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Cincinnati: One Year Later

April 12, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Cincinnati, one year later. Attorney General Ashcroft today signed an agreement to improve policing in Cincinnati. The city was torn apart by race riots last April. Betty Ann Bowser reports on what has happened since.

DEMONSTRATORS: I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: People took to the streets in Cincinnati to mark the first anniversary of the police shooting of an unarmed black man. But this year they were singing instead of shouting. (Singing gospel) The city’s police department was practically invisible. There was no violence, and there were no arrests.

DEMONSTRATORS: Put the gun down! Put the gun down!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This was in sharp contrast to one year ago, when the city exploded into three days of riots. (Gunfire) It started after a white policeman shot and killed 19- year-old Timothy Thomas. People were angry because Thomas was not the first black man killed by the cops, but the 15th since 1995– a period in which no white suspects died at the hands of the police. (Sirens) One hundred and twenty-five state troopers were called in; a state of emergency and dusk-to-dawn curfew were declared.

When things finally did calm down, Cincinnati’s poor neighborhoods were devastated. More buildings were boarded up, more businessmen moved out, the riots had cost millions. The trauma of those days in April were a call to action for leaders in both the black and white communities. So the mayor says they started with something they had never done before, something very basic.

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN, Cincinnati: One of the things that I think Cincinnati has done for the last year is engaged in an unprecedented, community-wide dialogue. Thousands of people, churches, community groups, police, talking to one another. And my real hope is that that is going to lead to an understanding and more trust in our community. But it’s… we’re just a work in progress.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So you would say there’s a lot more work to be done?

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: Absolutely. I think we might be at the foot of the hill, but it took us a long time to get there. Now we have to climb it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While people were talking, there was still more controversy. The violence triggered two investigations of police behavior by the U.S. Justice Department. And black leaders pressed forward with a lawsuit — filed before the riots — that charged the police with racial profiling. Of all the issues that confronted Cincinnati, this was the most contentious, because police refused to admit they had ever engaged in racial profiling in any way. Nevertheless, after marathon negotiating sessions, this week the lawsuit was settled, avoiding a long, expensive court battle.

SPOKESMAN: There are thousands of people of good will in our community who are working hard to make Cincinnati a better place. (Singing gospel)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Reverend Damon Lynch is pastor of a church in the neighborhood where the riots took place, and a major party to the suit.

REV.DAMON LYNCH, New Prospect Baptist Church: We do think it’s a landmark agreement. We do think it will bring accountability to the city… to the police force in our city. It will put a citizens review panel overseeing how policing is done. The Justice Department has come in, and it will change how force is used in our city. The police division will be held accountable by the citizens, and the citizens will hold themselves accountable for how we treat police and how we act among ourselves.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For the settlement to work, all parties had to agree to it, including the Fraternal Order of Police. But its members felt if they signed off, they were admitting to racial profiling. After much debate and pressure from city hall, the FOP grudgingly approved it with this reservation.

ROGER WEBSTER, Fraternal Order of Police: Our membership at the FOP in no way, shape, or form, ever agrees or has agreed that we have committed racial profiling or that we racial profile. We don’t do it, we haven’t done it, we will never do it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another officer said even with a settlement, he doubts city hall will back police up when they are the ones who are harassed.

KEITH FANGMAN, Fraternal Order of Police: Now God knows, my fellow officers and I do not trust the city of Cincinnati to represent our best interest. And when police officers use reasonable, justified force because somebody is violently resisting arrest and that person who fights us gets hurt, then our critics need to come to our defense and support the officer. We’ve never had that in this community. Never. Hopefully with this agreement, we will have that.

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: I’m not crazy about what they said today. I don’t like hearing them go off on the city. I’m used to it, but I don’t like it. The good news is they’re in the process. We’re moving forward, and I think part of the problem in Cincinnati is that there is a lack of trust between the community, the police, city hall. That’s what all of this is designed to begin to address.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Officer Scotty Johnson, who heads the Black Sentinels police organization, says his department can restore trust by treating African Americans with more respect.

SCOTTY JOHNSON, Sentinel Police Association: The old timers and those young clowns that don’t want to see any change, have to say and the… get rid of the old mindset and say “look, there’s got to be a different way to do business. There’s got to be a different way that we work hand in hand in the community.” And I’ve got to be honest, those that don’t want to see change, it’s time, definitely, for them to go find a new job.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: City officials aren’t just concerned about police community relations. They also worry about a 39% increase in violent crime at a time when police have been making fewer arrests. Rev. Lynch says police are doing less to control crime in the city to get even for the racial profiling suit.

REV. DAMON LYNCH: And the problem that I see with that is it’s a matter of policing in extremes. Either you let us police the way we want to, which results in chokings and shootings and abuses, or we will just not police at all. And we cannot afford policing in extremes in our city. Police need to properly do their jobs and there has to be a working relationship between police and community that will abate the crime.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: FOP President Webster says there’s no official slowdown; cops are just being cautious.

ROGER WEBSTER: In the guys’ minds out there on the street, they’re not sure what they and cannot do. And I think they’re reserving themselves and not responding like they normally would have. I just think that they’re afraid of the public scrutiny, and they’re not sure, they’re not being given any direction on where to go and what they can and cannot do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The mayor thinks the police are doing the best they can.

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: And I think the police department is trying very hard to reduce crime in city neighborhoods, but– and I will never understand the relationship– but this has always been and remains one of the safest cities in America. But why after the riots did violent crime in our community went like this and continues there, I don’t know if there’s a relationship, but it has happened here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And you have confidence in the police department’s ability to control it?

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: Yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some of the shoppers who come to the Findlay Market every Saturday morning don’t share the mayor’s confidence. The market is a 150-year-old Cincinnati landmark located in the neighborhood that was devastated by the riots one year ago. Mike Ewing is a carpenter. He’s worried that police are so intimidated by charges of racial profiling, that they will let criminals go.

MIKE EWING: The violent portion and the drug dealers, you know, right now I think they have got a free pass because the cops are afraid to do too much of anything.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Are you worried that the police are going to be too timid now because of some of the rules that have been laid down in this agreement?

MIKE EWING: I think that the people that are supposedly being helped by all these changes are going to be hurt even more, because, yes, I think police are going to be more timid.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Vernon Kelley is father of five children. He’s lived in the neighborhood where the riots occurred most of his life, and he says a settlement to the lawsuit won’t change how the police do their jobs.

VERNON KELLEY: Some just are still going to have that brutal mentality. So when they first appear when they see a black male in a car, they harass you hard. Instead of “May I see your drivers license?”, It’s “don’t move, shut up” — this and that – this and that. So it’s not a “sir, I need to see your driver’s license,” because they don’t give you that type of opportunity, so they make the black male react.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only are there continuing problems between the police and the public, Cincinnati is still reeling from an economic boycott staged by the black community after the riots. Big name black entertainers and at least one convention have canceled appearances, costing the city more than $20 million in lost business. The mayor has been criticized for referring to the boycott as economic terrorism.

MAYOR CHARLIE LUKEN: I’ve also said that I regret that remark. I regret it to the extent that it implies that anything going on here is of the same scope of what’s going on in the country. The point I’m trying to make is that the boycott has innocent victims. The innocent victims are the cab drivers and the people who work in hotels and the valets and those folks — many of whom, if not most — are African American.

SPOKESMAN: The moment African Americans assert their human rights and their civil rights, then we are charged with, “you’re hurting the black shoeshine man.” There will be sacrifices and struggles we all have to take, because our goal is to save lives, our goal is to bring about systemic change. And we are more than willing to work with any business that may be hurting.

SPOKESMAN: We will not turn our backs on the parents who have lost their sons…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lynch and other leaders in the black community say they will continue the boycott until something is done to discipline those officers who have killed 15 African Americans in the last seven years. They also want the city to live up to its promise to pour more than $200 million into impoverished neighborhoods.

Just a few days before hundreds of demonstrators gathered downtown to mark the one-year anniversary, the mayor hired Cincinnati’s first black city manager, and a citizens group said a rescue plan for poor neighborhoods was coming soon. It may not be the justice these demonstrators talk about, but for many people in this Ohio River city, it represents a beginning.