Sunday, April 21, 2002

Police draw guns on blacks

When no shots are fired, no one keeps track of when or why Cincinnati police draw guns. The Enquirer looked at 39 cases that brought citizen complaints. Almost half the time, cases involved mistaken identity. All but one of these citizens were black.

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A 13-year-old boy racing home to try out some borrowed video games is forced to the ground by an armed, undercover police officer.

        A cab driver is stopped at gunpoint as he tries to get out of his car after he's pulled over for running a red light.

        An ATM mechanic is ordered at gunpoint away from the bank machine he's working on and told to drop to the ground.

        It's impossible to know how often police draw their guns. But in the past five years, Cincinnati police confirm pulling their weapons at least 39 times during traffic stops and drug sweeps, to interrogate people mistaken for criminals, to search private homes and detain people on the street.

        All but one case involved African-American citizens.

        A Cincinnati Enquirer analysis finds that police filed charges in less than a third of the cases, mostly writing traffic tickets and other misdemeanor citations. Officers were disciplined in five cases — three for inappropriate gun use and two for improperly detaining someone.

        As the city takes stock of a landmark agreement to improve police-community relations, questions of when and why police draw their weapons persist.

        Blacks say they are singled out by police who see the color of their skin and suspect a crime in progress. Police deny that, saying African-Americans commit most crime and are the people they have the most contact with.

        Police are required to report only cases in which they fire their guns; a proposal to require officers to report all unholsterings was dropped this month.

        The Enquirer found the 39 undisputed cases of weapons being drawn among nearly 1,000 citizen complaints filed with the Office of Municipal Investigation, the only independent agency charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct.

        The cases are by no means a full record of when officers draw their guns. But the cases do provide the best accounting yet in which citizens and police describe guns being drawn.

Finger on the trigger?

               Since 1997, citizens filed 72 complaints in which they said police drew weapons against them. Officers disputed 11 of those claims and OMI reports didn't contain enough information to determine if guns were used in 22 others.

        In the 39 undisputed cases, police were most likely to draw weapons to stop black males in their mid- to late-20s between 5 p.m. and midnight. Stops were most likely to occur in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

        Almost half the cases, 18, involved mistaken identity, in which officers believed they were approaching someone involved in a crime.

        The only case of a white complainant involved a drug search of her home. She was arrested on drug charges and although she complained about the search, she did not challenge it in court.

        While police supervisors ultimately disciplined five officers in these cases, OMI investigators recommended discipline or training in nine.

        “This is a serious issue,” says James Ginger, a Florida police consultant who is overseeing court-ordered changes in police departments in Pittsburgh and New Jersey. “If you are finding this happens in the black community, that is a serious finding.”

        What happened to Evanston resident Ricardo Lee is typical of the 39 cases.

        Mr. Lee, 31, an African-American, was working at the Dollar Value Store on Vine Street last June when an officer entered with his gun drawn. Mr. Lee says the officer had his finger on the trigger and ordered him to put his hands up, patted him down and asked for identification.

        Mr. Lee says the officer told him he fit the description of a man who had just robbed a Provident Bank: an African-American wearing a jean jacket and blue jeans. Mr. Lee says he was released after an undercover officer told other officers that Mr. Lee was too short.

        In his complaint, Mr. Lee says, “The officers thought the incident was funny and were laughing and grinning.”

        Sgt. Daniel Hill acknowledged that he drew his gun but says he did not have his finger on the trigger. He denied laughing at Mr. Lee and says he apologized for any embarrassment or inconvenience.

        The officer also says he explained to Mr. Lee that he thought he might be approaching a bank robber, which is why he drew his gun.

        Sgt. Hill's supervisor says he explained to Mr. Lee that officers approach armed suspects with weapons drawn for their own safety. Sgt. Hill followed procedure, the supervisor says.

        Cincinnati police policy allows officers to draw their weapons when they perceive the threat of loss of life or serious physical harm to themselves or others.

        Officers can display firearms with their fingers outside the trigger guard so their guns are ready for self-defense. Fingers are only to be placed on the trigger when an officer is ready to shoot.

        Generally, officers are issued a 9 mm Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol, model 5946. But the department's firearms policy is five pages long and allows officers to carry personally owned guns approved by the police chief.

When to draw

        The issue of when officers draw their guns has come under scrutiny since the police shooting death of an unarmed African-American last year in an Over-the-Rhine alley.

        The April 7 death of Timothy Thomas, 19, sparked protests and riots and led to a U.S. Department of Justice probe of the police department. An internal review found that Officer Stephen Roach was chasing Mr. Thomas with his gun drawn and finger on the trigger, a violation of policy.

        After five months of investigation, federal officers issued a report saying that Cincinnati police should be required to report every time they unholster their weapons.

        “We have talked to many civilians who believe that firearms were improperly pointed at themselves and their families,” federal investigators said in a 23-page report to the city last October.

        “We also learned from some officers that they are trained to brandish their firearms in a wide variety of circumstances. This information raises concerns that officers are unholstering and pointing their guns in circumstances where it is not appropriate.”

        Police balked at the recommendation to report all unholsterings, saying it would result in volumes of paperwork and cause hesitation at moments when lives are at risk.

        In the end, the recommendation was dropped from a police-community settlement that this month ended the Justice Department probe and a racial profiling lawsuit.

        In its place came an agreement to allow the Cincinnati Black United Front and American Civil Liberties Union, plaintiffs in the racial profiling lawsuit, to collect complaints about gun use.

        “Let them do that. It's fine with us,” police union President Roger Webster said this month. “Let them prove we aren't out there waving our guns at people for no reason. Because I don't think we are.”

Running on the street

        The family of Timothy Lowe, 13, thinks otherwise.

        In January 2001, an undercover officer drew his gun and stopped Timothy, an African-American who was running home to try out some video games he had borrowed from a friend.

        Officer Richard Kibbee says he was driving an unmarked car when he saw Timothy running down Warner Avenue with an electronic item in his hand. He says in OMI reports that he “withdrew his weapon because he thought he was stopping a crime in progress.”

        Timothy's mother, Tangala Watkins, says she “really believes that her son was stopped because he was a black man running down the street.”

        Ms. Watkins says video games were scattered in the street as the officer held Timothy at gunpoint, a charge Officer Kibbee disputes.

        Ms. Watkins says she tried to intervene, and the officer threatened to arrest her. A neighbor tried to tell Officer Kibbee that Timothy lived in the neighborhood, but Ms. Watkins says the officer wouldn't listen.

        She says her son was handcuffed and put in the back of the police car. Officer Kibbee then called the family of Timothy's friend, verified his story and released him.

        OMI investigators say Officer Kibbee violated procedures by displaying his firearm.

        “OMI had no facts to suggest that Timothy Lowe had a weapon, nor was he trying to engage the officer in a physical altercation. In fact, Officer Kibbee said Timothy Lowe was 100 percent cooperative,” investigators wrote.

        “As a consequence, OMI does not find that Officer Kibbee perceived a threat of loss of life or serious physical harm.”

        Police records show that 10 months after the complaint was filed, a supervisor counseled Officer Kibbee and put a notation in his personnel file.

        “We discussed the investigative stop made in this instance. We also discussed the seriousness of drawing one's weapon,” Capt. Richard Schmalz wrote. “The officer must perceive a direct threat. He must be able to articulate this threat.”

Confrontation at an ATM

>         ATM mechanic Merle Houston says he didn't pose any threat, either, when an officer pointed her weapon at him while he worked inside a bank machine on Reading Road.

        Mr. Houston was on the phone with his supervisor when Officer Shauna Lambert arrived and ordered him out of the ATM at gunpoint. He says he “repeatedly asked her to just pick up the phone” and talk to his supervisor.

        Officer Lambert, who was responding to a silent alarm at the bank, acknowledged that she ordered him to “put the phone down and come out.” Then she told him “to get the f--- on the ground.”

        Mr. Houston's supervisor, Mary Elliot of ATM Solutions, says she heard Mr. Houston say several times that he was an ATM mechanic.

        Ms. Elliott says she could hear screaming through the phone and the female officer say, “I don't care, get out of the machine.”

        Although Mr. Houston contends he was wearing a company hat, jacket and shirt, Officer Lambert says there was nothing to identify him. “He looked like any kid on the street,” another officer on the scene says in OMI reports.

        Mr. Houston was in handcuffs when officers received a radio call confirming that he was an ATM Solutions employee.

        OMI investigators found that the officer acted properly. They say that if Mr. Houston had followed her instructions, the situation would not have escalated.

        “His request that she talk on the phone would have placed Officer Lambert in danger, since she would have had to approach Mr. Houston before she knew who he was,” investigators say.

Stay in the car

        Six cases involved officers drawing their guns at African-Americans during traffic stops.

        David Tisdale, a 58-year-old cab driver, was pulled over for running a red light at Harrison and Queen City avenues in 1998. He says he got out of his car so his customers wouldn't see him getting a ticket. But the moment he opened his door, he says, the officer drew her weapon and started yelling.

        “I am out there trying to make a living and that officer was threatening me like I am one of those hoodlums out there robbing banks,” he says. “Police officers can do anything they want to do, and there is nothing I can do about it.”

        Officer Barbara Winstead told OMI investigators that she feared for her safety because Mr. Tisdale wouldn't obey her commands to stop walking toward her. She says he “stopped in his tracks” once she drew her weapon.

        Mr. Tisdale was handcuffed and put in the back of the police car while the officer wrote a traffic ticket that was later dismissed in court.

        OMI investigators did not recommend discipline in the case, but they noted that this “is one of several complaints that OMI has received involving officers drawing their weapons at traffic stops.”

        About a year later, then-OMI director Ernest McAdams sent a letter to another woman who complained that officers threatened her after she stepped out of her vehicle on a minor traffic stop.

        “For some reason, and I cannot explain it, officers become panicky when citizens get out of their cars,” Mr. McAdams wrote. “There is no rule that says you cannot get out of your car; however, it is safer for everyone if you don't.”

"Think about every stop'

        Many African-Americans say the 39 cases prove that Cincinnati police unfairly discriminate against them.

        “It's not just traffic stops,” says lawyer Ken Lawson, who represented African-American residents in the racial profiling suit.

        “It is the disparate treatment that African-Americans receive in the city of Cincinnati by police after they are stopped.”

        Mr. Lawson says the definition of racial profiling, historically used to describe the targeting of black drivers, has evolved. It's now used to describe discriminatory practices involving weapons, searches and general treatment.

        Cincinnati police deny they treat blacks any differently from whites. If officers unholster weapons more often against African-Americans, it's because blacks commit most crimes and black neighborhoods are the most dangerous, police say.

        “If I was a racist, would I go into a black neighborhood and arrest a black man who is selling drugs to other black men?” Police Lt. Donald Luck, a District 2 supervisor, says.

        “We're not doing it because we are anti-black. We're doing it because residents want us there.”

        Seventeen citizen complaints have been filed against Lt. Luck in the past five years. Most of the complaints came while he was running an undercover unit in District 5, which includes predominantly black neighborhoods such as Winton Hills.

        Lt. Luck was named in three of the gun cases. Two, involving searches of residences, resulted in criminal convictions of suspects.

        Criminal charges from the third case, involving a stop at a housing project, were dismissed. OMI investigators said Lt. Luck improperly detained a suspect.

        Officer Jeffrey Shari says the place and time determines how officers respond to something as simple as a traffic stop.

        “We have to think about every stop, every person we stop, as if we could get killed,” he says. He adds that officers have to think about where their closest backup might be and what is going on all around them.

        But three years after his stop, Mr. Tisdale is still angry that he was treated like a criminal while doing his job, driving his cab. He vows never to let anything like that happen again.

        “If I am riding down the street and a cop pulls a weapon on me for no reason and tells me to hit the ground, I'm not going to do it,” he says.

        “I am an old man. I've lived my life. They can shoot me. I am not going to lay on the ground for those people.”

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