CINCINNATI -- Brenda and Roger Owensby stand at the curb, asking strangers to help them get justice for their son.
Roger Owensby Jr. was killed in a scuffle with police a year ago. A group of officers -- black and white -- confronted the young black man at a gas station. He darted away. The cops knocked him to the pavement, swarmed him, struck him, grabbed him around the head. He died of asphyxiation in the pileup, coughing up so much bloody fluid in his last gasps that one officer's uniform sleeve was soaked. The coroner testified that Owensby was already dead when police put him into the back seat of a patrol car. One officer said: "We kicked his ass."
Two officers were indicted in Owensby's death. Both were acquitted in trials this fall. Now the Owensbys walk the city with a petition, demanding a federal investigation. They say they no longer trust Cincinnati -- not the police, not the prosecutors, not the politicians, not the courts -- to give them justice.
And they are far from alone.
Nine months after race riots resulting from another police incident tore through this polarized city, progress is hard to spot.
There have been many earnest attempts at healing, focused especially on the anger toward police that many blacks here feel. Professional mediators have spent months trying to craft police reforms. So has the U.S. Department of Justice. There have been town hall meetings, open forums for airing complaints. Earlier this month, the Rev. H.L. Harvey invited the city's police officers to a reconciliation service at his church. More than 70 showed up for talk, prayer and a chicken dinner. "I was trying to bring some healing to the city," Harvey said, "because there is none."
Yet despite such goodwill efforts, the rhetoric remains sharp.
Tensions surged earlier this month when the city's most prominent black leader acknowledged writing a letter that called police officers rapists and killers.
The Rev. Damon Lynch III said the letter was mailed to tourist and business groups across the nation; it urged a boycott of Cincinnati because of an intolerable "level of racism, discrimination, tyranny and general oppression in every area of life here. ... Police are killing, raping, planting false evidence."
Incensed, Mayor Charlie Luken fired Lynch from a much-touted race relations commission set up after the riots.
That, in turn, set off a firestorm in the black community. The morning after Lynch was ousted, callers bombarded WDBZ-AM talk radio with protests. "Damon Lynch stood by the truth," one caller insisted, practically shouting. "The black community needs to go out in the streets and ... put this city in an uproar."
Despite the tough talk, there are no indications the city will again collapse into civil unrest. There are no protest marches. The proposed boycott of downtown businesses has been a flop. Yet the us-against-them stance that provoked the riots clearly has taken hold.
The frustration has been building for months, stoked by the acquittals of the officers in the Owensby case and by a series of personnel decisions at the Cincinnati Police Division.
Two officers with troubling records were promoted to sergeant last month; one had body-slammed an Alzheimer's patient while responding to a disturbance call, and the other had menaced a colleague on the force, hitting her in the lip and threatening her with a gun. A third officer, who admitted to planting drugs on a suspect to trick him into a confession, won his job back in arbitration after the city tried to fire him.
The cases revived old resentments among critics who long have complained that police here are above the law -- and act it.
Over at police union headquarters, Officer Keith Fangman feels besieged.
In the last year alone, the Justice Department and the FBI have launched separate investigations of the Cincinnati police. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit accusing police of racial profiling. Three officers have been put on trial and acquitted: two for Owensby's death and one for the incident that sparked the April riots, the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man who was fleeing arrest on foot. In addition, 57 officers have been named as defendants in civil suits, many accusing them of excessive force.
In his office, facing his desk, Fangman has hung a piece of poster board scrawled with an ugly, anti-police expletive. He found it on the front door of the union hall the second night of the riots, next to a spray-painted swastika. Fangman, the union president, keeps the sign where he can see it "as a reminder of what we're up against."
It does not put him in a conciliatory mood.
One by one, Fangman ticked off the complaints directed at his cops. One by one, he ridiculed them.
Take the Justice Department's preliminary report with 25 recommendations for reform. Fangman supports a few of them, including a call to consolidate officers' disciplinary records so that it's easier to spot and track problems. Others, however, strike him as lunacy.
The report suggests that Cincinnati officers may be too quick to brandish their guns -- pulling them out, for instance, any time they stop a car with tinted windows. Fangman snorted. If he stops a car in a bad area at night and he can't see in the windows, he's going to unholster his gun, no matter what the federal government says. "If people are offended at that, tough. This is the real world. My safety is more important than their feelings."
Another critique from the report is that Cincinnati police are too hasty to use Mace and sometimes use too much of it. Citizens "ought to consider themselves lucky that we have chemical irritant, because if we didn't, a lot more people would be going to the hospital before they go to jail," he said, insisting Mace is the best way to subdue a suspected criminal without injury. "That's my response to a lot of black leaders who whine about chemical irritant," said Fangman, who is white.
Yes, Fangman said, Cincinnati police have killed 18 suspects -- all but one of them black -- over the last six years. But he pointed out that 14 of the victims were threatening police with deadly weapons.
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