Missouri unrest resembles Cincinnati's in 2001

CINCINNATI – Police shoot and kill an unarmed black teen, followed by unrest as crowds loot stores, vandalize  vehicles and taunt officers in the streets.

The circumstances in Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed the day before he was supposed to start college, seem sadly familiar to Cincinnatians who remember our own turn in the national spotlight.

April, 2001.

Timothy Thomas, 19, runs from police trying to arrest him on 14 misdemeanor warrants, mostly for traffic violations.

In a  dark alley in Over-the-Rhine, Thomas comes face to face with Steven Roach, a white Cincinnati police officer.

Roach shoots Thomas and later claims he thought Thomas was drawing a gun out of his waistband.

Thomas is the 15th African-American to die at the hands of Cincinnati police in six years.

Thomas' mother and hundreds of blacks fill a city council committee meeting the next day and confront city leaders. His mother, Angela Leisure, makes an anguished plea for justice.

Many of the same people march to District 1 headquarters and throw rocks and bottles at police.

The next day, a rampage erupts near the heart of the Central Business District.

Unrest continues for three days, primarily in Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, Evanston and the West End.  

People set fires, throw rocks at cars and buildings and loot stores.

It all comes back to Charlie Luken as he watches Ferguson's agony.

"First and foremost, law and order needs to be restored," says Luken, who was mayor during the Cincinnati riots.

"Nothing is going to get accomplished there, as here, until law and order is restored. And nobody can burn a gas station or rob a building in the name of social justice," Luken says. "It doesn't make any sense and it doesn't get anybody anywhere."

The turmoil leads to 66 arrests, dozens of injuries and approximately $3 million in damages.

It takes a curfew and a muscular police presence to shut down the disturbances on Cincinnati's streets.

Roach is indicted and charged with negligent homicide, a misdemeanor. Thomas' mother calls that a "slap in the face," and ultimately Roach is found not guilty in a bench trial.

But after the riots – and a lawsuit filed a few weeks before claiming a 30-year pattern of police harassment of blacks – city officials ask the Justice Department to investigate police practices and procedures.

A series of in-depth conversations retool once contentious police-community relations. And the city agrees to make numerous changes in the department — with a federal monitor making sure it gets done.

"Instead of police and citizens viewing themselves in a tense environment, they view themselves as working together in a collaborative environment to take care of a neighborhood and to be fair with one another," Luken said, "and that's the kind of trust-building that we went through in Cincinnati and I think everybody thinks were better off for it today.

How much have things changed since the 2001 turmoil here?

Consider this: In 2002, the National Urban League canceled plans to hold its 2003 convention in Cincinnati in response to a locally-organized boycott.

The same Urban League met here last month.

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