Officer acquitted in shooting that touched off riots in Cincinnati in April
CINCINNATI (AP) – A white police officer was acquitted Wednesday in the killing of an unarmed black man that sparked the city’s worst racial unrest in three decades.
Officer Stephen Roach had been charged with negligent homicide and obstructing official business after he shot Timothy Thomas, 19, in a dark alley early on April 7.
Hamilton County Municipal Judge Ralph E. Winkler pronounced sentence after hearing the trial without a jury, at Roach’s request. The officer did not testify.
”This shooting was a split-second reaction to a very dangerous situation created by Timothy Thomas,” Winkler said. ”Police Officer Roach’s action was reasonable on his part, based on … the information he had at the time in that dark Cincinnati alley.”
He said Roach’s record was unblemished, while Thomas’ was not, and noted that Thomas failed to respond to an order to show his hands. Thomas had been wanted on a variety of warrants.
The Rev. Damon Lynch, a black leader and minister in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where Thomas was shot, called the verdict ”an atrocity” but said, ”We’ll urge people to be peaceful, as we have been doing for 10 weeks.”
Roach, 27, a city officer since 1997, had faced up to nine months in jail if convicted of both charges. He still faces departmental administrative proceedings under which he could face penalties including firing, police said.
In three nights of rioting that followed the shooting, dozens of people were injured and more than 800 were arrested before a temporary citywide curfew ended the disturbance. The city had not seen such racial unrest since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
As a precaution, additional police were on duty when the verdict was announced Wednesday, but there were no disturbances.
A crowd of about 40 blacks gathered outside the courthouse and one yelled, ”How is that justified?”
The verdicts show ”that the city is not willing to put a police officer in jail for killing a man unjustifiably,” said activist Kabaka Oba. ”We believe Timothy Thomas was killed unjustifiably.”
Roach glanced down while the verdicts were read, and his wife, Erin, sobbed into her hands.
”Unfortunately, this is a tragedy for everybody involved,” Roach said later outside the courtroom, holding hands with his wife. ”I would give anything to change the outcome of what happened that night, but unfortunately I can’t.”
Thomas’ mother, Angela Leisure, said the verdict was unfair.
”Why is it that officers are not responsible for their acts when other citizens are?” she asked.
She said she was afraid there would be a similar shooting.
”My son, I wanted him to be the last – but he won’t be the last … until serious changes are made in our police department this will happen again.”
Thomas was the 15th black male killed by Cincinnati police since 1995. The police union has noted that 10 of those men had fired or pointed guns at police officers, and two of the victims drove at officers or dragged them from cars.
After the riots, Mayor Charles Luken appointed a commission to look into improving opportunities for blacks, who make up 43 percent of the population, and reducing violence in the Ohio River city.
Roach was believed to be the first Cincinnati police officer to go to trial on charges of killing a suspect, police officials said.
Thomas had been wanted on 14 warrants, including traffic charges and previously fleeing police. And on the night of the shooting he ran from three other officers, scaled fences and was in a neighborhood plagued by guns, drug deals and violence, Roach’s lawyer said.
Prosecutor Stephen McIntosh said Roach ran after Thomas with his finger on the trigger of his 9 mm pistol, rather than keeping his finger off the trigger until a threat was perceived, as Cincinnati officers are trained to do.
Prosecutors also said Roach hindered the investigation by giving differing versions of what had occurred.
The judge said the differences ”were not substantial, and the statements did not hamper or impede the police investigation of the incident.”
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