CINCINNATI — As America has arrived at a watershed moment in reckoning with police violence that black people disproportionately experience, some black leaders in the greater Cincinnati area are opening up about their own unsavory experiences with law enforcement.
Daronce Daniels of Lincoln Heights is one of them. Daniels is a Lincoln Heights council member and co-founder of The Heights Movement, an initiative led by five young men to improve the community’s conditions in public health, academics, and community engagement.
“I've had multiple interactions with the police that have been embarrassing, uncomfortable,” he said. “You feel like you cannot defend yourself or stand up for your rights. Because, once again, you make a wrong move, your life is in danger.”
In a societal shift unforeseen by even the most astute observers specializing in race relations, mid-way through 2020 the U.S. has spiraled into a new level of turmoil over systemic inequality, racial discrimination and police brutality. Amid sprawling demonstrations that have popped up in Cincinnati and hundreds of other cities across the country, some non-black protesters have only now become awakened to the pervasiveness of racism. More than ever, people around the world are becoming attuned to just how daunting and demoralizing it can be for African Americans to interact with the police.
However, leaders of the historically black Cincinnati suburb of Lincoln Heights said they have been dealing with these chilling realities for all of their lives.
In addition to Daniels, a handful of his fellow local officials and organizers WCPO spoke with said they had formative, discouraging encounters with the police in years past that made them feel unsafe, targeted, or inferior. Their grievances with the poor performance of the Heights’ now defunct police department, its struggles with corruption and excessive force by officers, and the disconnect between the community and outside authorities currently contracted to patrol the area appear to symbolize black Americans’ fraught relationship with law enforcement.
Leaders pride Lincoln Heights for its rich community and the well-known cultural figures that have come out of the village. Still, it has become known as a microcosm of those larger, more deeply rooted problems of disadvantages for black Americans in the economy and criminal justice system that people are currently protesting.
For the people of Lincoln Heights, watching Americans protest racism and social inequalities today has meant watching people wage another war against issues they have been fighting against since Lincoln Heights’ inception in the 1940s. Having already fought their own war for so long, leaders say they feel the hurt, rage and resentment many other African Americans in other parts of the country are feeling in this moment.
On one occasion, Daniels said he was pulled over by an officer who was at the center of one of the most consequential cases of police brutality in Cincinnati history.
“You see those blue and red light things come on, you start to sweat, your heartbeat races. That trauma is very, very –” Daniels said, searching for words, “it's a public health issue for people.”
Daniels said that when he was pulled over in 2013 on Interstate 75, he quickly recognized the officer walking up to the car as Stephen Roach, the policeman who shot and killed Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old unarmed black man in Over-the-Rhine in 2001.
Daniels said he was initially stopped for a broken taillight. Court records from Hamilton County verify he was ultimately cited for driving under suspension and having expired plates.
The council member recalled the traffic stop as a tense exchange.
Daniels said Roach commanded him to get out of the car. Daniels asked why, as he believed it was unnecessary for a traffic stop and questioned to himself the real reason Roach pulled him over. In any case, Daniels complied and refrained from saying much else once he stepped outside. He said he feared for his daughter and then-girlfriend, who were still in the car.
After Roach handcuffed him, Daniels said the officer held him in the back of his car for a period of time before eventually letting him go. He described the image of a shotgun he saw while sitting in the back of the police car as being seared into his memory.
“You try not to have these confrontations, because you are trained as a black man that you can’t speak to the police in a certain type of manner,” Daniels said. “These are the type of traumatic situations that you have with the police all the time.”
Long before the harrowing, high-profile police-involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Thomas was immortalized as a symbol of excessive force in Cincinnati after he was killed in pursuit by the police for non-violent charges. Public anger over his death launched massive protests against police brutality that would change Cincinnati forever.
Roach was a Cincinnati Police officer at the time. A judge ultimately acquitted Roach of misdemeanor charges he faced for killing Thomas. After quitting the Cincinnati Police Department, Roach went on to work for the Evendale police the following year in 2002. Evendale Lieutenant Joe Asbrock confirms that almost 20 years after he killed Thomas, Roach is still an officer for the Evendale Police Department.
“It's upsetting to see how our people are being treated city to city across the United States and abroad,” said Lincoln Heights Mayor Ruby Kinsey-Mumphrey. Kinsey-Mumphrey often works with Daniels as a result of their respective roles in the Lincoln Heights government. However, perhaps as a sign of how small and close-knit Lincoln Heights is, Kinsey-Mumphrey knows Daniels personally as well; she was the one who officiated his wedding.
“Being an African American community as the Village of Lincoln Heights we may not have the riots going on, but our residents are able to participate," Kinsey-Mumphrey said. "And we want them to participate in the cause for the rights of our black and brown individuals.”
With the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and joblessness that were already weighing on African Americans, Carlton Collins, interim director of the Lincoln Heights Outreach, said living through another media storm over police violence against other black Americans has only made it harder to restrain emotions of anger and frustration.
“The collective psyche of black America literally just broke,” Collins said. He said the demand for meals at his organization’s food pantry has skyrocketed in recent weeks from Lincoln Heights residents being financially strained by COVID-19’s forceful blow to the economy.
“We finally hit a moment where honest conversation is the priority," Collins said. "And it gives us an opportunity to take a serious look and analysis at the way that we've been operating. Our pain is now front and center.”
Pastor Michael J. Pearl, a director at the St. Monica’s Recreation Center who regularly works with families in Lincoln Heights, said that despite being a dedicated church leader, he has still been vulnerable to fearsome encounters with the police.
“I will say, there are some officers by whom I have been pulled over that treated me with nothing but respect,” Pearl said. “But that doesn't stop that feeling. Because you don't know as that officer approached the car, you don't know what's going to happen. And so it's a very uncomfortable feeling, being a 46-year-old man having to live my life in that manner.”
As support for the Black Lives Matter Movement and public outrage over racism and police brutality have reached a fever pitch, the phenomenon of black people disproportionately being stopped and killed by the police for minor or non-existent offenses is being recognized by thought leaders in racial politics and demonstrators as a symptom of other various prevailing issues that have historically bred stigma and inequality for black Americans. The largest and most salient issue to Lincoln Heights is stunted economic growth in black and brown communities.
Lincoln Heights has been slighted by economic exclusion since its beginning. In the 1940s community members made up of black Cincinnati residents and blacks who had migrated from the South appealed to incorporate the city. The original appeal included land occupied by the Wright Aeronautical plant. That plant would later become GE Aviation, one of the most prosperous companies in the world. However, the plant issued a complaint not to be included in Lincoln Heights territory in response to its application.
Lincoln Heights leaders lost a court battle over the issue and the land occupied by the plant would later be included in the neighborhoods of Woodlawn and Evendale instead. As a result, Lincoln Heights later became incorporated in 1946 with a much smaller amount of underdeveloped land that lacked some of the most basic municipal amenities. More significantly, it was excluded from the abundance of tax dollars that would foster development in neighboring cities.
Even with the odds stacked against them, Lincoln Heights residents were an industrious group with a bustling collection of factories, small businesses and recreational activities in the village’s heyday in the 1960s. Community members note that when it was a city, it was the first predominantly black self-governing community north of the Mason-Dixon line.
“We remember back in the day our industry was the cab stands and the mom-and-pop grocery stores and hair salons and barbershops," Kinsey-Mumphrey said. "We had all that.”
But the leaders also noted that the economic burdens Lincoln Heights started out with were too great for them to stave off the decline in conditions. Most of its factories and local businesses would eventually shut down and the area became increasingly associated with crime. The population has dwindled to just over 3,000 residents, only half the number of people that lived on its streets in decades past. Statistics from the last census show almost 50 percent of the population lives in poverty and one in five members of the labor force are unemployed. This, despite being located just 13 miles away from large, wealthy companies like Kroger, Procter & Gamble and Cintas.
As Lincoln Heights fell further and further into poverty, the reputation of its police force fell with it.
The Lincoln Heights police force shut down in 2014 after it was hit with a slew of lawsuits over corruption. The village was no match for expenses brought on by the lawsuits, and resorted to contracting with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office for policing.
The village pays $813,306 each year for the sheriff’s patrols out of a total municipal budget of only $2.5 million. That is a striking contrast to the average 6 percent that local governments throughout the U.S. spend on police in their total budget, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute using 2017 US census data.
Leaders express a range of conflicting emotions over the police in Lincoln Heights and Cincinnati. They say there have not been any recent cases of police brutality like that of Michael Glover back in 2013, and they acknowledge the Cincinnati Police for the extensive reforms it has made to end its use of excessive force and improve relations with locals since the 2001 killing of Timothy Thomas.
“I always want to give credit and credence to the Cincinnati Police Department for the fact that they were willing to do the work after the riots in 2001 with the community and come up with real solutions. The experience with the Cincinnati Police Department is a completely different existence for teenagers now,” Collins said, remembering being followed and harassed in his youth.
However, they lament the large sum of money they have to spend on the police out of their modest budget that could be better spent on recreation and youth development. They are frustrated by the noise of gunshots from the nearby Cincinnati police shooting range, saying it’s “traumatizing” and desensitizes their children to violence. They called for greater diversity among those patrolling their streets. They also described the sheriff’s office as being disengaged from the community, prompting locals to become more self-reliant in resolving disputes among themselves.
“I would just like for [the police] to make it seem like they're one of the community,” said Corde Thielmeyer, the president and co-founder of the Heights Movement. “Walk around, start conversations. Don’t just drive up and down and have your windows up sitting in air all day.”
“We want to look at it from a sheriff’s office perspective: is the sheriff’s office willing to do the work on community and police relations in the same way that Cincinnati Police Department was?” Collins said.
In response to Lincoln Heights leaders’ sentiments, Sheriff Jim Neil of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office released a statement saying:
“The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has been providing police services since 2015. We’re working diligently to meet the expectations of the needs of the citizens. It’s unfortunate that our office has disappointed the leaders of the community. We’re listening to their concerns, and we’re willing to work jointly to address these issues. We appreciate that these concerns were brought to our attention and we look forward to building a strong relationship with the community.”
The challenges that Lincoln Heights historically had with its law enforcement, as well as nationwide conversations to defund police departments, have inspired conversations among the leaders we spoke with to explore the possibility of transitioning to a community-based policing program. The Heights Movement is envisioning projects that would allow them to cultivate talent from within the village to take on the charge.
As a council member, Daniels says he and his fellow members of the board will bring up a motion to investigate options for police services outside of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.
The mayor has a more measured response to the concept and questioned how to make a practical, sustainable model of policing.
“I would love for us to have our own community policing like we did before. But we have other concerns as far as our revenue streams,” Kinsey-Mumphrey said. “[I]t may not happen today. But it could happen tomorrow. I'm not saying like next year, I don't know. But I do know that it's going to take us making the right decisions on our economic development.”
While the black residents of Lincoln Heights speak out and push against the socioeconomic disadvantages faced by black America that is the subject of today’s countless protests, they also said they are encouraged to see so many other people join their cause.
“We have to trust the people who are on the ground who've already been doing the work for their opinions,” Collins said. “And most importantly, we have to elevate those opinions and elevate those voices. Because what has been invested in before has not been working.”
Daniels said the story of Lincoln Heights can be instructive for people pushing against racism and police violence.
“What you can learn from Lincoln Heights is, once again, a community governed by our own can sustain and survive on our own,” Daniels said.
In his view, Lincoln Heights embodies values of entrepreneurship and self-determination, values that he thinks those engaged in the current unrest can employ to overcome societal forces that have compromised the safety and advancement of black America. Even with all of the work that needs to be done to make social progress, Daniels said he is filled with hope.
“Everybody's coming together for the disparities that's been happening to our community," Daniels said. "And once again, if you feel like there's nowhere else you can go, you can always come here.”