Nights Of Rage

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Cincinnati, Ohio, police chief Thomas Streicher Jr. said he wanted his city to be a model of racial justice. Cincinnati could push beyond platitudes about racial profiling, he told the city council last month, and "get at what's in the officer's heart." Soon after, the council banned racial profiling, the practice of stopping suspects on the basis of race, and ordered officers to record the race of people they stop. But two weeks later, Cincinnati's streets were littered with the familiar iconography of failure: fiery Dumpsters, splintered storefronts and citizens sitting on the curb, weeping from tear gas. Police in riot gear ringed city hall, and Mayor Charlie Luken appeared on TV--shaken and anxious--to announce a strict curfew. While many American cities wrestle with the same slippery problems, Cincinnati had become a model of racial injustice.

Like all riots, the tumult that plagued Cincinnati for three days last week defies a single explanation. But the causes are scattered over the past weeks and years. In the city's short-term memory, there lies an unarmed 19-year-old African-American man named Timothy Thomas, killed by a white officer last Saturday. Thomas was wanted for 14 misdemeanor violations, most of them small-time traffic charges. His bigger mistake was to run from the police. Surrounded by 12 officers, Thomas was killed by one bullet. The officer who fired, Steven Roach, has said he thought Thomas had a gun.

Then there's the longer-term memory. Thomas joined a list of 15 men who died while being apprehended by Cincinnati police since 1995. That's more than four times the fatal-shooting rate of New York City's cops in the same time period. And all the suspects killed by Cincinnati police were black--in a city that's 57% white. Last month a coalition of civil-rights groups filed suit in federal court, accusing Cincinnati of a "30-year pattern of racial profiling" and excessive force. So the latest shooting--possibly the most egregious yet--put match to tinder. On Monday, Thomas' mother and 200 other protesters left a three-hour meeting at city hall infuriated by all the unanswered questions. The group began shouting at police. Soon, rocks and bottles were flying. At the center square, people hurled garbage cans into the Tyler Davidson Fountain, where locals have historically gathered to celebrate the end of wars.

By Tuesday afternoon, police were firing rubber bullets and tear gas. On Wednesday, a group of ministers linked arms and--for one glorious hour--physically separated more than 300 protesters from a battalion of 200 police. By nightfall, though, the violence was spilling into other neighborhoods--crashing through blocks still scarred from the 1968 riots. A white motorist was dragged from her car and beaten. Police arrested more than 500 people by week's end; more than 60 were injured.

The curfew Luken imposed on Thursday had a calming effect. The mayor has called for reform and a Justice Department investigation. "There are deep racial divisions in this city," he admitted Friday. "There is a lack of trust."

But Luken, who took office in 1999, and other city leaders cannot claim they have done everything possible to prevent the chaos. In October 1999, while activists warned of mounting unrest, state senators asked the police department to review its deadly-force policy. They never received a report. No officer has been fired following the 15 fatalities since 1995, although some investigations are ongoing. And the city has resisted attempts to change the insular, 1,020-person department's policy of refusing to hire chiefs from outside. "There has been a material distrust between the police and the black community, even though the force has become increasingly black," says Scott Johnson, former city manager and current Cincinnati resident. "The problem is, there are no blacks in the upper echelons of the force." To change the police culture, says the Rev. Damon Lynch III, head of the Cincinnati Black United Front, "some people need to be fired. If nothing changes, nothing will change."

The head of the police union has repeatedly denied that a problem exists. "Our officers don't have time to play these little racist games. Like, 'Ha, ha, I pulled you over because you're black,'" Keith Fangman told the Cincinnati Enquirer before the riots. Even after, Fangman refused to concede. "Our police officers are not some band of rogue Nazis roaming Cincinnati, hunting down and killing black men," he said Friday. "That is inflammatory, it's racist, and it's wrong." Then he made a new claim that was just as wrong--declaring that 10 of the 15 suspects killed were armed with guns. (In reality, seven had guns; of those, five fired first.) When asked to explain the discrepancy, Fangman told TIME, "I'm not going to quibble over [numbers]. That isn't the point. We want people to understand that what color the suspects were doesn't matter."

Luken believes his city was headed in the right direction. James Fyfe, a former N.Y.P.D. lieutenant who teaches criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, says slow progress can be dangerous. "Riots tend to occur when expectations are rising," he says, "when positive change is starting to happen, but not fast enough." Once the glass is swept up and the KILL COPS graffiti painted over, Cincinnati will have to try rapid progress for a change.