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Suit kicks off battle over racial profiling

By Paul Gottbrath, Post staff reporter

Two groups and a Bond Hill businessman filed suit in federal court this morning against the city of Cincinnati, alleging years of misconduct by the Cincinnati Police Division in the way it treats African Americans.

The plaintiffs - Bomani Tyehimba, the Cincinnati Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio - hope to turn the case into a class action that will fundamentally change police/community relations. But before they litigate, they said they are willing to mediate their complaints with the city to reach that same end.

”If the city refuses to address the community's concerns, the courts will,” said Scott Greenwood, a Cincinnati attorney who is general counsel for the ACLU of Ohio.

The suit alleges police stops, detentions and searches based on race. It claims that blacks are more often the target of police force, and are disproportionately charged with minor traffic violations and other so-called ”discretionary offenses” such as jaywalking.

The plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction immediately to prohibit police from continuing those practices.

Police spokesman Lt. Ray Ruberg declined comment on the suit.

Tyehimba filed suit in federal court nearly two years ago, claiming that police officers Todd Ploehs and Brett Stratmann violated his civil rights during a traffic stop. He said they handcuffed him and pointed a gun at his head, before releasing him.

He was charged with two traffic violations and paid fines to settle them, he said.

said.

He was charged with two traffic violations and paid fines to settle them, he said.

”They detained me a lot longer than they should have,” said Tyehimba, who attended a press conference at city hall today announcing the suit.

Employing a mediator to resolve the dispute is unprecedented, said Alphonse Gerhardstein, who with Ken Lawson and Greenwood makes up the legal team that put the suit together.

”We really want to try to do something different here,” he said.

Past attempts to resolve disputes between the city and the African American community have been hampered by a lack of means to ensure the city keeps the promises it makes, he said.

The plaintiffs proposed Jay Rothman of Yellow Springs, Ohio, president of the ARIA Group, as mediator.

Juleana Frierson, spokeswoman for the Black United Front, described the suit as a proactive step to end Fourth Amendment violations ”and a general attitude of hostility toward African Americans” in the city.

She said the suit had three goals: to lay out the facts about police discriminationagainst blacks, to gain a determination that police are violating blacks' rights, and to obtain a court order that will lead to reforms.

Lawson, who represented Tyehimba in his original suit, said he expected the class action to gain many more clients. He has a motion pending before U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott to consolidate into the new suit about eight other cases claiming police misconduct against African Americans, he said.

Greenwood said the ACLU has filed lawsuits in 16 other locales across the nation, claiming patterns of misconduct against police, and none of them have been dismissed or lost. Commonly, they have been resolved by consent decrees signed by local governments and the people suing them.

There have been allegations for years from the African-American community that city police do illegal stops and seizures and racial profiling in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Momentum for the suit began building in November after the death of Roger Owensby, a 29-year-old College Hill man, in police custody. He was stopped at a Roselawn gas station for reasons police have yet to reveal.

Publication date: 03-14-01




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