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How Cincinnati learned from riots in 2001

Updated

In many ways, the fallout seen after the recent police-involved shooting in Cincinnati has been the exception to the rule.

The case became an outlier almost immediately after University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing opened fire during a routine traffic stop last weekend, killing an unarmed black man with a single gunshot to the head. In the short time since the confrontation occurred, prosecutors have convened a grand jury, completed its investigation and released video footage of the fatal shooting. The officer has been charged with murder, arrested and fired.

All this in just 10 days.

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It’s a warp-speed pace in a case unlike any other high-profile police-involved shooting to have captured national attention in the last year. Not only was video footage of the fatal shooting in Cincinnati captured by the officer’s body camera, but prosecutors condemned Tensing in the harshest terms yet seen from any officials handling similar investigations. Just one day after victim Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old father of 10, was laid to rest, few questions surrounding his death remained outstanding. His family was given at least some closure in the wake of tragedy — which is rare in these types of situations.

“Thank God that this one did not go unsolved and hidden,” his mother, Audrey DuBose, said after the county prosecutor announced charges against Tensing. “I’m so thankful that everything was uncovered.”

But looming over the case’s swift resolution has been memory of a time in Cincinnati’s not-so-distant past, when residents saw what could happen when the criminal justice system appeared to work against them. In 2001, the city was engulfed in flames from the biggest riots the nation had seen since the demonstrations in Los Angeles nearly a decade earlier. Hundreds of people took to the streets for three full nights, outraged over the death of an unarmed 19-year-old, Timothy Thomas.

RELATED: Benjamin Crump: ‘What happened to Samuel DuBose was not an anomaly’

That April, Thomas engaged in a foot chase with police shortly after 2 a.m. when a radio dispatcher alerted the officers that the teen was wanted on 14 open warrants. The public later learned they were minor infractions, mostly misdemeanors and traffic citations. At one point in the chase, Thomas darts into a dark alley with an officer in hot pursuit. A shot rings out almost immediately. The officer, 27-year-old Stephen Roach, said he thought he saw Thomas reach for a gun in his waistband, but no weapon was found. Thomas was pronounced dead on the scene with a single bullet fired into his heart.

“So many times people have said Cincinnati has been through this 15 years ago and have made a lot of improvements — not perfection — but improvements.”
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

Public outrage over the shooting soon grew as residents in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhone neighborhood vented their frustrations on the streets. The unrest roiled the city for three nights. Officials called for a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew was imposed. Riot police swept the streets, firing off rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. Dozens of people were injured, more than 800 arrested.

It was more than just Thomas’ death that triggered the public’s visceral reaction. That year, he was the 15th African-American man killed by a police officer since 1996. Trust between the police and the community they were tasked with protecting had been waning for years. Thomas’ death simply lit a match to a powder keg that was poised to explode.

A month before the unrest, the ACLU partnered with groups to sue the city of Cincinnati, alleging that the police department had engaged in racial profiling for more than 30 years. The lawsuit resulted in the ACLU, Cincinnati Black United Front, the city’s police and their union adopting a Collaborative Agreement, a community-focused approach toward policing. The agreement dramatically revamped policies and how new recruits are trained, establishing a process for when police use of force is investigated and tracked. A federal monitor was tasked to follow the department for the next six years to ensure compliance.

Much has changed since the Cincinnati riots, thanks in part to reforms instituted in the wake of Thomas’ death. Fearing that the latest shooting in Cincinnati would trigger the same unrest that roiled the city in 2001, the family of Samuel DuBose urged supporters to remain peaceful in their calls for justice. City officials encouraged people to demonstrate, but made clear that law enforcement would not accept violence. 

RELATED: Officer pleads ‘not guilty’ to murder in death of unarmed black man

“So many times people have said Cincinnati has been through this 15 years ago and have made a lot of improvements — not perfection — but improvements,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said Wednesday. ”We are proud of the progress we made as a community — it was not easy.”

One of the many reasons why the investigation into DuBose’s death was resolved so quickly is largely because the officer was wearing a university-issued body camera on his uniform. The University of Cincinnati police force has been using body cameras 2004, one of the only campus departments in the country to have such a program. 

More reforms are on the way. Cincinnati’s police department is in the process of enacting its own body camera program. And the University of Cincinnati has pledged to hold an independent, external review of all policing protocols, training and policies.

But city and county officials have stressed the distinction between the jurisdictions involved in DuBose’s death. Tensing was a 25-year-old officer and had been with the university police force for little over a year before the shooting. “He should never have been a police officer,” Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters said Wednesday. The campus police have different training standards and protocols and their jurisdiction is dramatically different than the city’s department.

“We’re engaged with our citizenry — they know us,” Cincinnati police chief Jeffrey Blackwell told NBC News’ Sarah Dallof. “First of all, they know it wasn’t us.”

Black Lives Matter, Ohio and Sam DuBose

How Cincinnati learned from riots in 2001

Updated