- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

Three days of racially charged riots in Cincinnati earlier this month reached a new level of acrimony last week after black-on-white crimes were largely ignored by federal prosecutors.

Locals are asking why those assaults, many of which were captured on videotape, have gone unpunished.

"That´s exactly the question to ask, that is my concern," Cincinnati City Council member Phil Heimlich said. "What´s happened here is there has been a switching of victims. We have a situation where violent riots took place and many innocent people had their businesses looted and their property destroyed and a host of innocent people were brutally beaten apparently because of their race."

A Cincinnati law enforcement source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, added: "My understanding is that we may have a double standard of hate crime prosecution at the federal level."

Attorney General John Ashcroft told The Washington Times that Justice Department authorities have no order to specifically target blacks or whites in the investigation into the Timothy Thomas shooting and the ensuing riots.

"The people in Cincinnati have the right to have their civil rights respected. And we are working with the community to see that those rights are respected," Mr. Ashcroft said Friday. "This Justice Department is not color oriented. It cares about the rights of all citizens."

Riot-related arrests have so far resulted in 63 felony indictments. The disturbances were prompted by the April 7 police shooting of Mr. Thomas, an unarmed black teen-ager who was running from officers.

As a result, agitated black groups terrorized white motorists and pedestrians in a popular, largely commercial section north of downtown.

Anonymous current and former Justice Department lawyers ask whether Mr. Ashcroft who immediately ordered a civil rights investigation after the Thomas shooting does not wish to appear racist and thus has targeted the Cincinnati Police Department for white-on-black hate crimes. The attorney general instructed civil rights attorneys to focus on accusations that Cincinnati police officers used improper procedures or lacked training.

Thus, federal investigators and the FBI have moved quickly on a case involving Cincinnati police officers accused of shooting a Louisville woman with a pellet-filled bean bag during a protest following Mr. Thomas´ funeral.

One former Justice Department official said current policies may still reflect those of the Clinton administration, when civil rights prosecutors appeared more interested in political victories aimed at "pleasing Democrats and the media, than an even-handed approach to the law."

The direction of the federal team in Cincinnati, which includes two lawyers from the civil rights division, has confused Hamilton County prosecutor Michael Allen.

"We were absolutely not investigating that bean-bag shooting, and the speed with which the Justice Department moved into this investigation is unusual, at best," Mr. Allen said. "I have seen no credible evidence in this case."

The Cincinnati Police Department is likewise befuddled: "I don´t know why [the bean-bag case is being pursued]. You would have to ask the federal government," Lt. Raymond Ruberg said.

The Justice Department has refused to discuss its motives and its role in the Cincinnati aftermath. The violation of federal civil rights laws a felony brings much stiffer penalties than most local "hate crimes" statutes.

Cincinnati FBI spokesman Ed Boldt said that the role of the Justice Department was to "investigate civil rights violations, and we have the jurisdictional responsibility to do that."

But, he added, "If a person is dragged from their car and beaten because of skin color, it is a civil rights violation and also a state crime. We aren´t going to duplicate investigations."

But Mr. Ruberg noted that Cincinnati police investigators already working on the bean-bag shooting were told to step aside by the federal investigators.

Agencies frequently work in tandem on cases that blur state and federal law, such as bank robberies, to build a stronger case.

Robert Stearns, a 34-year-old delivery truck driver from Louisville, is still waiting to hear from federal investigators. He was attacked by a gang of black men on April 10 as he was making a delivery near downtown.

While inside a store, he heard the gears grinding on his truck, which was in the driveway. When he approached the truck, a black man was trying to drive it away. When Mr. Stearns told him to get out, the man threatened to kill him.

"Then a crowd gathered and I jumped in the truck with the guy and we started fighting," Mr. Stearns said last week. He was then pulled from the truck by one of the crowd.

"They were yelling 'kill the white man´ and 'kill whitey.´ The more they yelled, the more they beat me. Why they wanted to kill me, I don´t know. But my guess is that it was the color of my skin. I basically just fought my way out and got back into the store and we locked the doors. They tried to get in there, but couldn´t. I had bruises, chipped teeth and broken glasses. I really feel pretty lucky."

Stories of the attack were reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal on April 14 and The Washington Times on April 17. Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken described the turmoil there as rooted in "long-standing racial and economic problems."

His solution? "We must address the broader issues of racism and economic inclusion in our community," he said two weeks ago. But Cincinnati´s street wars strongly resemble those perpetrated in Seattle earlier this year during a Mardi Gras celebration, where local news outlets portrayed "roving bands of black young men" brutalizing whites on video and in photographs. Black leaders responded by saying the media were vilifying blacks.

But out of the 25 mostly felony arrests, only one was charged under the state´s hate crimes law, for "malicious harassment."

The King County prosecutor´s office, which serves Seattle, has convicted 75 such cases since 1995. Out of the 25 related to the February melee, it is considering one.

"Police sent us one such case," said Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for the prosecutor. His office reviewed the videotape and declined to add charges.

Seattle police said there was no federal inquiry into the rampant racial violence even though it was widely reported in local newspapers such as the Seattle Times. "They attacked us because we were white," it quoted one victim as saying.

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