TOPICS > Politics

Coping in Cincinnati

December 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESMAN: I’m still not convinced what he did wrong.

SCOTTY JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah, and that’s a fair. That’s a fair question. A lot of people have asked, what law was he breaking when the police arrived?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It has been two weeks, but the phone lines are still lighting up for Scotty Johnson’s radio show. The callers want to talk about the death of an African American man in a confrontation with Cincinnati police.

SCOTTY JOHNSON: Let’s talk about it. You’re tuned into 1230 WDBZ. We are the buzz.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Johnson isn’t just a talk-show host. He’s a cop, president of the city’s black police union, and a friend of Nathaniel “Skip” Jones, the man who died.

SCOTTY JOHNSON: Skip, as I know him from high school, was always a big fun- loving guy, always one of the guy in the stands during basketball and football games cheering the team on. He would always say, “Scotty, just be careful, man, because you know there’s a lot of bad, dangerous situations out there. And the irony of all that is, is the particular way in which Skip died.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jones died in a violent scuffle with police that was captured on videotape recorded from a police cruiser. The video was shown on news programs all over the country.

The coroner later ruled his death was a homicide, but he said being high on drugs and having coronary artery disease also contributed. Jones was the 17th African American to be killed in a confrontation with Cincinnati police since 1995.

Two and a half years ago, riots erupted after police shot and killed a 19-year-old unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas, while he was running from an officer. The policeman involved was tried on criminal charges and acquitted by a jury. He is no longer on the force.

Recently, the city settled a wrongful death suit with the victim’s family for millions of dollars. The police department was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, and ultimately, a settlement was reached in which the police agreed to be more vigilant in their training programs.

SPOKESPERSON: Given the timing of delivery…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A new city manager was also hired. Valerie Lemmie pledged to improve communications between the police department and Cincinnati’s African American community.

VALERIE LEMMIE, City Manager: We’re learning, we’re trying to get better, we’ve committed to engage the entire city administration. If there’s a community problem, no matter what it is, let’s sit down, talk collectively about it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Lemmie got the call about the Jones death at 6:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning, she knew she couldn’t afford to let rumors fester like they did two years ago. She ordered the tape and information be released immediately before she, Mayor Charlie Luken or the police chief had a chance to review it.

VALERIE LEMMIE: Timing is very important. If there’s a lag of days and weeks between when you get back to people from an incident occurring that’s just so serious as this one was, they don’t trust you. They have concerns about what’s going on and why did it take so long? And we knew that was a loser for us in the past. And what was really critical for us was to get the word out.

SPOKESMAN: We’re bringing it here to Cincinnati….

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Three days later, Lemmie also spearheaded a town hall meeting with the community, so people could ask questions and make comments to the police chief and other city officials directly.

MAN: When was the last time a white civilian got killed at the hands of a police officer?

MAN: Do you think the police is going to respect another black man in a poor neighborhood?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Reverend Michael Dantley hosted the community meeting at his church, and praised city officials for coming.

REV. MICHAEL DANTLEY: The community members that were in our congregation that Wednesday night were sincere. Their candor was poignant. I mean, they spoke from their hearts. And what I thought I saw were city officials who were finally listening. I don’t think they can afford not to listen.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The improved communication may partly explain why this time there were no riots in the streets or even massive protests.

SPOKESMAN: No justice…

GROUP: No peace.

SPOKESMAN: No racist…

GROUP: Police.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Only a small number of people walked from city hall to the police station to demand Chief Tom Streicher’s resignation. But that’s not to say African Americans aren’t angry.

They are especially outraged by the fact that so many white city officials seem to view the videotape differently than blacks do. Mayor Luken admits the video is ugly, but he says much of it shows police doing their job correctly.

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: You look at this and you think, “why does this have to go on?” But you can see, Mr. Jones, for his part is not… is not complying with them. And if you look at the coroner’s report, you’ll also see that the officers hit… are hitting Mr. Jones in the places– the arms, the back, the legs and the buttocks– which is where they’re trained to hit him. They have a couple chances to hit him in the head.

They decline, which is good police procedure. I have not made complete conclusions about everything that went on here. But when I talk about the police acting consistent with their training, I’m talking about the loud, clear, direct commands…

POLICE OFFICER: Put your hands behind your back! Put your hands behind your back! Put your hands behind your back!

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: I’m talking about the fact that they were striking blows to places… if you look at the manuals, that’s where they tell them to strike the blows.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Police Chief Streicher says he’s thankful there was a videotape.

TOM STREICHER: Even though it’s violent, even though it’s ugly, I think it’s a way of short cutting any rumors that can come out of this. So it throws the truth out there about what occurred.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But leaders in the black community say even with the videotape there are still many questions. A surveillance video at the restaurant where the incident took place showed Jones cheerfully dancing.

At some point, restaurant employees called the police to report that Jones was engaged in disorderly conduct. The video shows police arriving, but then there is a 97-second gap. The next thing on the tape shows a belligerent Jones swinging at a police officer. Johnson wants to know what caused the change in his friend’s demeanor, and why is there that gap in the police tape?

SCOTTY JOHNSON: It’s troubling because we don’t know what transpired to move Skip from dancing to violently swinging at a Cincinnati police officer. A fair question is: Was Skip provoked into a violent confrontation?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chief Streicher has an explanation about the 97- second gap.

TOM STREICHER: Simply, the officer turns off his overhead lights that disengages the camera. Our officers have on them a remote-control switch on their gun belt, so that if they’re out of the car away from the vehicle and they’re having contact with a citizen, or any type of circumstances come up they feel would be a benefit to record these circumstances, hit the button, the camera comes back on as well as the audio portion, which is what happened here.

KENNETH LAWSON: They killed him, and then they say, “well, everything was done properly.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Attorney Ken Lawson represents Jones’ family. He says he will file a wrongful death suit against the police. He is especially critical of what he sees on the tape– a lack of response from the officers once they know Jones has stopped breathing.

KENNETH LAWSON: Once they have him down– and you can tell they’re on top of him, they have him cuffed, and they know he’s not breathing– why didn’t somebody help? They stand up like you see on a safari, the man who just captured the animal.

VALERIE LEMMIE: In round figures, we’re looking at a million dollars.

MAN: Okay.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: City officials do agree some changes need to take place. Earlier this week, Mayor Luken announced the city would buy a taser gun for every officer on the force.

( Gun shoots current)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As shown in this video, a taser gun shoots an electrical current which temporarily disables a suspect so police can handcuff them. Reverend Dantley says buying tasers at the cost of $1 million is fine. But he says more needs to be done to deliberately change the culture in the police department.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What would deliberate change look like with you?

REV. MICHAEL DANTLEY: For me, as an African American male, it would look like I would not have to fear being stopped by Cincinnati police officers. I’ve been stopped by Cincinnati police officers before, and I deliberately answered the questions in a manner to make sure that I would not irritate the officer.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mayor Luken defends the police department, but says they still have work to do.

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: We are in fact on the low end of use of force by our police department when you compare us nationally. We are on the low end of custody… in-custody deaths when you compare us nationally. We’ve gone through a bit of a culture change here in Cincinnati, and it’s only starting. It’s a long way from ending, because it takes decades. But people have started to look at things differently in Cincinnati.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At least five official investigations are being conducted into the Jones death, including a citizen review and another inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice.