A Community Unheard

By Sheila J. Adams


Urban League of Greater Cincinnati

Guest Columnist)

Timothy Thomas, 19 years old, did not deserve to die.

He did not deserve to be shot and killed by an officer of the Cincinnati police department who was seeking to arrest him for 14 outstanding warrants—12 of which stemmed from minor traffic violations, and two of which were for running from the police to escape arrest for those violations.

Timothy Thomas had been stopped by nine different Cincinnati police officers eleven times since March 2000 and was handed tickets for minor traffic offenses such as driving without a license. The citations don't say what first caused the police officers to stop him.

Stephen Roach, the police officer who shot Timothy Thomas as he ran earlier this month, said that he shot Timothy Thomas because the youth appeared to be reaching for a gun in his waistband.

No gun was found on or around Timothy Thomas's body—and many in the black community find it impossible to believe the officer's story.

They find it impossible to believe because Timothy Thomas had no history of violent behavior and, except for one instance of receiving stolen property as a juvenile, no history of criminal behavior.

They find it impossible to believe because black Cincinnatians believe there's been a long history of police racial profiling of black citizens here, and that years of concerted efforts to make the police accountable for their actions and more respectful of the rights of black citizens—those suspected of wrongdoing as well as the law-abiding—have brought very little improvement.

They find it impossible to believe because Timothy Thomas is the fifteenth black male to be killed by Cincinnati police officers—and the fourth since last November. Some of the officers involved in these incidents are African-American also.

Yes, the police actions appear to have been justified in eight of those incidents, when lives did appear to be in danger.

But in several other cases, including Timothy Thomas' death, the police conduct has left black Cincinnatians feeling that too many police officers consider the lives of black males expendable. And that justice has been ill served.

These, and longstanding complaints of widespread police targeting blacks for stops because of their skin color, are some of the reasons behind the lawsuit a coalition of black civic organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union filed in March charging the police department with a variety of discriminatory practices. The department is also being investigated by the Justice Department.

That something's seriously wrong with the attitude and behavior of some police officers toward Cincinnati's black citizens was shockingly evident April 14, the day of Timothy Thomas's funeral. That day, a block from the church where the funeral was held, six city police officers and one Ohio state trooper without provocation fired "riot-control" beanbags into a crowd of completely peaceful demonstrators, then jumped in their cars and sped away.

Only quick-thinking action by community leaders and Police Chief Tom Streicher, who walked among the demonstrators at the scene, averted a likely explosion.

An investigation of Timothy Thomas's death is underway, of course.

But the question looms: Will justice be done?

No one can condone the aimless violence and the destruction of property that has rocked Cincinnati. But it is crucial to remember what Black Cincinnati has been living with.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once characterized the riots in black communities during the late 1960s as the cry of the unheard.

Black Cincinnati—struggling with an unofficial unemployment among its young of 40 percent; feeling left out of the economic boom of downtown and riverfront development—has felt "unheard" on this and other issues for a long time.

This is not to say that progress has not been achieved here in recent decades, and that individuals and groups across the racial and ethnic spectrum of the city are not committed to working together for change.

Mayor Charlie Luken's appointment of a diverse commission of civic and business leaders to produce a blueprint for reducing persisting discrimination and opening avenues of economic opportunity to all of Cincinnati's black citizens is a necessary, welcome first step.

Here are some goals for the commission to consider: Implement zero-tolerance policies within the police department for misconduct of any form—and enforce them firmly. Expand economic opportunities for individuals and businesses both within the minority community and in the larger community. Improve the quality of the public schools; and reduce the residential segregation that so sharply separates blacks from whites.

Finally, our media must find legitimate ways to not only present a more balanced picture of black Cincinnatians, but also more of the positive interactions between black and white citizens of Cincinnati that occur every day.

Mayor Luken's pledge that "Unlike some past commissions, [the new group] will be empowered to oversee implementation of their plans" should be the signal that that's where the opportunity now lies—both for Cincinnati's black citizens and the community as a whole.

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