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Cincinnati police chiefs then and now reflect on lack of transparency in 2001 Timothy Thomas case

Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-08 20:10:46-04

Twenty years ago, in the early morning hours of April 7, 2001, Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley. Thomas was the 15th Black man killed by police since 1995, and his death sparked days of unrest that highlighted a deep divide between Cincinnati’s Black community and the police. That mistrust, along with lawsuits accusing the department of a decades-long history of racial profiling, helped shape the Collaborative Agreement. We hope our coverage online, on air and on all streaming platforms will start a conversation about what led to the unrest, what has happened since and what work still needs to be done.

CINCINNATI -- Tom Streicher was Cincinnati's police chief on April 7, 2001, when one of his officers followed a 19-year-old Black man down an Over-the-Rhine alley and ultimately opened fire.

But when the deadly shooting occurred in the early Saturday morning hours, Streicher wasn't in Cincinnati: He was in Chicago for a convention and wouldn't learn what had happened until more than a day later.

"I thought of a message I needed to leave (the chief of detectives), so I called him. It's 10:10 on a Sunday morning, and he answered the phone. 'Vince, what the hell are you doing in the office?' He says, 'You don't know?'"

By the time Streicher arrived home later that day, he found a city on the brink of civil unrest. His detectives briefed him on what they knew about why then-Off. Stephen Roach opened fire on 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in an OTR alleyway, fatally shooting him in the chest.

It would be at least another day before CPD called a news conference to brief the public on what happened. Streicher and his present-day counterpart, Chief Elliot Isaac, agree that's how things went from bad to worse.

Competing stories

"(My captains were) describing to me that Roach is bewildered and keeps mumbling the same thing," he said, recalling officers' description of Roach in the moments after the shooting. Roach had said initially that his "gun just went off."

But it didn't take long, Streicher said, for Roach's story to change.

Former Cincinnati police Chief Tom Streicher spoke with WCPO in the days leading up to the 20th anniversary of Timothy Thomas' death.

"But he and the attorney went into the conference room and were in there for an hour," Streicher continued. "And after he had been in there, he came out, was no longer bewildered. He was very confident in himself and made the statement that this boy [Thomas] had reached into his pants, pulled an object out, and confronted him."

Not long before the shooting, Streicher had ordered a few police cruisers to be equipped with dash-mounted cameras. He asked his detectives to survey recent footage, and that's when they found something they didn't expect.

One of the cameras had captured the entire deadly exchange.

"I said, 'How close is it to the version of what the officer said?' And I'll never forget this: He said, 'It's not even in the same universe.'"

Streicher said he asked for clarification to make sure he'd heard correctly. His detective repeated, "Not even in the same universe."

Things continued not to add up, Streicher said: Further investigation of the alley where Thomas died found no object -- not even a cell phone -- that wouldn't typically be in an alley or that Thomas could have pulled from his belt.

Timothy Thomas poses for this undated photograph.

"You could see that the assertion he made that (he) confronted, challenged, drop this, drop that, halt, all those classic things officers say, none of that occurred," Streicher said.

When detectives questioned Roach again, Streicher recalled the officer growing "more and more adamant" about his account, that Thomas has popped out, reached into his belt and pulled out an object.

"He sat up in the chair. He had his fists on the table," Streicher said. "He actually got to the point that he was arrogant about it."

When detectives ultimately showed Roach the dashcam footage, Streicher said, "You could see the color drained out of his face. He put his head down and started crying."

In the ensuing months, prosecutors built a criminal case against Roach, but a jury ultimately found him not guilty of the charges.

Streicher said he was "utterly shocked" by the ruling.

'The boiling over'

Nearly 15 years before becoming the department's current chief, Isaac was working in the internal affairs unit. While Thomas' death is widely considered the catalyst that sparked the unrest, Isaac's work at the time showed him the teen was just the latest in an alarming trend undermining trust between CPD and Black communities.

In the six years leading up to the Over-the-Rhine shooting, 15 Black men had died at the hands of Cincinnati police.

Small fires burned in the streets of Downtown and Over-the-Rhine during the unrest following of Timothy Thomas' death, April 9-13, 2001.

"We had gone through a series of officer-involved shootings, and many of them involved unarmed, young Black men, and the community was very upset about this," Isaac said. "I remember in 2001, when the death of Timothy Thomas took place, just the boiling over."

When Isaac spoke to WCPO in March, he reflected on his dual identities as a Black man and a ranking police officer.

"It's definitely something concerning when I see a community in so much pain, a community that looks like me, a community of people that I know, that I have relationships with, and to see their concern and their outrage over these incidents... You have to be concerned," he said.

'When they feel they're not being told the truth'

Thomas' death also catalyzed the now-nationally recognized Collaborative Agreement between the city of Cincinnati, the police union, the Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, to address the department's historically strained and deadly relationship with the city's Black communities.

"(F)irst and foremost, what was born out of that is really the value of our relationship with the community, specifically, community-, problem-oriented policing, where we realize that the police and the community could work together to solve problems in our neighborhood," Isaac said.

Transparency -- specifically with the use of cruiser and body cameras as well as addressing the media at the scene of an altercation -- has been among the agreement's primary benefits, both Isaac and his predecessor agreed.

Cincinnati police Chief Elliot Isaac speaks with WCPO 9 anchor Tanya O'Rourke near CPD District 1 headquarters in West End, March 2021.

In addition to leading the investigation into Roach's killing of Thomas, Streicher also helped craft the Collaborative Agreement. He said one of the biggest failures of the investigation was a lack of transparency.

"Because of the errors of not addressing this from the very beginning the night it occurred, not talking to the media, not talking and being forthright and open, we were in a position that it didn't matter at that point. We were suspected of covering up something," Streicher said. "It wasn't a cover-up. It was a very active investigation."

Streicher recalled that by the Monday following Thomas' death -- nearly three days later -- CPD still had not held a news conference to brief the public.

"There's nothing you can do at that point to avoid the allegation of a cover-up," he said.

Isaac said there's no quicker way to erode residents' trust and that the solution, for him, is to trust in the people's ability to understand.

"As quick as we can be accurate in the information that we have, we try to provide that information as quickly as possible," Isaac said. "I think it builds that relationship. It builds trust.

"One of the things that I've learned is that the community can understand if we make a mistake. They can even understand if an officer does something wrong. What they cannot understand and what they will not tolerate is when they feel that they're not being told the truth."

You can watch WCPO's full interviews with Streicher and Isaac in the player at the top of this story.

PODCAST: 'That could've been my family ... that could've been me': Timothy Thomas' death still aches Listen to the full conversation in the podcast player above.