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Federal probe of deaths sought

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

Dismayed over the deaths of two blacks at the hands of Cincinnati police this week, the NAACP and other African-American groups Thursday called for a U.S. Justice Department investigation and announced plans for a protest rally at City Hall Sunday.

''We don't understand why there are so many young black men being shot by our police department,'' said Rev. Aaron Greenlea, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference and co-chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Faith Community Alliance.

A federal investigation into the police department, the NAACP officials and ministers said at a Walnut Hills news conference, could be the first step toward answering that question.

''Two in 24 (hours) is devastating,'' said outgoing local NAACP president Milton Hinton, referring to the deaths Tuesday and Wednesday. ''With the initial killing, we were poised to let the process take its course. With the second killing, that was no longer a viable option.''

In the first incident, 29-year-old Roger Owensby Jr. died Tuesday - of ''mechanical asphyxiation,'' according to a coroner's report - while in police custody outside a Roselawn gas station. Nineteen hours later, Cincinnati police Wednesday shot and killed a suspected shoplifter - 30-year-old Jeffrey Irons of Chicago - in Pleasant Ridge after Irons grabbed one officer's gun and wounded another officer who had been chasing him.

The 2 p.m. Sunday rally outside City Hall, Hinton said, will underline the black community's concern over those incidents - and other police-suspect confrontations in recent years that have resulted in deaths or serious injuries - and press the call for a Justice Department investigation.

Keith Fangman, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said that while officers involved in shootings already undergo six independent investi gations, the union would not object to ''letting the Justice Department review these cases with a fine-tooth comb.''

''We find it unfortunate that the police critics have shown no concern for our officer who was shot by a violent suspect who grabbed another officer's gun,'' Fangman said. ''Instead, the officers are being criticized. That's unbelievable and is indicative of what we are up against.''

The NAACP officials, ministers and other black leaders, however, questioned whether inadequate police training and what they described as the police department's ''culture'' con tributed heavily to both of this week's fatalities.

Police, Rev. Greenlea said, should never have allowed a chase over a minor offense such as shoplifting to escalate to where deadly force was involved - albeit, only after Irons put officers and himself at risk by taking and firing an officer's gun.

''It shouldn't have gone that far,'' Rev. Greenlea said. ''We're wrong to take life over such simple things. Life is too precious to be taken over (stolen) deodorant or suspicion of a person that they think might be someone they're looking for.''

Police Chief Thomas Streicher, though, emphasizes that it was Irons, not the police officers pursuing him, who ''elevated it to a life or death situation.''

''When a suspect takes a weapon from an officer, it's obvious his intention is not to surrender peacefully,'' Streicher said. The officer wounded by Irons was shot in his left hand and suffered a head laceration that required staples to close.

In the other case, Rev. Damon Lynch III, a spokesman for the Cincinnati Black United Front, characterized Owensby as a victim of racial profiling.

''Roger Owensby is dead now because he was profiled - he looked like somebody they were looking for,'' Lynch said. ''The problem in America right now is that skin color has become evidence of a propensity to commit crime. That is what race profiling is about.''

Fangman, pointing out that two of the primary officers involved in the Owensby incident are black, dismissed the charges of racial profiling as ''blatantly untrue.''

But the black leaders said the fact that African-American officers were involved does not alter their perspective.

''There's a culture in the police division, white, black, red or yellow,'' Lynch said. ''It's a para-military organization...It doesn't matter whether they're black officers or white officers. It's always black people dead.''

Police officials have given conficting accounts of why Owensby was stopped in Roselawn. As an officer was about to handcuff him outside the gas station, Owensby fled, leading to a brief struggle before he was finally taken into custody by five officers.

Accounts differ, however, on what transpired during those critical moments. Some witnesses say that shortly after bolting from police, Owensby stopped and turned around as if to surrender. Another eyewitness, however, claims that the officers tackled Owensby and choked him with a baton before placing him in the back seat of a police cruiser. Moments later, the officers pulled Owensby out of the car and applied CPR. Owensby was transported to University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In his autopsy report, Dr. Carl Parrott, Hamilton County coroner, said that Owensby's death appears to have resulted from a chokehold or a ''piling of restraints, one or the other or both.''

Cincinnati police homicide detectives and internal affairs officials are investigating the deaths. But the NAACP officials and ministers, noting that most internal police probes typically clear officers involved in controversial shootings, said only a federal Justice Department investigation is likely to be perceived as objective and thorough by many in the black community.

''History has taught us not to trust internal investigations, not to trust policemen to investigate policemen,'' Hinton said.

In addition to seeking Justice Department intervention, the groups at Thursday's news conference urged city leaders to independently request a federal probe.

Fangman expressed confidence that any investigation - by the Justice Department or any other agency - would find the officers' actions justifiable.

The latest cases, Lynch added, demonstrate the need for citizens to look over the shoulder of police on the street - especially during arrests and confrontations with suspects.

''No arrest in this city from here on out should ever be done in the dark or without witnesses,'' Lynch said. ''Anybody in the African American community or the white community, if you see an arrest taking place, if you see a stop taking place, you have an obligation to pull over and witness that until it's over.''

Publication date: 11-10-00

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