Current violence a long time coming; 15 blacks, 0 whites killed by cops in five years
CINCINNATI – The racial tension that erupted in violence in the streets of Cincinnati this week has been building for years.
Blacks have long complained that they are harassed by police and that their neighborhoods are neglected economically. They note that 15 blacks — and no whites — have died in confrontations with Cincinnati police since 1995. Four of those deaths have come since November.
“All this has been festering for some time,” city historian Herbert Shapiro said Friday after three days of riots followed the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.
The city along the Ohio River has grabbed ugly headlines before — for the racial slurs of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, for example, or the trampling deaths of 11 people at a concert by The Who in 1979.
But Cincinnati is in the spotlight this week because of violence that has injured dozens, caused thousands of dollars in damage and led to more than 150 arrests.
Behind the riots is a discord between police and blacks that dates to the Civil War, when Cincinnati became a hotbed for runaway slaves. Blacks now make up 43 percent of the population but only 28 percent of the city’s 1,000-member police force.
Black residents are congregated in rundown areas like Over-the-Rhine, where the riots broke out among pawn shops and mom-and-pop markets that line the cramped streets.
Whites live in quaint historic districts or, more often, in distant suburbs outside the city of 331,000.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cincinnati Black United Front sued Cincinnati, accusing the police department of failing to end 30 years of police harassment of blacks.
“Outside of Oakland (Calif.), I don’t believe there is a city that has this many people dead at the hands of police,” Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Thursday while touring the streets of Over-the-Rhine.
City officials insist no bad practices or wrongheaded policies are involved.
“The fact is, Cincinnati police do not use force as often as other police departments, and do not shoot as often,” Mayor Charles Luken said.
City officials claim they have made strides in race relations. They created a citizen police review board and last month adopted a requirement that officers record the race of every driver during traffic stops as a hedge against racial profiling.
But members of the seven-member citizen board complain that the police do not communicate with them and that they lack authority to properly investigate complaints.
The National Coalition for Police Accountability, a Chicago-based watchdog group, has fielded no more than a dozen complaints about Cincinnati police over the past decade.
“But that doesn’t mean misconduct isn’t occurring, just that we’re not hearing about it,” said Mary Powers, the group’s national coordinator.
Those who study police practices give Cincinnati good ratings, and some observers say similar violence could break out in any big city because it is deeply rooted in national racial and economic problems.
“There’s no insurance against this happening in any city in the United States because there are so many issues that come into play,” said Sylvester Daughtry Jr., executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
Cincinnati fulfilled the commission’s standards for accreditation, which few big-city police departments do. Appropriate use of force is one of the tests.
But flashpoints persist in neighborhoods like the one where white officer Stephen Roach chased and shot 19-year-old Timothy Thomas on April 7.
“One spark, and everything is lost,” said James Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia and a former New York City police officer.
Mob violence after Thomas’ death prompted Luken to impose the city’s first curfew since riots broke out in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The slaying has also focused attention on the other deaths.
Of the 15 blacks to die in confrontations with police in the past six years, 13 were armed. In most incidents, the men first shot at or threatened police officers.
Still, two of five officers involved in a November arrest were indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault after Roger Owensby Jr. died of asphyxiation while in police custody.
The Justice Department is looking into Owensby’s death. It is also investigating allegations of patterns of police misconduct in at least 15 police departments, but Cincinnati is not one of them.