Cincinnati residents urged to see tape of beating

Officials say video proves police did nothing wrong

December 03, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CINCINNATI, Ohio - In an era when video recordings of police beatings have sparked riots and brought down chiefs, officials in this racially polarized city are urging people to watch a seven-minute video showing police in a fatal brawl with a 350-pound black man, asserting that the tape proves that the officers behaved correctly.

The man, Nathaniel Jones, 41, died shortly after the confrontation outside a White Castle restaurant early Sunday, in which he was repeatedly struck about the arms, shoulders, legs and back by two white police officers wielding aluminum nightsticks.

An initial autopsy report said Jones had an enlarged heart consistent with heart disease, and evidence of cocaine and the drug phencyclidien, or PCP, in his system. A final conclusion on the cause of his death is expected today.

A number of agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the city's Citizen Complaint Authority, are investigating the incident.

In 2001, Cincinnati erupted in three days of protests, street clashes and vandalism that left scores of people injured after police fatally shot an unarmed 19-year-old black man who was fleeing arrest. The shooting was the 15th time a person died in police custody in six years; all of the victims were black men.

This time, city officials are hoping to quell anger in the black community by aggressively taking to the airwaves to urge patience and to defend the officers' actions. At the heart of their campaign is the videotape, which was recorded by a small camera mounted on the dashboard of one of the police officers' cruisers.

So far, there have been no disturbances linked to Jones' death, police said. But some black community leaders remain dissatisfied with the city's explanation.

The tape shows that after a brief verbal confrontation, one of the officers shouts, "Back up!" Then Jones charges him, apparently trying to grab him around the neck.

Two officers tackle Jones and jab and pummel him with their nightsticks, all the while trying to handcuff him. Repeatedly they shout, "Put your arms behind your back." After Jones is subdued, one officer can be heard saying: "He's got a pulse. He's not breathing."

City officials contend the tape - which was released in its entirety to television stations on Monday - shows that the officers used appropriate force to defend themselves against a hulking man. They have scheduled a community meeting for tonight at which they intend to show the full video.

"While it is hard for me to look at, there are several times in the video where the officers have the opportunity to hit this man in his head and they don't," Mayor Charlie Luken said in an interview. "I don't see anything in there that shows they did anything other than go by the book."

The initial autopsy report by the Hamilton County coroner, Dr. Carl L. Parrott Jr., concluded that Jones did not have injuries to his head and that his internal organs were not damaged in the beating. The coroner's office also said yesterday that a bag containing 0.36 grams of cocaine and two cigarettes that had been dipped in PCP were found in Jones' car.

"Each of these drugs is a central nervous system stimulant and has been associated in some cases with bizarre and violently aggressive behavior," the coroner's office said.

But the tape has not cooled the anger of many residents. Jones' family has hired a lawyer who told a local television station that the tape shows that the officers did not give Jones a chance to surrender.

Many black community leaders say much of the beating occurred below the police cruiser's front bumper, outside the camera's vision. It is possible, they contend, that the officers struck Jones in the head or used excessive force during those moments.

They also have questioned why paramedics who were on the scene before police arrived left just before, or possibly during, the beating. The paramedics did not return until several minutes after Jones had stopped breathing.

But the biggest question involves a 97-second gap near the beginning of the tape. Before the gap, officers can be seen talking to Jones; afterward, he charges at them. Many black community leaders contend that those missing seconds might have shown that police provoked the attack.

"Those 97 seconds are really crucial," said the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church.

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