Wrong Message in Cincinnati Police Shooting Verdict

Earlier this year, President Bush told Congress that he would do everything he could to end racial profiling. After the monstrous attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush repeatedly told Arab-American groups that racial profiling was wrong and that he would vigorously oppose it.

That message apparently fell on deaf ears in Hamilton County Municipal Judge Ralph E. Winkler's court. On September 26, Winkler summarily acquitted white Cincinnati police officer, Stephen Roach of criminal charges in the April 7 slaying of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas during a traffic pursuit. The shooting had ignited three days of riots, and a pledge by Attorney-General, John Ashcroft to launch a federal investigation of the shooting. Winkler's recent ruling provoked another two nights of tension and curfews in the Cincinnati neighborhood where the shooting took place.

Winkler's verdict may have had some legal justification, if he believed that Roach feared for his life, and fired in self-defense. But there was no justification for his incredible add-on rationale to support the acquittal that Roach's record was clean, and Thomas's wasn't. Did this mean that even though Thomas was unarmed and running away, his string of arrests for minor offenses justified his slaying? Or more likely, Winkler's unmistakable meaning was that because Thomas was young, black, and male it was automatically assumed he was a criminal suspect.

That assumption continues to fuel the charge by black and Latino leaders that police routinely, beat, maim, lie, and plant evidence on black and Latino suspects, solely because of their color. A legion of prominent black and Latino actors, entertainers, business leaders, and even some state legislators and House representatives still complain that they are racially harassed by police on the roads. There have been a wave of lawsuits and million dollar settlements paid to black motorists in New Jersey and Maryland who claim they were beaten, shot, and harassed by state police.

Racial profiling is not merely a practice many hoped that public revulsion would render a thing of the past. The day before Winkler's verdict, a Ventura County, California public defender in a survey of more than 300 misdemeanor criminal or traffic cases, many of them almost certainly similar to the stop that got Thomas killed, found that nearly all involved black or Latino drivers. They were arrested after being pulled over for minor traffic infractions.

Racial profiling has fueled enough racial turmoil, and massive media and public attention, the last couple of years, that 10 states passed legislation requiring local police agencies to keep racial statistics on traffic stops. Three states have passed laws aimed at outlawing racial profiling.

Immediately before President Clinton left office he directed federal agencies to collect data on race, gender and ethnicity of anyone they question. Ashcroft did not scrap the policy.

In a report, "Police Practices and Civil Rights in America," issued last November, the Civil Rights Commission went much further. They denounced racial profiling and called on police departments to immediately fire any officer guilty of racial profiling. Even Cincinnati officials, while vehemently denying that police racially profile minorities, established a commission after the Thomas killing, to recommend measures to improve police-community relations and reduce violence.

These are welcome steps in the on-going battle against racial profiling. Unfortunately, the roadblocks to fully wiping out profiling remain formidable. Courts have been loathe to back black and Latino plaintiffs in racial profiling lawsuits. It usually comes down to their word versus the police officer's. Also, courts have ruled that race is a factor law enforcement can use in determining whether an individual can be stopped, searched and arrested. In a 1996 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a motorist can be stopped even if the stop was based on race as long as there was a legal reason for making the stop.

Congress hasn't helped much in the racial profiling battle. Since 1998 Michigan Democrat John Conyers has waged a virtual one-man fight to get Congress to pass his Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act. The bill requires the Justice Department to compile figures from local police departments by race on highway traffic stops. The data would document why a driver was stopped, and whether an arrest was made or not. The Justice Department could use the figures to determine how pervasive racial profiling is. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold has a similar bill in the Senate. Despite public demands that law enforcement do whatever it takes, even if that includes passenger profiling, to make airports safe, Conyers and Feingold say they will continue to fight to make racial profiling illegal.

If Bush and Ashcroft really want to get rid of profiling, they must do everything they can to get the Conyer's bill passed. This would send the right message to the nation that racial profiling is wrong even in times of national crisis. It's certainly a message Judge Wilkins badly needs to hear.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and the president of the National Alliance for Positive Action.


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