Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Police see insult in demonstration at their memorial

By Gregory Korte,
and Jane Prendergast,

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Protesters stand at the Cincinnati police memorial near District 1 headquarters Sunday.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        A demonstration Sunday by African-American activists at a memorial to fallen police officers — and the escalating outrage over what some police see as the desecration of “sacred ground” — has already provided the first test of police-community relations since a groundbreaking settlement last week.

        Roger Webster, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, demanded an apology Tuesday from protesters who “disrespected” the memorial to 114 Cincinnati and Hamilton County police officers shot, stabbed or otherwise killed on duty.

        The police memorial, which sits across from police headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive, is owned by the police union.

        Mr. Webster also pledged that the incident would be the first official complaint to the yet-to-be-appointed federal monitor who will oversee police-community relations. The federal monitor is part of the “collaborative” settlement to be signed by the city, the police union and civil rights groups by Friday.

        “I want to see how good this agreement really is,” Mr. Webster said.

        Some say protesters spit on the names of officers killed on duty, but high-ranking police officers who witnessed the protest said they didn't see it.

        At the least, officers said, the choice of the memorial site for a protest was akin to “dancing on the graves” of fallen officers.

        The controversy — sparked by a photo of protesters in The Cincinnati Enquirer on Monday and fueled by WLW-AM (700) talk show host Bill Cunningham on Tuesday — has escalated into a highly emotional and racially charged debate one year after the shooting of Timothy Thomas led to the city's worst rioting in decades.

        Seven members of City Council called for an investigation of the incident Tuesday — even if some of them hesitated to make too much of the issue.

        “I was there. There simply was nothing that could be construed as illegal activity,” said Councilman James R. Tarbell, a strong ally of the police union. “Inappropriate? Yes. But not illegal.”

        He added: “I think the more it's discussed, the more it's pursued, the worse it gets. The whole thing was over in a hurry and people dispersed, and that's how it should be left.”

        Activist William Kirkland, who held the parade permits for the Fountain Square-to-City Hall “March for Justice,” denied that anyone spit on the memorial, but was otherwise unrepentant in remarks to City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee Tuesday.

        “You're dancing on other people's graves by refusing to settle the lawsuits” of three African-American families whose sons were killed by police, he said.

        He also accused City Council of “pandering” to the police and issued this warning to council members:

        “We're going to have another April 9, because you all won't fill the leadership void.”

        Still, few were defending the protesters' actions.

        Even a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, a plaintiff in the case that led to the collaborative, said that spitting on a police memorial — if that's indeed what happened — is not constitutionally protected free speech.

        “If people who called themselves protesters were desecrating a memorial to police officers slain in the line of duty, in my opinion those people are no more protesters than those who throw rocks through windows,” said ACLU attorney Scott Greenwood.

        Police Chief Tom Streicher defended himself from criticism that he hadn't done enough to protect the police memorial.

        He said he told officers Sunday to facilitate protesters' rights to free speech and assembly, whether they liked it or not.

        “I'll never like what occurred across the street. But that's just too bad. There is nothing illegal that occurred. There is no damage over there. We can fix the mulch,” he said.

        Protesters were just waiting for officers to make a mistake, he said.

        “They wanted it bad this weekend,” the chief said. “And guess what? They didn't get it.”

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