Saturday, March 09, 2002

Luken candid on racial divide

Mayor tells lawyers city in pain, but he has hope

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        BALTIMORE — Mayor Charlie Luken acknowledged Friday that progress on race relations in Cincinnati was only limping along before riots in April over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen-ager.

        In a rare speaking appearance outside Cincinnati, Mr. Luken told an American Bar Association conference on race and the justice system that the city is suffering through turbulent times but that he hoped it would one day be a model for racial equality.

        The mayor, addressing an audience primarily of African-American lawyers, scholars and students, did not minimize the city's racial divide or the negative effect the shooting of Timothy Thomas and its aftermath has had on the city's image.

        But he said the city was close to reaching agreements with the U.S. Justice Department and a federal judge over issues of police conduct and racial profiling.

        “I hope that when you come to Cincinnati in the future, our reputation as a community is one that confronted some very difficult issues, is clearly divided today, but does set a model for our country,” he said.

        Mr. Luken also said black activists' economic boycott against the city could damage what he called innocent victims in the business community. Entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Wynton Marsalis have canceled performances in Cincinnati because of the boycott.

        “I recognize that boycotts are, historically, a mechanism that is used in the civil-rights movement,” he said. “I think this one does not hit the mark and will have unintended consequences that will be bad for everybody.”

        The mayor said Nathaniel Jones, a retired federal judge for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, encouraged him to appear at the conference and he was glad for the opportunity to discuss the city's racial problems before an important audience.

        Judge Jones said some of his friends and colleagues in the ABA had been curious about Cincinnati after reading national news accounts about the riots.

        “But they're also sophisticated enough to know that all cities have these problems,” he said. “We're working toward a resolution.”

        During a question-and-answer session with the audience, Jacob Herring, a management consultant from Ashland, Ore., asked Mr. Luken to explain his reasons for inviting the Justice Department to review the police division. The mayor had said he wanted independent verification that police were doing their jobs properly.

        “I thought, "My God, my assumption would be you're doing it wrong,' ' Mr. Herring said, referring to complaints of racial profiling and other alleged abuses. “Why isn't that obvious?”

        “I'm not here to indict the Cincinnati police division,” Mr. Luken answered. “You can say, "It's obvious that they are doing it wrong,' and in some cases they are.

        “But I buried three police officers, you know. I guess my point is that there's a lot of cops out there trying to do it right and we have people working in our neighborhoods with citizens groups that are busting their tails and trying to figure out how to do this right.”

        Afterward, Mr. Herring, who said he had done consulting work with Procter & Gamble and was familiar with Cincinnati, said he was skeptical about Mr. Luken before the conference but was impressed by his candor.

        “That's a tough thing to have to do,” he said of dealing with fallen officers and a divided community.


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