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On this date in 2001, a white-American police officer in Cincinnati, OH, was acquitted in the killing of an unarmed Black man. The killing sparked that city's worst racial unrest in three decades.
Officer Stephen Roach had been charged with negligent homicide and obstructing official business after he shot 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in a dark alley early April 7, 2001. Hamilton County Municipal Judge Ralph Winkler pronounced the sentence after hearing the trial without a jury, at Roach's request.
Roach did not testify. The judge said: "This shooting was a split-second reaction to a very dangerous situation created by Timothy Thomas. Police officer Roach's action was reasonable on his part, based on the information he had at the time in that dark Cincinnati alley." He said Roach's record was unblemished, while Thomas' was not.
He noted that Thomas, who was wanted on a variety of warrants, but mostly for traffic offenses, failed to respond to an order to show his hands. The Rev. Damon Lynch, a Black leader and minister in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where Thomas was shot, called the verdict "an atrocity," but said, "We'll urge people to be peaceful, as we have been doing for 10 weeks." Roach, 27, a city officer since 1997, still faced departmental administrative proceedings. Roach was believed to be the first Cincinnati officer to go to trial on charges of killing a suspect.
In three nights of rioting that followed the shooting, dozens of people were injured and more than 800 were arrested before a temporary citywide curfew ended the disturbance. The city had not seen such racial unrest since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. As a precaution, additional police officers were on duty when the verdict was announced. There were no disturbances. A crowd of about 40 Blacks gathered outside the courthouse and one yelled, "How is that justified?" Activist Kabaka Oba said the verdict shows "that the city is not willing to put a police officer in jail for killing a man unjustifiably."
After the verdict was read, Roach said: "Unfortunately, this is a tragedy for everybody involved… I would give anything to change the outcome of what happened that night." Thomas's mother, Angela Leisure, said the verdict was unfair. "Why is it that officers are not responsible for their acts when other citizens are? My son... won't be the last... Until serious changes are made in our police department, this will happen again."
At the time, Thomas was the 15th Black male killed by Cincinnati police since 1995. The police union has noted that 10 of those men had fired or pointed guns at police officers, and two of the victims drove at officers or dragged them from cars.