It's Been 20 Years Since The 2001 Civil Unrest In Cincinnati

Apr 5, 2021

Some people think the tensions between Cincinnati's Black community and the city's police force began on a night in April 2001, when a white police officer chased a 19-year-old Black man into a dark Over-the-Rhine alleyway and killed him with a single shot to the heart.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is the shooting of Timothy Thomas by then-officer Stephen Roach was the lighted match thrown into a highly combustible cauldron of distrust and anger that had been stewing for years and led to six days and nights of civil unrest that gripped the city in fear.

In the six years leading up to the shooting of Thomas, 15 Black men had died in confrontations with police.

There was a growing outrage in Cincinnati's Black community and tensions between the people in African American neighborhoods were running high.

Only a month before Roach shot and killed the unarmed Thomas in that dark Over-the-Rhine alleyway, the ACLU, the Black United Front (headed by the Rev. Damon Lynch III and community activist Iris Roley) joined a 1999 federal lawsuit filed by a Black Cincinnatian, Bomani Tyehimba, claiming Cincinnati police had discriminated against African American citizens for more than 30 years.

And in March, before the Thomas shooting, then-police chief Thomas Streicher made what to many was a startling acknowledgement when he said, indeed, some Cincinnati police did discriminate against Blacks in their policing.

The lawsuit, in 2002, led to what's now known as the Collaborate Agreement among the ACLU, the Cincinnati Black United Front, the city of Cincinnati and the Fraternal Order of Police which required police to adopt community-oriented policing. A federal monitor oversaw compliance with the agreement for six years and there is general agreement that police-community relations have been much better – not perfect, but better – in the intervening years.

But for nearly a week in April 2001, the city went through its worst crisis in more than a century. Days and nights that swung from violent confrontations between protestors and police, peaceful demonstrations in the streets, acts of wanton vandalism, and fires lighting the night sky in Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and other neighborhoods.

The violence and vandalism led then-mayor Charlie Luken to declare a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. More than 800 people were arrested for curfew violations. Of those arrested in the disturbances, 63 people were indicted on felony charges in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

And, ultimately, Roach – who had left the Cincinnati Police Department to join a suburban police force – was acquitted on a charge of negligent homicide, which set off some more isolated incidents of civil unrest.

The Spark

The spark that lit the flame in Cincinnati 20 years ago was a police shooting that happened in the heat of the moment, and, by any objective standard, should never have happened.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on the morning of April 7, the 19-year-old Thomas was chased on foot by Cincinnati Police officers through his home neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine. A police dispatcher had told officers that Thomas was wanted on 14 open warrants. What the dispatcher did not say and what none of the officers involved in the chase knew was that Thomas' outstanding warrants were mostly on misdemeanors and traffic violations – not violent crimes.

Thomas, chased by Officer Roach, ducked into an alleyway off Republic Street. Almost immediately, a single shot rang out. Thomas laid dead in the alley, shot through the heart.

Roach later said he thought he saw Thomas reach for a gun in his waistband, but no weapon was found.

It was a shooting that probably would have never taken place had the Collaborative Agreement existed, because one of the reforms was that police cruisers were equipped with computers and any officer involved in the chase of Thomas could have seen the teenager's record of minor infractions and decided to halt the chase and pick him up later at his home.

But that was not available to Roach or other officers involved that night.

The Fire

The boiling point of frustration and anger did not come until April 9, two days after the Thomas shooting. When it did, it sparked six days and nights of civil unrest, mostly focused in Over-the-Rhine and Downtown.

On that afternoon, a group of 200 protestors – including Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure – gathered outside Cincinnati City Hall where John Cranley, then a new council member, was holding a meeting of the Law and Public Safety Committee. They were demanding the results of the investigation of the shooting but were told it was not complete.

Council members were essentially trapped in City Hall for three hours when the protestors got no response to their demands.

By early evening, several hundred protestors gathered outside the Cincinnati Police District 1 headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive in the West End, where they were met by dozens of police officers on horseback and in police cruisers. It turned violent when people in the crowd began throwing bottles and stones at the police and smashed the building's front door. Police fired back with tear gas, bean bags and rubber bullets, which eventually broke up the crowd. There were 10 arrests that night.

A protester stands in front of mounted Cincinnati Police, dressed in riot gear, outside police headquarters during a protest in Cincinnati, Monday, April 9, 2001. 
Credit Tom Uhlman / AP

The next afternoon, after a peaceful protest on Fountain Square, a group of about 30 African Americans, mostly very young, started moving up Vine Street toward Over-the-Rhine. They were followed by police on horseback and in cruisers.

At some point, part of the group turned around and headed back downtown, picking up more support along the way. In the Central Business District, they went through the streets overturning vendor carts, newspaper boxes and trash cans. Then they began smashing the windows of storefronts and looting the businesses.

Police moved in on horseback or with linked arms and began firing the bean bags, tear gas and rubber bullets. Police made 66 arrests that night.

On Tuesday, April 10, 2001, in Cincinnati, police fired bean bags and rubber bullets to quell demonstrators who broke windows Downtown in a protest over the police shooting of Timothy Thomas and other Black men.
Credit Tom Uhlman / AP

But they needed help because vandalism and disturbances began breaking out in other majority Black neighborhoods such as Avondale and Walnut Hills. Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputies were called to help in the other neighborhoods. The crowds dispersed throughout the city in the early morning hours of April 11.

The night of April 11 brought more of the same to Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

More businesses were vandalized and looted. Another 82 were arrested.

By April 12, most Downtown businesses were shut down. Many of their employees were simply too scared to go to work. That night saw more destruction and looting.

By the morning of April 13, Mayor Luken imposed his curfew – the entire city was to shut down from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Only those who needed to travel for work were allowed on the streets. The Enquirer, which was sending people out to cover the civil unrest 24 hours a day, printed up large yellow "MEDIA" signs to put in the windows of their personal cars to identify themselves to police.

Luken also declared a "state of emergency." He asked for and received the help of 125 Ohio Highway Patrol troopers to help keep the peace in the city. About 800 people were arrested for curfew violations.

The Simmer

On the morning of April 14, Timothy Thomas was laid to rest after a funeral in Over-the-Rhine. Afterward, about 2,000 people staged a peaceful march to Downtown.

The worst of the violence was over. The damage, though, remained – an estimated $3.6 million in private property damage. The Cincinnati Business Courier reported the disturbances cost the city of Cincinnati $1.5 million to $2 million for staff and equipment, along with damage to city facilities.

In the months following the civil unrest, the Cincinnati Black United Front staged an economic boycott of the city which cost an estimated $10 million in cancelled conventions and entertainers who called off appearances in Cincinnati.

In the year to come, it was a difficult path that the parties to the federal lawsuit had to negotiate to be able to sign a collaborative agreement on April 12, 2002 – just a year after Timothy Thomas died. 

It has been a strained relationship over the years. In 2003, the FOP asked to withdraw from the agreement, but a federal magistrate refused.

By 2015, police use of force incidents had been reduced by 69%.

It has sometimes been a rocky road, but the Collaborative Agreement, with its emphasis on community-based policing has held up. In 2017, the parties to the agreement did a "refresh" to update the agreement and find new ways of improving police-community relations.

"Cincinnati is not afraid to look at itself and self-reflect," then-city manager Harry Black said at the time the refresh was announced. "This is yet another example of the city's commitment to continuous improvement."

This article is part of WVXU's special series looking back at the civil unrest of 2001 on the 20th anniversary of the event. Read more here.

We acknowledge in 2001 it was common to call what happened in Cincinnati April 9-14 a "riot." So why aren't we calling it that now? Through re-examining the events of 2001 and similar occurrences over the past 20 years, we acknowledge "riot" is a racially fraught word that doesn’t depict the full complexity of these multifaceted situations. We believe words like "civil unrest" or "uprising” better reflect what occurred in Over-the-Rhine in terms of many people mobilizing to seek structural societal changes following the killing of Black men by Cincinnati Police.

To learn more about how Cincinnati Public Radio is addressing racism and inequality in our coverage and in our community, please see our Statement on Diversity and Inclusion, and share your feedback by emailing newsroom@wvxu.org.