Warning shots in Cincinnati

Rioting: Better training and renewal of trust sorely needed to prevent outbreaks of unrest.

April 13, 2001

WHAT AN appalling disaster when police and citizens fall to shooting each other.

With so much crime drawing police into open warfare with drug dealers, the risk rises before our eyes. Sadly, every city must think of itself as a tinderbox of potential flare-ups.

In Baltimore, brazen criminals protecting their turf have killed policemen. Police, by turns, have been charged with serious misconduct.

In one well-known case, a jury freed a man charged with deliberately ramming a police vehicle.

The police, jurors said afterward, were a bigger threat than the criminals. That is but one bit of shocking evidence that the fundamental trust between community and cop is deeply frayed.

The friction may be inevitable as police try to wrest blocks of the city away from gangs whose drug selling leads to war with other gangs. But if police and honest citizens can't find a way to restore a working relationship, the conflict will worsen.

Case in point: In Cincinnati, the shooting death of a 19-year-old man by police unleashed a wave of community outrage and demonstrations this week. And more shootings: Police fired rubber bullets and beanbags into crowds of demonstrators.

The mayor declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. The City Council postponed its meeting. Shops were looted.

Once this level of unrest descends, the difficulty of restoring order cannot be understated. People who lived through the hot summers of the 1960s saw lives lost, houses torches and businesses invaded.

And they saw inevitably provocative cordons of police in riot gear attempting to protect life and restore stability.

The confrontation in Cincinnati came after Timothy Thomas was fatally shot as he ran from a police officer trying to arrest him on 14 warrants. Mr. Thomas was wanted for misdemeanors and traffic violations, including driving without a license and failing to wear a seat belt.

Quite appropriately -- if somewhat tardily -- the FBI announced a civil rights investigation: Fifteen black men have been killed by officers in Cincinnati since 1995.

Other police departments will be well-advised to conduct their own investigations -- of training, of procedure, of policy and of attitude -- before they face angry mobs in their own cities this summer. Both sides need to reach a much higher level of understanding to restore trust and avoid more loss of life.

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