2001 Cincinnati Riots
|The neutrality of this article is disputed. (July 2013)|
The Cincinnati riots of 2001 were the largest urban disorders in the United States since the Los Angeles riots of 1992. The four days of rioting were a reaction to the fatal shooting in Cincinnati, Ohio of Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old black male, by Steven Roach, a white police officer, during an on-foot pursuit by several officers.
- 1 Background of tensions
- 2 The beginning
- 3 The short term aftermath
- 4 Officer Stephen Roach
- 5 Wrongful death suit
- 6 Possible legacy of violence
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Background of tensions
In Cincinnati between February 1995 and April 2001, fifteen black males under the age of 40 were killed by police or died in custody. Of the fifteen, three (including Thomas) did not possess or employ any weapons against police during the confrontations. During these confrontations four police officers were killed or wounded. No police were ever found guilty through any civil or criminal trials as a result of these incidents, and in only one case were the police officers involved reprimanded and given extra training (officers Michael Miller III and Brent McCurley, in the case of the death of Michael Carpenter). Michael Carpenter had attempted to drive away while a police officer reached into his car to take his car keys during an arrest.
Those deaths, although often cited as the most dramatic aspect of the situation, were not the only factor. A local independent magazine, City Beat, published research that an "analysis of 141,000 traffic citations written by Cincinnati Police in a 22-month period found black drivers twice as likely as whites to be cited for driving without a license, twice as likely to be cited for not wearing a seat belt and four times as likely to be cited for driving without proof of insurance."  The NAACP argued that such statistics were the result of police targeting "driving while black," rather than differences in offending between-groups.
Owensby, Irons & Tyehimba
A black businessman, Bomani Tyehimba, filed a lawsuit in 1999 against the city of Cincinnati. He claimed that police illegally ordered him out of his car, handcuffed him and held a gun to his head during a routine traffic stop. Unlike previous cases, there was a shift to introduce a policy and procedure change in CPD behavior.
The case was escalated in relevance when two further incidents occurred. Roger Owensby, Jr died November 7, 2000, while struggling with police. The Hamilton County Coroner's Office found that he died due to manual asphyxiation from a chokehold either while the chokehold was being applied or afterwards from his injuries and the way he was positioned in the back of the cruiser. Early in the morning hours, after Owensby's death, Jeffery Irons, another black male, was killed after taking a sergeant's gun and shooting another officer.
Roger Owensby Jr Criminal Trial
Charges of manslaughter and misdemeanor assault were filed against Officers Jorg and Caton January 3, 2001, for Owensby's death. One of the main points of contention was which officer, Jorg or Caton, may have caused his death through an improper or aggressive headlock. Both had individual trials, often sharing the same evidence and witnesses, but neither officer was found to have caused the death although the justice system did decide that Owensby had died as a result of improper police procedures. Caton was found not guilty and Jorg's case ended in a mistrial with the jury deadlocked 10-2 for acquittal. The investigation and trial had some questionable details:
- After the trial, Jorg abruptly quit CPD on the day the internal investigation was going to question him (making questioning him impossible) and joined the Pierce Township Police Department.
- Officer Victor Spellen, a key witness in both Jorg's and Caton's individual trials, told the grand jury presiding over Caton's trial that Jorg used a tight head wrap on Owensby, but testified while a witness at Jorg's trial that it was loose. Testimonies from the individual trials were not shared. He was later fired from CPD for false testimony, but no charges were made against him for perjury.
- Certain civilian witnesses allowed to testify in one trial in defense were discredited and not allowed to testify in the other. There were more than a dozen civilian witnesses to the incident but Mike Allen, the Hamilton County prosecutor, dismissed most of them except the testimony of one 19-year-old.
- The charges for which Owensby was being arrested had changed from the initial report to his parents until the final report by the police altering from drug possession allegations, previous warrants for assault on officers, being uncooperative at the scene previous to the struggle and even mistaken identity.
- Prosecutor Allen chose not to re-try despite the introduction of Spellen's conflicting testimony and eyewitness testimonies that led to the deadlocked jury
- After the trial, during internal investigations, all the police at the scene were disciplined and several were dismissed from the force for their misbehavior. Even though the police force found them to be reckless, negligent or not looking after the well-being of Owensby, there were no criminal charges sought because the internal investigation's results came out after the criminal trial
A group combined individual civil claims against Cincinnati, the police force, and individual police as private citizens, into the Federal lawsuit brought by Tyehimba, filed March 14, 2001, on behalf of the black men and their surviving family that had died since 1995. They alleged racial profiling, but made sure to emphasize a demand for behavioral change by the CPD beyond or instead of punitive damages and restitution.
A civil lawsuit filed by the Owensby family against the city of Cincinnati resulted in a $6.5 million settlement being awarded to the family.
Officer Roach shoots Timothy Thomas
While the city was embroiled in emotional discussions about racial tensions and police conduct regarding those incidents, Timothy Thomas ran from police down a dark alley, and was killed at 2:20 a.m. on April 7, 2001.
Thomas had been pulled over by police 11 times from February 1999 to May 2000, and then was charged later in July and August with obstructing official business after running from police on-sight. All 11 times Thomas was charged with driving without a license, and usually had accompanying tickets such as illegal window tinting, not wearing a seat belt, loud sound (music) or in one occasion driving with a child not in a safety restraint (car seat). While Thomas had both appeared in court and spent time in the Hamilton County jail for these violations they were not all cleared up, which Thomas believed they were at one point, and he was pursued because he had an outstanding 14 arrest warrants and court capiases demanding his arrest.
Thomas initially was approached by two off-duty policemen who were familiar to him in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The chase was joined by several police who were in the area when Officer Roach joined in the pursuit.
According to Roach's statements, Thomas unexpectedly came around a corner; according to Roach's court testimony, he reacted with deadly force as he thought Thomas was reaching for a weapon. He explained his reaction as follows:
- He was made aware that Thomas had 14 open warrants; however, police cruiser technology did not reveal the nature of outstanding warrants, so he was unaware that most of them were traffic violations and two were based on obstruction.
- He gave the verbal command to stop, but Thomas did not comply before making the gesture of lowering his arms.
- Thomas was probably reaching to pull up his pants, which were quite large and sagged below his waist (as was the current style of many young men at the time), so when he lowered his arms without instruction, the intent was unclear in that moment of heightened tension.
- It was a dark alley and visibility was limited.
However, other portions of his story revealed his failure to follow proper police procedures (see Officer Stephen Roach below) including not giving proper time for Thomas to respond to verbal commands, running with a firearm with his finger on the trigger, and a conflicting initial report to the next officers to arrive on the scene as well as to detectives investigating the incident later.
On April 9, 2001, the first Monday after Thomas was shot and killed, between 150 and 200 black Cincinnati residents, including Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure, entered the City Council chambers, where the City Council was holding a law and public safety committee meeting. The group interrupted the council meeting demanding details of the incident and immediate accountability for the death of an unarmed youth. They were disruptive as some in the loosely organized group insulted and shouted down council members as they attempted to proceed with the daily procedures before council. The explanation that the Cincinnati Police Department (CPD) had not gathered the details and were not ready to make an official report on the incident was unsatisfactory to the crowd which responded with continuous disruptions. In the crowd, there were signs with sentiments such as "Stop Killing Us or Else" and "Wear Seat Belt or Be Executed" (an allusion to some of the charges Thomas was being chased for). At one point, the Reverend Damon Lynch, a local pastor, said over a microphone, "Nobody leaves these chambers until we get the answer. Members of the Black United Front are standing at the doors, because nobody leaves until we get an answer."  When the crowd left the interior of the building, some people vandalized the interior and exterior of City Hall.
A law committee meeting was held to discuss the shooting incident. Thousands of protesters marched to CPD District 1 headquarters, whose jurisdiction includes the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where Thomas was shot and most of the rioting took place. At the headquarters, protesters locked arms and shouted at the police demanding the release of the information and immediate accountability. To further demonstrate their frustration, protesters lowered the U.S. flag which was flying outside police headquarters and raised it upside down.
At approximately midnight, after warning the crowd several times to disperse, police turned off the street lights and began firing on the protesters with bean bags and tear gas. A smaller protest the next day at the corner of Vine and 13th Streets also was dispersed with bean-bag projectiles, tear gas, and pepper spray. The next day the disturbance increased to the point where most consider the riot to have begun.
The riots began in earnest at nightfall. A group which was peacefully protesting in police presence near City Hall was dispersed and elements reformed on the residential outskirts of downtown. They moved into the business area of downtown Cincinnati and rioted.
There was violence against unarmed citizens who were in the area by the rioters. Businesses were looted, storefronts damaged, and small fires were set. The reaction from the police was to guide the nucleus of the crowd by forming human walls to prevent the crowd from spreading while not fully encircling it, allowing it to progress in the opening allowed. There were several injuries reported; none were serious and some gunshots were reported.
The news of the rioting spread quickly. Simultaneous riots broke out throughout Cincinnati suburbs of negligible damage. The streets were deserted in the early morning hours, and businesses that were not damaged returned to as normal operations as possible.
Throughout the next day, downtown suffered a considerable loss of productivity, worker attendance, and commerce. Many companies made sure their employees left the facilities before later hours to ensure they were safe from a possible resurgence of violence. During the work day, a small contingency of protesters gathered between the residential and business boundaries of downtown, shouting and disrupting traffic in a very confined area of approximately 2 blocks on one street but remained peaceful. There was a high concentration of police in that bordered area with pairs of police stationed throughout downtown on various street corners. Despite the police presence, when darkness hit, violence on the streets returned.
The violence on the second day was widespread. More incidents outside of the downtown area were reported. Even though there was the presence of some black community leaders, church congregation leaders, nonbusiness organization leaders, etc. before nightfall, they were unable to keep the crowd from becoming violent. Again the riots ended in the early morning hours and the next day undamaged and some damaged businesses reopened but with considerably less commerce and attendance.
The short term aftermath
On the third night of violence, looting, and vandalizing, Charlie Luken, the mayor of Cincinnati at the time, issued a city-wide curfew which happened to be accompanied by rain, and the riots stopped. The curfew was for all of Cincinnati, but was generally only enforced in the downtown area. There were no reports of rioting from the 13th or later. The immediate crisis had ended but the immediate damage was estimated at $3.6 million. Many business in the downtown area were damaged in the riots. Sixty-three rioters were indicted on felony charges. Although indicted, there were no convictions in that case.
Thomas' funeral incident
On April 14, Timothy Thomas' funeral took place. More than 2,000 mourners attended and, after the funeral, spontaneously peacefully marched in protest. A considerable police presence was there in expectation of having a large crowd to control. Ohio Governor Bob Taft was also in attendance, requiring an increased security presence. The impromptu march headed downtown and remained non-violent. The march was marked by an incident where local (Cincinnati) and State (Ohio) law enforcement personnel shot non-lethal projectiles into the crowd causing several injuries to children and adults.
- According to the accounts of the individuals who fired the non-lethal projectiles, they were responding to an unruly crowd report and were attempting to disperse them through using this deterrent. They state they gave several verbal commands for the large crowd to disperse before shooting into the crowd. The individuals involved were highly trained SWAT instructors; veterans of the police force.
- According to eyewitness and local journalist accounts, the police involved pulled up at the corner of Elm and Liberty streets, got out of their cars and with no preceding verbal commands, began to open fire indiscriminately into the crowd of peaceful marchers. The police then returned to their cars and sped off with no further attempts to corral or instruct the crowd they had just fired upon.
- According to FBI reports, based on interviews with witnesses, a group of protestors were clustering in the street and had unfurled a banner thus blocking traffic. There were also accounts of unknown individuals attempting to stir up other crowds to violence.
City Manager Valerie Lemmie noted the officers involved acted according to use-of-force policy while citing the language regarding options for use of force according to C.P.D. policies and procedures at the time absolving them of any disciplinary action. Those use-of-force policies would soon be under scrutiny by the Department of Justice.
Several interest groups that were involved in the trial about racial profiling centering around Owensby's death, organized a boycott against Cincinnati. They targeted all businesses within the downtown area of Cincinnati. Some well-known celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Wynton Marsalis, Smokey Robinson, Al Roker, Barbara Ehrenreich, and other organizations cancelled previously scheduled and recurring events, while others, including Alicia Keys and James Brown, disregarded the boycott. Some of the cancelling entertainers and conventions cited the racial tensions as dissuading them from scheduling proposed events so they could indirectly support the boycott. The boycott caused Cincinnati to lose more than $10 million in convention and entertainment revenue before the end of its first year.
The federal lawsuit initiated prior to Thomas' death became more urgent. Citizen interest groups (Cincinnati Black United Front, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and several other groups) represented the plaintiffs. The case was presided by United States Federal Judge Susan Dlott. To avoid proceeding to a point of finding the city guilty or innocent of the charges, which most likely would have resulted in simply a monetary punitive sentence if found guilty, the plaintiffs and the city's representatives agreed to create changes in police-community relations referred to as the Collaborative Agreement.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice was reviewing the policies and practices of the Cincinnati Police Division and developed a report on its findings. The report, suggesting many areas of improvement, was received by the city on August 13, 2002. All of the report's suggestions initially were included to be applied as part of the Collaborative Agreement.
Much of the Collaborative Agreement was based on suggestions formulated by a citizen and city discussion group managed by a third-party privately owned professional conflict-resolution group. Thousands of citizens, civil servants, and city officials were brought in over the span of weeks to propose changes to police, city, and citizen behaviors and procedures. This information then was redressed and compiled by the third-party group and presented to the actors in the Federal lawsuit. The citizen-focused group working on the Collaborative Agreement worked without knowledge of the Department of Justice report's finding.
As a reaction to the out-of-court resolution, the city agreed to the following initiatives:
- Police-community relations through the formation of a community focus group that recommended CPOP (Community-Police Oriented Policing)
- Revision of the police's use-of-force policies
- Creation of a citizen-complaint panel independent of the police
These efforts were delayed and diffused through conflicts between elected city officials and representatives of citizen interest groups. Wranglings involved the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), headed by Keith Fangman, and the police chief, Tom Striecher, refusing to commit to smaller components of the agreement.
The city's mayor, Charlie Luken, initially refused to use city funds to pay for the legal fees of the lawyer representing some of the citizen interest groups involved.
There were some seriously contentious recommendations; among those were:
- Require officers to provide a written explanation of every use of force
- Allow citizens to submit complaints without visiting a police station and allow them to take a support person to complaint-resolution meetings
- Notify the police communications section about ongoing special operations
- Allow recruits to anonymously evaluate their field training officers.
In the end, the agreement was signed by the police on the condition these parts were left out:
- A report must be filed every time the police remove their sidearm from their holster
- The involvement of a Federal judge to monitor and enforce the aspects of the agreement
- Switching the chemical irritant (i.e., pepper spray) and reducing its usage as a primary response to aggressive behavior
John Ashcroft, then U.S. Attorney General, signed the agreement, noting he considered it a unique initiative in the nation.
The deadline (as set by the judge to ensure the out-of-court resolution was expedited) for the agreement approached but due to these points of contention from the FOP and Chief of Police, it remained unsigned. The deadline was extended, at which point the plaintiffs allowed those points to remain out of the agreement in the interest of getting the Collaborative Agreement signed.
Officer Stephen Roach
The criminal trial of Officer Stephen Roach began September 17, 2001.
The criminal case procedures were handled by the city, as is usual (with it being Hamilton County v. Ofc. Roach).
During the indictment proceeding, led by prosecutor Mike Allen, the grand jury who determined the scope of the charges limited it to a maximum misdemeanor of negligent homicide and obstructing official business. This divided the citizenry as well as it disappointed many citizens while being heralded as protecting law enforcement by another section of local society.
Criminal trial details
For the actual trial, it was decided to waive the jury and have the trial decided by judges alone. At the end of the trial, Roach was acquitted of negligent homicide and obstruction of official business (stemming from allegations he gave conflicting accounts in official reports of the incident as well as different testimonies between indictment and trial). The announcement of this verdict sparked additional riots, but they were of negligible damage and brief. A request was made for an expungement, which was granted by Judge Winkler.
Police internal investigation results
After the criminal trial was finished, the police department continued its internal investigation into his behavior, procedure adherence and conflicting testimony. After facing the internal investigation's inquiries Ofc. Roach left the Cincinnati police department and began working for Evendale, a suburb just outside of Cincinnati. His transfer drew criticism from the same activist group, but he was allowed to work there.
The police internal investigation came to the conclusion that Roach was intentionally dishonest in his report, did not follow police procedures for handling a firearm in a pursuit, and did not give the suspect ample time to respond to his commands. The police chief, Striecher, suggested that Roach, if still with the CPD, would be disciplined for those actions but stopped short of saying Roach would have been fired for those violations. The report's review focused on:
- When Roach was approached by the 1st officer on the scene, he made the statement that the "gun just went off". No initial mentioning of Thomas possibly reaching for a weapon or visibility. In the official written report of the incident, he stated that he thought he saw Thomas reaching for a weapon and reacted with deadly force.
- While in pursuit of the suspect, Roach ran with weapon drawn while his finger was on the trigger. There was no report of the suspect being armed and it was specifically against police procedures to run with a finger on the trigger to avoid possible misfirings.
- A police cruiser was videotaping the intersection from a crossing street. The video did not capture the actual shooting incident, but did capture Roach chasing Thomas into the alley; the time between when Roach gave Thomas a verbal command to stop and when the shot can be heard was too short, according to police procedures.
The internal investigation report came out after the trial was finished and after Roach had left the CPD for the suburb of Evendale. Mike Allen, the prosecutor, refused to reopen the case citing this new information did not warrant it.
Angela Leisure took Ofc. Roach to trial along with the City of Cincinnati in a civil wrongful death lawsuit on May 9, 2001, but the civil trial did not begin in earnest until after the criminal trial and police inquiry.
Wrongful death suit
The case was originally filed a month after Timothy Thomas' death by his mother in 2001, Angela Leisure. The trial did not begin until January, 2003. This trial took place in a federal court, unlike the local court of the criminal case, presided by U.S. District Court Judge S. Arthur Spiegel.
While waiting for the trial to begin, a report came out that Alicia Reece, vice-mayor of Cincinnati, was party to an attempt to have Angela Leisure dismiss her high-profile lawyer in an embarrassing way and drop her case against the city, an accusation which Reece vehemently denied.
Leisure alleged that James Washington, an associate of Reece's father (Steve Reece) and owner of a local transportation service contacted her with a settlement offer only if she fired her primary lawyer, Ken Lawson. Washington then made the statement that he had spoken to officials which, in a later call, he identified the official as Alicia Reece. The following day, Washington is said to have contacted Reece to let her know he had contacted Leisure and, afterwards, Reece notified the City Manager, Valarie Lemmie. The lawsuit also suggested that Reece's father, Steve, was directing this effort, noting that Washington suggested this connection saying “Steve Reece is Alicia Reece."
Leisure later sued Reece, stating that the vice mayor and her father engaged in an “underhanded, manipulative and illegal scheme” to induce Mrs. Leisure to settle her lawsuit for “peanuts.” Alicia Reece, denied these allegations vehemently. Leisure later dropped the case.
Civil trial begins
She was suing the city for violations of Thomas' civil rights based on a pattern of violations of other young black males' violation of their rights. She was suing Roach as an officer and private citizen as well.
The city reached a settlement in this case by making a settlement with many of the other cases that were brought to bear against them for many of the previous deaths. A total of $4.5 million was distributed to 16 plaintiffs, but it did not settle the Owensby case. The settlement was designed to prevent the multiple trials from going to court incurring millions in court costs by the city (projected to surpass $10 million), allow the city to avoid admitting guilt, avoiding possibly tarnishing the city's image by a protracted trial, and prevent the individual policemen who were named as private citizens in the cases from possibly being tried.
Then city manager, Valerie Lemmie, stated the city only had $1.2 million left marked to pay court judgements at that time and would have to make cuts to city services to get the remaining $4.5 million.
Possible legacy of violence
Shortly after the riots, the police embarked on a "work slowdown", where they reduced their efforts in an attempt to demonstrate their frustration with the additional scrutiny and lack of support from other city entities. This meant they did not go out of their way for discretionary or self-related work, but they still did respond to emergencies. The FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) president, Keith Fangman, said: "If you want to make 20 traffic stops a shift and chase every dope dealer you see, you go right ahead", he wrote. "Just remember that if something goes wrong, or you make the slightest mistake in that split second, it could result in having your worst nightmare come true for you and your family, and City Hall will sell you out". As a consequence, violence rose. In the three months following the riots, there was a six-fold increase in shootings relative to the previous three months. All but one of the 77 victims of the 59 incidents were black.
- Waddington, David P. (2007) Policing Public Disorder: Theory and Practice, Willan Publishing. ISBN 1-84392-233-9
- Department of Justice report - Preliminary Technical Assistance Recommendations to Improve the Cincinnati Division of Police