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 three 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 — Cincinnati City Hall was packed on April 9, 2001 when Angela Leisure came to City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee looking for answers.
Days earlier, Leisure’s son, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, was shot and killed by a white police officer Stephen Roach. A community frustrated by a lack of answers marched to City Hall, and Leisure spoke directly to members of Council.
"Even when you tell me why, it isn't going to make it better,” she said “But at least I'm gonna hear you acknowledge the fact that you took a part of my life from me. So, I demand to know: why?"
Ken Lawson, the attorney representing Leisure, sat with her and Reverend Damon Lynch III, the president of the Cincinnati Black United Front, at the speakers table. Lawson said Lynch then asked him a question that turned into a pivotal moment in the civil unrest that would follow.
“(Lynch) said, ‘Hey, do you want me to have had the people locked, lock the doors and lock City Council in until they answer Angela's question?’" Lawson remembered. "And I said, ‘Well, you know, I'm a practicing attorney. So I can't tell you to lock in the council members, but yeah, lock 'em in.’ And so, because we were dead serious at that point. I mean, we have been down there over and over again. And she had one simple request: What was his reason for telling me for what, what did the officer say was his reason for shooting Timothy?”
Tom Streicher, who was Cincinnati’s police chief, remembers that meeting well. Lawson, Leisure and the community had questions he just couldn’t answer.
“I'm sitting on live TV being asked about a criminal investigation,” Streicher recalled. “In my head I'm thinking, well, we've got a criminal investigation against one of our officers. He's probably watching this. I say the wrong thing, I compromise the investigation. I blow the whole thing and he walks away scot-free. Is that a cover up? Is that intentional, unintentional?"
But the crowd gathered demanded answers.
"The fact that we want to know is, when the man came around the corner, why did you shoot him? That part's missing. That's what we came down here for,” Lawson told officials that day.
Charlie Luken, Cincinnati’s mayor at that time, told WCPO he can't forget that City Hall showdown as chambers filled with people.
"You've got an administration saying they can't give you information because they were trying to get the right information from the police officer, so they weren't saying anything," Luken said. "So the Black community views that as a lie. Now, you'll see the police department get the information out right away, within a few hours. Then, days go by and they're going, 'Eh! It's under investigation.'
"Well, that just sounds like you're gonna wait 'til things die down, and then you're gonna tell your lies again. And it wasn't gonna work this time," he said.
It was later that night that the unrest began. City Hall, Cincinnati police headquarters and parts of Downtown and Over-the-Rhine were damaged or in flames. The unrest ended after Luken declared a citywide curfew.