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ACLU: Cincinnati Police Have 'Harassed Blacks for 30 Years'
Published on Saturday, April 14, 2001 in the Independent / UK
ACLU: Cincinnati Police Have 'Harassed Blacks for 30 Years'
The ordinary black teenager whose shooting sparked an extraordinary outburst of anger will be buried today
by Andrew Buncombe in Washington
 
Timothy Thomas was never on the fast-track. Afflicted by a learning difficulty, he had dropped out of high school and got mixed up in petty crime.

It was nothing serious, certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a black teenager living in a poor, inner-city community. And besides, Timothy was turning things around. He had secured a job as a labourer and he dreamed of setting up a business with his younger brother, Terry. In June he was due to marry the mother of his three-month-old son.

But today Timothy will be buried by his friends and family in Cincinnati after he was shot dead last Saturday by a white policeman. His death sparked the riots that have rocked the Ohio city this week ­ the worst for three decades ­ and led the mayor, Charles Luken, to declare state of emergency and impose an 8pm-6am curfew.

The black community in Cincinnati is incensed. The shooting of Timothy alone would be enough to explain its anger; he was unarmed. But the 19-year-old was the fifteenth black man to be killed by the police since 1995 and the fourth since last November.

"Cincinnati's a microcosm, the belly of the whale," said Kweisi Mfume, national president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who has visited the riot-torn city. "It's important for the nation to focus here on ground zero. If we can fix it here, we can fix it elsewhere. But if doesn't get fixed here, it turns into anarchy and all of us are left wondering 'Is justice blind?'."

Timothy was shot last weekend by Steven Roach, a 27-year-old police officer who has been with the city's force for the past four years. He had been trying to arrest Timothy for failing to answer 14 warrants for misdemeanour and traffic violations. The most serious charge was handling stolen goods. Timothy, meanwhile, was on his way to buy some cigarettes in the Over-the-Rhine district where he lived.

Timothy tried to evade the police, and officers chased him to an alleyway. Mr Roach said he thought Timothy was about to draw a weapon, and he shot him dead with a single shot. No weapon was found on Timothy, and even the mayor said this week that "the initial account doesn't back [Mr Roach] up". A makeshift memorial of flowers and candles now stands at the spot where Timothy was shot.

"My son was a good kid, a happy kid," insisted Timothy's mother, Angela Leisure. "He presented himself friendly, so he never met a stranger. He was not a violent person. He had two fist-fights in his entire life, and that was before he was 16." Mrs Leisure said the family had originally lived in Chicago but that they moved to Cincinnati in 1997. She said one of the reasons for the move was that she felt her son, at 6ft 2in and weighting 200lbs, would likely be a target of the racial profiling that is used by the Chicago police.

But once they arrived in Cincinnati ­ a much more modest city with a population of around 300,000, 43 per cent of which is black ­ her children began to be harassed by the Cincinnati force. They were often bothered while sitting outside the house listening to music, said Mrs Leisure. It was at this time that her son "made some bad decisions" about not showing up at court appearances.

Timothy's death has highlighted what many say has been a smouldering situation of racial unrest in the city, despite the establishment claiming it has achieved relative racial harmony. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city police force of 30 years of discrimination.

The suit alleges that police tactics violate the rights of the black community by the use of racial profiling and use of excessive force. It says the black community is more likely to be subjected to traffic stops and discretionary tickets.

The current riots are the worse since the summer of 1968, when the black community accused the police of unfairly using loitering laws to harass them. The Kerner Commission, which studied the situation, upheld that view.

Raymond Vasvari, the legal director of the ACLU in Ohio, said: "We have not a few isolated incidents. We have a pattern perceived by the Kerner Commission and perceived continuously to this day. It is difficult for this city to credibly deny that this problem exists."

The police announced yesterday that the curfew will remain in place. On Thursday night they made more than 130 arrests. They are also gearing up for Timothy's funeral today, which large numbers of people are expected to attend.

Terry Thomas, 16, can barely accept that his brother is dead. He said: "I almost expect to see my brother to come through the door and wonder what the shouting is about."

© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.

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