The alley in Over-the-Rhine where Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Police Officer Stephen Roach — the event that sparked the 2001 civil unrest. All Photos by Michael Mitchell
By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
Twenty years ago, the simmering concerns about the shooting of unarmed Black men by police and the treatment of African Americans by police in the poorer communities bordering downtown Cincinnati erupted in civil unrest that brought worldwide negative attention to the City. April 7 marked the 20th anniversary of the civil unrest, a crisis that led over the last two decades to evolving reforms in police-community relationships and racial relations.
Stories from files of The Cincinnati Herald and other sources report that on that tense early April period in 2001, after an unarmed Black man, Timothy Thomas, 19, was shot and killed by Cincinnati police Officer Stephen Roach in an alley in Over-the-Rhine, while running from Roach. Mr. Thomas was attempting to avoid arrest for several traffic violations. Mr. Thomas hit a dead end in an alley. Roach later said he thought Mr. Thomas was reaching for a gun in his baggy pants, and fearing for his life, shot him.
Mr. Thomas was the 15th African American killed by police since 1995, and Cincinnati’s African American residents had had enough. Another unarmed, young Black man, Roger Owensby Jr., had the previous November died while in police custody, setting the stage for what was to follow after Mr. Thomas was killed.
Then-Councilman John Cranley (now mayor) presided at the Monday, April 9, 2001, Law and Public Safety Committee meeting following the death of Timothy Thomas.
“Police were all over the Council Chambers, including Chief (Thomas) Streicher,’’ Cranley said in an interview on the fifth anniversary of the civil unrest. “Mr. Thomas’ mother, Angelia Leisure, was at the head table in the room waiting to vent about her son and find out what happened. The room was packed. Emotions were high.’’
The group interrupted the council meeting, demanding details of the incident and immediate accountability for the death of an unarmed youth. The explanation that the Cincinnati Police Department had not gathered the details and was not ready to make an official report on the incident was unsatisfactory to the crowd. The 200 people at City Hall meeting then marched several blocks to the Cincinnati Police Headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive to protest.
In March 2001 – following a breakdown in community-police relations and just a month before the civil unrest in the city – The American Civil Liberties Union, and Black United Front filed a lawsuit charging that African Americans in the city had been treated differently than other groups for more than 30 years. The “racial profiling” lawsuit also charged that a rash of deaths of African Americans and a disproportionate number of stops and searches of African Americans were part of a pattern of discrimination by the Cincinnati Police Department.
Thousands of protesters marched to CPD’s District 1 Headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive. There, 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 streetlights and began firing on the protesters with beanbags and tear gas. A smaller protest the next day at the corner of Vine and 13th Streets also was dispersed with beanbag projectiles, tear gas, and pepper spray. The next day the disturbance increased to the point where most consider the riot to have begun.
The inner city was soon out of control, as businesses were damaged, fires were set and motorists were pulled from cars by roving bands. The Over-the-Rhine, West End and Walnut Hills neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Cincinnati, as well as sections of the Downtown business district, took on the appearance of a war zone.
Police mounted on horses roved the streets and officers in riot gear chased angry protesters; three to four officers were stationed on every corner with riot guns at the ready as mobs roamed the streets and taunted police; street barricades were everywhere. There were countless arrests and incidents in which people were taken to area hospitals for treatment of injuries.
Mayor Charlie Luken went on local television stations on April 11 to declare a state of emergency and impose a curfew. Sheriff’s deputies and highway patrolmen were called in to assist Cincinnati police. Eventually, the rage began to simmer down as city officials began attempts to address the causes of the unrest.
But Cincinnati police stopped making arrests because of the criticism that they had been too aggressive, and crime increased in the core neighborhoods. Violent crimes considerably increased, with Blacks killing Blacks as drug dealers took over the inner city.
Police, city officials and community leaders continue today to deal with the high level of violence that increased following the unrest of 2001.
In the aftermath, Stephen Roach, the White police officer who shot and killed Timothy Thomas, was acquitted of any wrongdoing in his trial. Two months later, another White officer, Robert Blaine Jorg, was acquitted of the death of Roger Owensby Jr., who died of asphyxiation while in his custody in November 2000. Three days later, Officer Patrick Caton also was acquitted of an assault charge in Owensby’s death.
The city was on edge as these verdicts came in, but no disturbances of the peace occurred this time. However, the city’s African American population felt injustices had occurred, with the officers going free, while most of the Black people arrested during the civil unrest were convicted.
Then-Mayor Charlie Luken formed Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN), a committee of public officials and ministers — representatives of both races, to work on the city’s racial issues. The committee members included Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in the inner city, Federated Department Stores then-Executive Vice President Tom Cody, and president and CEO of Blue Chip Broadcasting, Ross Love, now deceased. However, because of his involvement in a boycott by African Americans of the Downtown business district that followed the unrest – which aimed at generating national attention to the city’s racial and economic issues – Luken forced Lynch off the committee.
The boycott kept national organizations and entertainers from coming to Cincinnati for conventions and appearances, but that eventually began to change, partially due to City Councilwoman Alicia Reece’s efforts nationally to convince event planners the city was safe once again. Since then, many of the largest conventions held in the city have been those held by African American organization, such as the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officials, Progressive Baptists, National Baptists, the National NAACP, Gospel Music Workshops of American, and others.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott got the parties to agree to a process to resolve their dispute, inviting the local Chapter of Fraternal Order of Police to participate. With the shooting death by police of Timothy Thomas in April 2001, the parties began negotiating The Collaborative Agreement. A final agreement finally was reached in 2002. The goals outlined in the agreement in December 2001, sought to improve police community relations.
Since then, the local police department has instituted a number of changes to patch up community relations, much of it based on a federally-mandated Collaborative Agreement, which was signed by city officials, Black United Front officials and other groups. The agreement required policies to reduce the use of force, and those policies are generally being followed and monitored. There has been more positive interaction among police and residents, not only on the streets, but in meetings to discuss ways to improve those relationships.
A Community Problem Oriented Policing effort was instituted in 2004, getting more police walking the beat and intermingling with residents in high crime areas. Mayor Mark Mallory, who was elected in 2005, and the City Council began working closely with the police department on a number of initiatives to involve everyone in the effort to reduce crime and repair police community relationships.
A Citizens’ Complaint Authority was established to hear grievances against police, and a Community Police Partnering Center was crated to work with the community on police issues.
The healing process since 2001 has been difficult and slow, but there has been progress. Police-community relationships have improved. People from diverse groups are talking to each other more often and discussing the city’s racial issues. And there is hope.
The progress in community policing that has been made over the past 20 years under the Collaborative Agreement has been a model for police departments throughout the county, with recent Police Chiefs James Craig, Jeffrey Blackwell, and current Chief Eliot Issac fully supporting the policies. Cranley said he is proud to have been a part of the effort to bring about the federally imposed Collaborative Agreement, which set guidelines to improve police community relations and the progress that has been made in racial reconciliation.
In recent years, Cranley called for a Refresh initiative, which has looked at the most positive policies and practices in the Collaborative Agreement, with a focus being placed on those community policing practices.
Next week: How far Cincinnati police/community relationships have come since the 2001 civil unrest.