U.S.: "Riotville: Other Cities Smolder"

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

[I post this item since it seems quite possible that a long hot DARK summer in California (and perhaps elsewhere?) combined with any provocation or even rumor, might spark repeats of Los Angeles 1992 or Cincinnati 2001...]

Headline: Riotville: As Ashcroft Announces He'll Investigate Police Homicides in Cincinnati, Other Cities Smolder

Source: Lindsay Sobel, The American Prospect, 4 June 2001 (web posted 11 May 2001)

URL: http://www.prospect.org/print-friendly/webfeatures/2001/05/sobel-l-05-08.html

A grand jury charged Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach with negligent homicide Monday for the shooting of an unarmed African-American man that sparked three nights of riots. The same day, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced he is launching a civil rights investigation of the Cincinnati Police Department. While the investigation is thoroughly justified -- officers have killed 15 suspects, all of them black males, since 1995 -- the Justice Department and others should not wait until tense race relations explode in riots before they start trying to address glaring problems.

Numerous cities today have shocking levels of police homicide, racial profiling, segregation, and poverty -- all factors that observers say led to Cincinnati's unrest. Like Cincinnati, many big-city police departments have failed to adequately diversify their force, leading African Americans and other minorities to fear they are victims of racial profiling. And cities remain appallingly segregated with high levels of poverty among minority residents.

Though other factors fueled the anger, the killing of Timothy Thomas provided the spark in Cincinnati. The same day the grand jury charged the Cincinnati police officer with wrongfully shooting Thomas, the city of Chicago settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with the family of an unarmed woman shot to death by the police in 1999. LaTanya Haggerty was a passenger in a car police were chasing, and they mistook her cell phone for a weapon, firing on her on the spot.

Like Cincinnati, Chicago is extremely segregated and has high levels of poverty, especially among African Americans. And Chicago's police force is even less integrated than Cincinnati's; African Americans make up almost half of Chicago's population, but only a quarter of its force.

Given that segments of the black community often feel that police departments target African Americans for harassment and excessive force, predominantly white departments add to the distrust that can lead to riots says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The University at Albany's John Logan adds, "Residential segregation is always one of the factors behind bad race relations." Add police homicides in troubled cities, and racial resentment can spark chaos.

The signs of trouble are not subtle. Last month, angry citizens protested a St. Louis police officer accused of beating an African American burglary suspect to death. They chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, St. Louis like Cincinnati is ready to blow!" St. Louis too, is one of the poorest and most segregated cities in America -- and its police force doesn't represent its population. Other cities with some of the highest levels of racial isolation and poverty include Cleveland, Newark, Gary, and Milwaukee. In all of them, African Americans are seriously underrepresented on the police force.

Of all American cities, however, Detroit seems ready to explode -- as it has before. In 2000, there were at least 8 fatal shootings by the police; its police homicide rate is higher than Los Angeles' and twice as high as New York City's. In one case, police shot Errol Shaw, a 48-year-old deaf man, while he was standing in his own driveway holding only a garden rake. On top of killings by the police, Detroit is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country; though African Americans make up 82 percent of Detroit residents, they only make up half of its police department. The city also has the highest poverty rate of any big city -- almost a third of its residents live below the poverty line according to the 1990 census.

Police homicide is not restricted to a few notorious cities. Within the past few years: An officer in Sacramento, California shot Donald Venerable Jr. because he thought the suspect's cell phone was a gun; Providence, Rhode Island police officers mistakenly killed an African American fellow officer; an officer killed a black actor at a Halloween party in the Hollywood Hills believing his toy gun was a real one; an officer in Tampa, Florida shot and killed a teenager in a stolen car; and four police officers in Riverside, California shot a woman 12 times when she reached for a gun in her lap after the cops startled her from sleep by breaking her car window. And of course, New York police killed the innocent and unarmed Amadou Diallo with 41 bullets. The list goes on.

Though some individual departments have taken action to deal with police homicide, there is no national accounting system to compare its prevalence across localities. Without data, it is hard to hold cities accountable. Despite the fact that a 1994 law requires the Justice Department to gather such data, many police departments refuse to collect or report it.

Reflecting the extent to which police departments have resisted the amassing of incriminating data, the Justice department released a report in March titled, "Policing and Homicide, 1976-98: Justifiable Homicide by Police, Police Officers Murdered by Felons." Trying to explain the heavily biased title of the report, the authors write: Killings by police are referred to as "justifiable homicides" and the persons that police kill are referred to as "felons." These terms reflect the view of the police agencies that provide the data. . . According to the admittedly incomplete report, young black males make up 1 percent of the population, but 14 percent of those killed by the police. Likewise, in 1998, police killed African Americans at four times the rate of whites; that's an improvement on 1978, when police killed blacks at eight times the rate of whites compared to each one's percentage of the U.S. population.

It is not only police homicide that leads African American city dwellers to feel victimized by the police. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report from a 1999 survey on racial profiling, African Americans nationwide are more likely than whites to experience police threat or use of force. They are more likely to be pulled over (despite the fact that they are no more likely to violate traffic laws). In traffic stops, African Americans are more likely to be searched, ticketed, handcuffed, and/or arrested -- even though searches of white drivers or their cars were more likely to turn up criminal evidence.

In Cincinnati, anger at the combination of injustices simply boiled over. "It could happen in a variety of American cities at any point in time, and [we will] never know what will trigger it," says Douglas Massey, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. We may not know the catalyst, but we know the causes well. If the Justice Department and other responsible bodies would start conducting investigations and applying solutions before the riots break out, maybe we wouldn't have to publish so many shocking reports from amidst the rubble.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), May 11, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ