as new sidewalks along Giverny Lane. But now the Cincinnati police officer whose gun triggered that violence about a dozen miles away — and subsequent national publicity over racial tension — have landed hard in Evendale's front yard.

        Officer Stephen Roach is scheduled to start patrolling the village streets in eight days. As soon as news spread of the council's decision to hire him, objectors organized meetings, started e-mail campaigns and circulated petitions. Hundreds of residents have shown up at opposition meetings since — in an outcry that surprised village officials.

Dr. Thomas Shockley (center), a leader of opposition to Roach, sits with Mayor Doug Lohmeier (left) at a meeting to discuss the hiring.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        Conversations with three dozen Evendale residents last week reveal that many, most of them white, do not object to Officer Roach's presence.

        He was acquitted of all criminal charges in the April 7 shooting death of Timothy Thomas. Everybody deserves a second chance, sympathizers say.

        But others, led by two black physicians, are angered that they will have to entrust their safety in an increasingly diverse community to an officer who has been the focal point of the worst racial tension in Cincinnati since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in 1968.

        “Officer Roach is a lightning rod for a much larger issue,” said Michael Schwartzman, an Evendale resident for 12 years who proudly says people of 14 nationalities attended his summer block party.

        “And we were chosen to take this lightning rod without being asked if we were willing to take it.”

        Everyone involved in the process of hiring Officer Roach was white:

        • The peer group of five officers and the chief who interviewed him.

        • The three hiring committee members who reviewed the top five scorers.

        • The six council members who decided he was the best suited to become their 20th police officer. They chose him from an original list of 31.

        They significantly underestimated the outcry, which has shoved Evendale into the national spotlight.

        Until last week, the village was perhaps best known as home to GE Aircraft Engines and St. Rita School for the Deaf. Since then, it's been the focus of hours of talk radio, numerous letters to the editor and mentions in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times.

        Opponents of the hire foresee big problems if Officer Roach works their streets, ranging from an impugned community image to questionable leadership to, ultimately, a loss of the growing Evendale diversity.

        Carolyn Smiley-Robertson worries for her two sons, one a teen-ager and one about to be.

        She wonders what might happen to them if they, like Mr. Thomas, would run from Officer Roach.

Evendale Police Chief Gary Foust interviewed Roach.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        The 19-year-old, who was later found to be unarmed, ran from Officer Roach and others who were chasing him because they knew he was wanted on 14 warrants. The warrants all turned out to be misdemeanors, mostly traffic cases.

        Dr. Thomas Shockley says his 6-year-old son understands that Daddy is upset about a new police officer. He's afraid the boy won't want to run outside when he sees a cruiser anymore. He likes to play with the lights and sirens.

        Claudia Abercrumbie envisions calling 911 and opening her door to find Officer Roach.

        “My people,” she said, referring to her African-American family members, “look like Timothy Thomas.”

A cozy place, with perks

        Outsiders know Evendale mostly because of General Electric. Driving up Interstate 75, it's the part of the village you see first — the concrete buildings and extensive parking lots.

        The village population is small — 3,090, according to the 2000 census. About 223 are African-American. People who live here are wealthy, with an average household income of more than $60,000. In Hamilton County, only Indian Hill and Amberley Village are richer.

        The village is a cozy place. People know each other. And they can afford what they want, thanks in part to the huge tax base delivered by GE and other businesses.

        That's how perks like a community fitness center come to be. Newcomers often think the $30 pass must just be an initiation fee. But that amount covers a family for an entire year.

        The village organizes lots of events, including “An Enchanted Evening” father-daughter dinner dance at the community center and a '50s dance for couples, both in February.

        Until the Officer Roach issue surfaced, the biggest draw to community meetings was whether to put sidewalks along Giverny. Residents objected because the paving would take too much of their landscaped yards.

        “They listened to us that time,” said Terry Logan during an afternoon stroll last week along Sherbrooke Drive with Buddy, her Jack Russell terrier.

        A native of Ireland, she said she and her husband bought a house in the village in part because of its diversity. She speaks fondly of her neighborhood, relishing that she can count among her friends an African-American family, a physician of Chinese descent and a Jewish friend who was kind enough to send her a Christmas card.

        “It's just a wonderful place to live,” Ms. Logan said.

        Council members talked about the possible ramifications of hiring someone with such a high-profile background before they did it.

        Mayor Doug Lohmeier admits they underestimated their community's reaction. He's holding meetings with residents 20 at a time, hoping the small-group interaction will allow him to have meaningful conversations with his constituents.

        He has said council would consider any possible deal that would be a “win-win” for both those who oppose the hiring and for the city. But Village Solicitor Christian Schaefer doesn't think there's much the city can do without risking a lawsuit by Officer Roach.

        Police Chief Gary Foust said last week that calls to the village administration building were beginning to be more pro-Roach. Brad Wilkinson, who lives on Renoir Place, was among those callers. He wasn't involved in the debate until he learned Officer Roach scored No. 1 on the test. He called Village Hall on Wednesday morning to say “it looks like he should be the man for the job.”

        Chief Foust said he wants people to know that the officer, whom he described as soft-spoken and kind, did not send resumes across the region. Officer Roach, assigned to Cincinnati's impound lot since the shooting, applied first in Evendale because he wants to get back to working with people.

        In Evendale, his $45,500 salary will be a little more than what a starting officer makes in Cincinnati.

        Officer Roach's resignation is effective in Cincinnati on Jan. 21, the day he's set to start in Evendale. The 27-year-old got good marks for his work before the fatal shooting. He has worked in Cincinnati since July 1997.

        Since submitting his resignation Jan. 4, he has been off work, using vacation and compensatory time. He has not talked publicly about the Evendale controversy has he responded to several interview requests.

        On the Evendale test, he scored second-best on the written exam, where he was graded on his awareness of what police work is like, including the importance of diversity in the job.

        He fared best in the oral review, where his would-be peers and Chief Foust judged him in six areas: compassion, ability to prioritize, judgment, honesty, ethical conduct and tolerance.

        Combined, those scores made him the best candidate statistically. Only 12 candidates made it to the oral board, after five washed out at the physical-ability test.

        Officer Roach passed that, too: 48 push-ups in one minute; 33 sit-ups in one minute; and a 1.5-mile run in just over 13 minutes. All those results, the chief said, exceed national averages.

        Those are the reasons Chief Foust said he wanted to hire him, not because, as some residents allege, the chief is friends with the officer's father, Dennis, an officer in Oxford. And not because Chief Foust and Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher cooked up the Evendale job together to help Officer Roach.

        Neither theory is true, both chiefs said. Chief Foust said he doesn't know the elder Roach. Both he and Chief Streicher said they never discussed the hire.

        Chief Streicher, in fact, said he wouldn't mind having Officer Roach stay.

        Chief Foust said he wishes he had more diversity in his police force. But like many chiefs, he says he has found it difficult to attract good minority applicants. In this round of testing, one of the 31 total candidates was black. He did not score well on the written exam.

        That doesn't make objectors like Mary Weertz feel better about having Officer Roach working in her village. She doesn't like seeing what she considers bad news about her hometown in the national news.

        “These are huge, huge, significant controversies,” she said. “It's a terrible stigma. I don't want to be embarrassed that I live in Evendale.”

        BRONSON: Roach protesters: look in the mirror

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