- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

A white Cincinnati police officer was indicted yesterday by a county grand jury on a charge of negligent homicide in the shooting death last month of an unarmed black man that sparked three days of riots in which hundreds were arrested and dozens injured.

The indictment of Officer Stephen Roach, 27, in the death of Timothy Thomas, 19, on the misdemeanor charge came just hours after Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered a civil rights investigation of the Cincinnati Police Department over its use of lethal force.

In last month´s riots, punctuated by gangs of blacks attacking whites, more than 800 people were arrested, dozens were injured and more than 70 people eventually indicted. The melee was brought under control after Mayor Charlie Luken imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and flooded the city with uniformed officers.

Officer Roach, on the force since 1997, also was charged with obstruction of official business in connection with what Hamilton County Prosecutor Michael Allen said were conflicting statements he made to homicide investigators about the April 7 shooting.

Mr. Thomas was killed when he fled from police down a dark alley. He was wanted on 14 outstanding traffic warrants and had run from police on at least 11 other occasions.

"I know that emotions are running high over the tragic death of Timothy Thomas, but the case against Officer Roach cannot be decided based on emotion," Mr. Allen told reporters in announcing the two-count indictment. He said there had been a "thorough and fair" presentation of evidence to the grand jury, which handed up the indictment last week.

"The grand jury felt the acts of Officer Roach did not rise to the level of recklessness," he said, which would have resulted in a more serious charge.

No trial date has been set, and Officer Roach remains on paid leave. He is from nearby Oxford, Ohio, and his career path followed that of his father, Dennis, who has been an Oxford police officer for 20 years. If convicted, he faces a sentence ranging from probation to nine months in county jail.

The officer´s lawyer, Merlyn Shiverdecker, told reporters that "It´s my expectation that the case will proceed to trial," and that his client would plead not guilty.

City and county police in Cincinnati had been put on alert yesterday in anticipation of reaction to the grand jury announcement. Both civic and religious leaders had urged calm no matter the decision.

Black protesters stood outside the Hamilton County Courthouse yesterday to await the decision. A number of area churches opened from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., inviting residents to congregate rather than walk around on the streets.

After a meeting at New Prospect Baptist Church, where Mr. Thomas had been eulogized, about 150 people marched on police headquarters chanting "No justice, no peace." Officers on horseback and in riot gear watched in a steady rain until the protest dispersed after an hour.

Mr. Thomas´ mother, Angela Leisure, called the indictment a "slap on the wrist." She told reporters the charges were "not severe enough" and that her feelings were "borderline rage."

"I can´t sit here and say my whole heart is for peace right now. That´s not how I feel," she said.

As night fell, there were scattered reports of broken windows around downtown Cincinnati.

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attacked the indictment as a "travesty of justice."

"We are extremely disappointed about the decision of this grand jury and its finding," he said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it underscores a flagrant disregard for life too often displayed by some police officers in the name of justice."

Mr. Thomas was the 15th black crime suspect killed since 1995 by Cincinnati police. Ten of the 15 had been armed. He was killed by a single shot.

During the disturbances, black mobs were filmed beating whites. Those attackers pulled Louisville truck driver Robert Stearns from his vehicle and beat him as a television news crew put the episode on videotape.

But Justice Department investigators in Cincinnati chose instead to pursue charges against several members of the city´s elite police tactical team, following reports that six officers fired pellet-filled bean bags at a woman during a fracas that coincided with the funeral of Mr. Thomas. That investigation is continuing. Five of the officers are back on duty.

Mr. Ashcroft said Justice will conduct "a thorough and independent review of Cincinnati´s Police Department´s policies and practices" and would help the city "solve its problems and rebuild trust among the citizens of Cincinnati."

"Trust is necessary for any police department to effectively protect citizens," he said in a statement. "The Department of Justice will enforce the law to protect Americans´ civil rights and also will work cooperatively with the city to institute policing reforms as quickly as possible."

Cincinnati police Lt. Ray Ruberg said the investigation was a surprise to the department.

"It´s something we don´t feel a need for," Lt. Ruberg said. The department, he said, has been accredited several times over the years by an independent private firm employed by the state. He said the department received a passing grade within the past 12 months.

"Of course, any investigation that is being done will have our cooperation," Lt. Ruberg said.

Mr. Mfume applauded Mr. Ashcroft for beginning the investigation the NAACP demanded last month.

"The problems are systemic and span the last two decades," said Mr. Mfume, who visited Cincinnati as the riots raged.

Last week, Mr. Ashcroft — in response to complaints by community leaders and law enforcement authorities that black-on-white crime was largely being ignored by federal prosecutors — told The Washington Times that Justice Department prosecutors had no order to specifically target blacks or whites in the Thomas probe.

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

Mr. Ashcroft sent lawyers from the Justice Department´s civil rights division April 13 to meet with the mayor and city officials to conduct what he described as a review of the practices, procedures and training of the Cincinnati Police Department.

In his statement yesterday, he said that he decided to begin the formal investigation "after a careful review" and that the Justice Department also would provide the city and Cincinnati police with expert technical assistance "on how best to reform their policing policies."


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