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What Is the State of Race Relations Between the Citizens of Cincinnati and the Police?

Aired May 7, 2001 - 19:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR CHARLES LUKEN (D), CINCINNATI, OHIO: We're ready for anything, but we're hoping for the best.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, as Cincinnati braces for reaction from the indictment of a police officer, what is the state of race relations between the citizens and police?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, in Baltimore, Maryland, Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. And in Cincinnati, Ohio, Keith Fangman, president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Emotions are running high in Cincinnati tonight after a grand jury voted to indict police officer Stephen Roach on two counts: negligent homicide and obstruction of official business. The reason: Last month, days of unrest in Cincinnati after Roach fatally shot a 19-year-old unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas, during a chase. The officer faces a maximum of nine months in prison if convicted on both counts.

Hoping to prevent more disturbances, government and religious leaders have urged residents to remain calm. And earlier today, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department would conduct its own investigation to determine if the Cincinnati Police Department has a pattern of racial discrimination.

We debate the state of race relations in Cincinnati tonight, but first, we turn to CNN's national correspondent, Bob Franken, for the mood in Cincinnati at this hour.

Bob, how is the community responding to today's decision?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, within the last half hour or so, we have seen examples of very sporadic confrontations with police or actually police confrontations with people who are marching down the street. It is fair to say that many members of the African- American community are angry or disappointed over the indictment, saying they do not feel it was enough action taken against Officer Stephen Roach, who shot and killed that unarmed 19-year-old black man exactly a month ago.

So they're marching up and down the streets of the main African- American community here. Over the Rhine it's called. The confrontations thus far have not caused any problems, although the police have really beefed up for this.

Various churches in the area are offering themselves as sanctuary where they're advising the people who are, in fact, very angry to, quote, take a deep breath.

Now, the mother of the 19-year-old man, Timothy Thomas -- her name is Angela Leisure -- she has said that she does not believe the grand jury action, in fact, meant that justice was done. The mayor, Charles Luken, the one who has raised the possibility there could be problems and had walked the street of the city, is now saying that he hopes that people will in fact be responsible.

The mayor said that he felt that some people would in fact not like the fact that the policeman was indicted at all, others would feel that it was not enough, but that they had to respect the grand jury process, he said, and hopefully wait before they made any decisions. Of course, this is just the grand jury action. The trial will come some time later -- Bill.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Bob, this is Bob Novak. What specific preparations have the police taken to avoid a repetition of the demonstrations turning into rioting, as they did, a month ago?

FRANKEN: Well, first of all, some people would argue with the term "rioting," but others would say that the police, in fact, are prepared for the worst. They went on extra shifts. I was just back from the area that they're patrolling.

Once again, like a month ago, they are patrolling in large convoys. They're in full riot gear. Any time they have any sort of encounter, they move out, they take up positions holding their weapons. They are in effect trying to say that it is futile, futile to try and do anything violent. As a matter of fact, one of the leaders in that community said it is futile, saying that in fact they have the means -- meaning the police -- to quell violence.

NOVAK: Bob Franken, thank you very much. Officer Fangman is on the way, and he's not here yet, and we hope that he will be here before long.

In the meantime, thanks for coming in, in Baltimore, Mr. Mfume. I want to play for you a -- the statement by the Hamilton County attorney announcing the indictment, and let's listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL ALLEN, HAMILTON COUNTY PROSECUTOR: Not every homicide is a purposeful act, not every homicide constitutes murder. Some are reckless in nature, some are negligent in nature. And I think the grand jury felt, obviously, that if anything, this was a negligent act.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Now, you cannot really reasonably argue that this was a purposeful act. Whatever fault that the officer had, it was not an intentional murder. So I can't understand why there should be such aggravation in Cincinnati tonight that this man was not indicted for murder, which could have put him away for the rest of his life.

KWEISI MFUME, PRESIDENT, NAACP: Well, first of all, none of us know whether it was intentional or not, so I wouldn't make the statement that you made, because I really don't know. And that's why we have a grand jury process and that's why we have differences of opinion within the community on this issue.

None of us want to second-guess the grand jury, but all of us know that the grand jury's action raises more questions than it answers. We don't know what the forensic report said. We don't know what Officer Roach's statements were. We don't know whether the statements of the other officers contradicted him. There is a question about whether or not the evidence was presented in a way that it would have been presented had the prosecutor not been a former police officer himself. And so there are a lot of questions here.

I can tell you, though, that a lot of people are extremely disappointed at the finding of this grand jury, even if they're not second-guessing the grand jury, because it raises the question, if an unarmed 19-year-old black man running from the police, without making a threatening move, can be shot and killed in a dark alley, and die there, and if that's only a misdemeanor, then what constitutes a felony in our country.

And whether or not we were there or not, it just seems to me that instance after instance after instance -- New York notwithstanding -- that you can kill if you are a police officer and that your punishment, at least in these instances, where there are black unarmed suspects, tend to be misdemeanors or nothing at all.

NOVAK: Well, according to the statement of the Hamilton County attorney, Mr. Michael Allen, the police officer -- and this was the statement that he made today in explaining the case -- the police officer was chasing this person down a dark alley. He thought -- he said he thought he was armed. And that can't we just say to be realistic that if there hadn't been violence, attacks on people, mayhem -- what I would call rioting in the streets of Cincinnati -- I don't think this police officer would have been indicted for anything, would he?

MFUME: Well, I don't know, but had there not been mayhem and rioting in our country we would have never gotten a civil rights law, a public accommodations law, an equal opportunity law. So I don't discount protests. They have their place, because oftentimes, regrettably, it takes protests to nudge our country into the direction of doing the right thing. But in this particular instance, those reactions were spontaneous. As you know, there have been a number of killings in Cincinnati. Some questionable, some not. But in all the instances, these are black men being shot down.

And the question becomes not whether or not it's OK to use lethal force, but why does there seem to be a different discretion as to when to use that force based on the color of a suspect. That creates for a lot of people a great deal of unanswered questions.

PRESS: Mr. Mfume, you spent a lot of time in Cincinnati. I saw you on CNN at a town meeting out there. And you just said that a lot of people are angry. I'd like to ask you specifically, sir, knowing all that you know about that case, having met with a lot of people involved in that incident, around that incident, do you believe, do you believe that justice was served by this decision of the grand jury tonight?

MFUME: Well, I don't believe justice has been served until all of the questions are answered, and as I said before, this decision raises more questions than it answers. The prosecutor says trust us, it will all come out in a court of law, and it may very well. But I think you've got to understand that there's history here that's working against that kind of statement and causing people to be angry.

When you just look at what happened in New York two weeks ago, when the officers there who fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo were all cleared, said they were doing it in self-defense, and yet this was an unarmed man, it's that kind of history that we juxtapose this decision against: And it explains why people are angry, why they're disappointed and why they're hurting, and they wonder over and over again, if in fact there is this larger question, why not indict at a higher level, have a jury, a reasonable jury then find the officer innocent. But when you indict at this very, very low level of misdemeanor, I mean, what's going to happen? Nine months at the most if that happens, and then that may not happen.

So it raises some questions that remain unanswered.

PRESS: I've got you. There were indictments on two count, even though you feel they were not sufficient. There will be a jury trial. There will be a Justice Department investigation.

Given all of that, what is your message to the disappointed people in Cincinnati tonight?

MFUME: Well, my message as it has been: that we have to remain calm. There has to be a calming approach to this even through our anger. I don't advise people to go out and to break the law, because then you are doing just what the officers allegedly have done in this case.

I can tell you, however, even in calling for calm I understand the anger that a lot of young people have, in particular, when they raise questions about a system that their parents, quite frankly, can't answer, because they've lived through it. I spoke at length with Attorney General Ashcroft today. I want to commend him and the Bush administration for moving forward on a request that the NAACP made over a month ago that there be an investigation into the patterns and practices of this police department with respect to racial discrimination and the lethal use of force. This attorney general has stuck to his word in that regard.

Without prejudicing the situation, it's important to find out what's going on there, what the facts are, and as in this grand action, what are the facts when we get to a court of law.

NOVAK: Mr. Mfume, you spoke about the anger of the rioters of a month ago. In fact, about 30 years ago, the late great urbanologist professor Ed Banfield of Harvard said that rioters riot mostly for fun and profit, and it looked to me from watching the looting that was going on in the stores and the look of glee on some of the looters that they were -- they were having -- those were the motives that were impelling them.

They were having a hell of a good time and getting a little loot out of it. How can -- I didn't see anything about anger, I saw a lot of fun going on.

MFUME: Well, regrettably, it's people like that who are, quote/unquote, "the bad element" that get into a movement that sometimes get the press. Those persons who are out there to commit mayhem and to break the law, there is no excuse for them whatsoever. They were wrong. They should, in fact, be punished.

But they were the minority. The vast number of people were expressing their anger at a system that they continue to feel repeatedly represses them, judges them differently based on the color of their skin, and then expects them to abide by the law. Those citizens were having peaceful protests. They were exercising their constitutional right.

It's regrettable that every time that happens, you're going to get one, two, three, four or five, six individuals, who for whatever reason, find it an occasion to loot or to vandalize, but they were by no means the majority, and in no way should they be condoned either.

NOVAK: A couple weeks ago on this network, Mr. Mfume, I asked Mayor Luken of Cincinnati what he thought of some people, such as yourself, coming into the city at the time of this crisis. I would like you to listen to his answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES LUKEN, MAYOR OF CINCINNATI: I think some of the people that have come into town have just been feathering their own nest. I mean, I think some legitimate points have been made, but when people come into town and start talking about 15 deaths, you know, the police have murdered 15 people, I mean some of these statements are irresponsible.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOVAK: Is he talking about you, sir?

MFUME: Well, no, I don't think he was. The mayor and I met. We had a cordial meeting. In fact, I took the parents of the young man down to meet with the mayor. We talked then, we talked afterwards.

The mayor probably has some validity into the fact that there were a lot of people who were coming in, some of whom were coming in for all the wrong reasons to Cincinnati. We have had a presence there in Cincinnati for almost 85 years. Our local branches worked there on the ground, and worked, quite frankly, with this mayor. And so, this was not an intrusion in any way by the NAACP.

It was, however, supporting local people on the ground in an effort -- and the mayor, quite frankly, to his credit, welcomed us in, helped to give us the facts as he knew them, and listened, quite frankly, to those things that we felt were important from a ground perspective, as it relates to his ability to govern, particularly through that crisis.

NOVAK: OK, we are going to have to take a break. And when come back, we will ask Officer Fangman about the feds coming in to be another investigating force of the Cincinnati police department.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Hours before a Cincinnati grand jury today indicted white police Officer Steve Roach for negligent homicide in the shooting of unarmed black man Timothy Thomas, the Justice Department began an investigation of its own. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a federal probe of whether there is a pattern or practice of racial discrimination by the Cincinnati police department in dealing with minority suspects.

We're talking to Kweisi Mfume, national president of the NAACP. He's in Baltimore. In Cincinnati, we're waiting for Keith Fangman, president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police. Hopefully, he'll arrive -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Mr. Mfume, I was living in Los Angeles during the Rodney King verdict and the resulting riots, and then the Justice Department investigation of the Los Angeles police department. My experience there is that the Justice Department does not initiate an investigation unless they have a lot of evidence that there is racial discrimination in that particular police department.

Do you believe, sir, that the Cincinnati police department is a racist organization?

MFUME: Well, I don't believe it's a racist organization. I think it has racial problems, and there are a lot of racial undertones that are threatening to undermine the department. When I was in Cincinnati in the middle of the rebellions last month, I had many officers, black and white both, come up to me and say: "Look, stay on this. There are problems in our department. We need help, we need a national focus." And so, I don't think that it's a racist organization, but there clearly are racial problems and racial overtones that kind of undergird much of what this department does.

The other terrible thing about all this is that you've got decent men and women who are police officers, who put on a badge and a gun, who say goodbye to their families every day, who go out into streets to patrol communities, and who respect people in the communities, that get tainted when you have an officer, or two officers, or three or four around the country that continue, for whatever reason, to take the law in their own hands. And it kind of raises the question as to when does discretion get used and how is it used.

We came out of the funeral of Timothy Thomas with the governor and the mayor, both pledging that this will be a new Cincinnati. We walked three blocks, and the police opened up fire, shooting a white woman and two little black girls with these shotgun pellets known as beanbags, which are very, very hurting -- they hurt when they hit. And so, the question becomes discretion and why does this discretion on the issue of race continues to be a part of this police department.

PRESS: Well, you said earlier that you had a long conversation today with Attorney General John Ashcroft. What did he tell you were his initial findings, or the department's initial findings, that would prompt this investigation? Why did he tell you they were going into Cincinnati?

MFUME: Well, we didn't talk for an hour, but we had a good conversation. And he didn't say. He did say, as he has said consistently, that this was a priority for him, it was a priority for the Bush administration, and he was concerned about the civil rights of all Americans, and that as attorney general, he would look at the facts first.

And so, when I got to Cincinnati, the Justice Department was already there. They were conducting an audit of the police department. I don't know what their findings were, but obviously there were enough findings to convince this attorney general that for the sake of all sides involved, that there ought to at least be an unbiased, unfettered, fair federal investigation of patterns and practices of this police department: first to be able to give suggestions and information and direction to the police department, and secondly, quite frankly, to ferret out where that trouble might be coming from.

NOVAK: Mr. Mfume, let me give you another possible explanation for the action by the attorney general and the Justice Department. Their announcement was made hours before the grand jury was going to act, and the people at the Justice Department have told news reporters that the reason they announced it -- the timing they announced the investigation, was fear that the grand jury would produce no bill at all or else a very insufficient bill which would trigger violence again in Cincinnati.

So, this was supposed to be a pacifier for the people who caused the trouble the last time. Is that any way for the U.S. Department of Justice to act?

MFUME: Well, I don't know that they did act that way. And my assumption is that none of us really know, unless we are able to get inside of the head of John Ashcroft. I do know, in my conversations over the last couple of weeks with him, he indicated that they were getting close to making some kind of a decision, and that he would offer the courtesy of -- extend the courtesy, at least -- to let me know what that was and when it would be forthcoming. The fact...

NOVAK: Go ahead.

MFUME: The fact that it's on the same day as the announcement could be coincidence, it could not be. If it were meant, however, to sort of act as a counter balance to what could be a verdict, that could bring about trouble, then I think that makes sense.

I don't think that's the way the department operates, but fortunately, in this instance, that verdict -- that decision came just before the findings of the grand jury.

NOVAK: Well, there's a third investigation, sir, that's been going on by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and they have been investigating the racial conduct against the civil rights of white people by the African-American rioters in Cincinnati a month ago, pulling people out of cars, committing violence on them, only because their skin happened to be white. What do you think of that investigation?

MFUME: Well, I think all violence is wrong. I have said that all my life and I continue to believe that. One set of violence does not justify another; all of it is wrong. So, even in a person's anger to do anything to an innocent person base on the color of his skin, I think reduces that individual to the same level that the perpetrators of crimes might be at for those like to commit crimes against people because of their skin color. It's all wrong.

The question becomes, though, in this country, where race, which continues to be the most vexing issue since the days of slavery continues to be with us, how do we get past it? How do we build the kind of confidence that black people and Latinos and Asians and African-Americans and others, that, we've got to find a way to live together by reducing the amount of suspicions.

I think we do that when the facts are on out, when there's a true effort to try to get to the reason that things occur, and when there's an openness about responsibility stereotypes, biases that exist in all of us. If we don't do that, if we skirt around the race issue, we will always have instances like that.

NOVAK: I'm afraid we are out of time. And Officer Fangman never made it -- I don't know what he's doing.

But thank you very much, Kweisi Mfume, we appreciate you coming in from Baltimore. And Bill Press and I will talk about whether this was a rebellion or a riot in Cincinnati a month ago, won't we Bill? In closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Bill, I have been covering these racial disturbances since you were a little boy...

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: ...and the thing that really irritates me is that when reputable people call them a rebellion, they are not rebellion, they are law-breaking riots, and I hope you don't join in that rhetoric that appears to condone that reprehensible behavior.

PRESS: Well, what they really are, are a protest, Bob. And they are protesting the fact that the people who enforce the law don't obey the law and that's wrong, unfortunately. I don't care what you call them. I'm saying they're a legitimate protests against abuse of police power in L.A. or New York and Cincinnati. And this guy got off with a slap on the wrist for killing an unarmed man.

NOVAK: The L.A. and Cincinnati riots were for fun and profit.

PRESS: That's baloney!

(CROSSFIRE)

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: On the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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