If a police officer fires a weapon and injures an innocent little girl, is it safe to say something went wrong? What if several cops are involved? What if two little girls are injured? Plus a schoolteacher? And a bystander?
That's what happened at Liberty and Elm streets on April 14, 2001 (see Firing on Children, issue of April 19-25, 2001). But 19 months later, an internal investigation by the Cincinnati Police Department has exonerated all six officers involved.
The point of the 17-page report is a single finding: "The officers' actions conformed to policy and procedures that existed in April 2001." This can't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the handling of allegations of police misconduct in Cincinnati. But the report nonetheless gives useful insight into the way the city operates.
For example, the report repeatedly asserts the crowd was "hostile" and "threatening," despite contrary evidence by numerous witnesses. "Particular attention was given to individuals considered to be a threat because they held sticks, rocks or bottles," the report says. If that were true, why didn't the officers arrest anyone at the scene?
"All officers reported firing at threatening individuals," the report says.
If that were true, what are we to make of a special tactics team that shoots a 7-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl? Can their aim have been that bad?
"None of the officers or supervisors reported using their weapons in a reckless manner or seeing anyone using their weapon in a reckless manner," the report says.
But who expected the officers to admit firing recklessly?
Sometimes the report is unintentionally funny. For example, investigators relate the fact that car windows muffle street sounds. "The intensity of the noise increased as the members of Field Force Unit Three exited their vehicles," the report says.
Elsewhere the report says the crowd had blocked traffic — the reason for Field Force Three attacking in the first place. "The assembled crowd was obstructing northbound vehicular traffic," the report says.
But then, as if unaware of any self-contradiction, investigators mention the behavior of drivers passing the scene. "Those who were obstructing the traffic pattern sought acknowledgment from passing motorists, who acknowledged by sounding their car horns as they passed the crowd," the report says.
If motorists passed by, how much of an obstruction did the crowd actually cause?
Perhaps the report's biggest flaw is that it argues police solved a problem by firing on the crowd, without any evidence that a problem existed.
"These officers received instruction ... to only use these rounds in self-defense, defense of another or to prevent the theft or destruction of property," the report says. "The Field Force units were designed to quickly move into hostile situations and disperse crowds and stop looting."
But if looting, theft or destruction of property were underway, the report fails to mention it.
Near the end of the investigators' report comes a statement that points to the real problem: "Swift and decisive action by law enforcement at the onset of turbulent behavior offers the best chance to prevent the escalation of violence."
That has the sound of reasonableness but overlooks a salient simple fact: "swift and decisive action by law enforcement" was what started the uprising in the first place. Swift and decisive action killed Timothy Thomas, the unarmed man whose funeral preceded the gathering of the crowd at Liberty and Elm streets.
The report mentions "unprecedented" violence, noting the more than 700 arrests that followed Thomas' death. The report doesn't explain that the great majority of those arrests were for curfew violations involving no violence whatsoever.
But the report is wrong in saying what happened in April 2001 was unprecedented. The relevant precedent came in November 2000 — the last time large groups of protesters gathered in Cincinnati (see The 12-Second Warning, issue of Nov. 22-29, 2000) — when Cincinnati Police rounded up 52 peaceful demonstrators, used chemical spray on nonviolent crowds and created a state of siege for three days.
City council ignored that fiasco, just as it's failed to hold hearings on the April 2001 uprising. Instead the city has paid nearly $250,000 to settle lawsuits from the attack at Liberty and Elm, even as it's quietly settled lawsuits from November 2000.
If city council won't seriously study repression of dissent, does anyone imagine such incidents won't recur?
BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.