Cincinnati policeman Keith Fangman appeared on ABC’s This Week program yesterday and offered a series of facts that cast a discomforting new light on the riots that erupted there after a police man fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Timothy Thomas on April 7. Against this backdrop some have taken the fact that Cincinnati police have shot 15 black males to death since 1995 as proof that white cops in Cincinnati pick off black men as if for target practice.
But there’s much more to this than the shouted slogans and shattered shop windows reveal.
“Of the 15 police intervention deaths involving black males since 1995, 12 of those 15 suspects were armed with deadly weapons,” said Fangman, a beat cop and president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police. “Eight of them were armed with guns in which they shot at our officers or pointed guns at our officers. One was armed with a brick. One was armed with a two-by-four with a cluster of nails on the end of it. And two were armed with automobiles, one in which our officer was dragged to his death.”
Fangman noted that journalists have distorted this situation into a starkly black-white affair while the reality is far more gray.
“It’s been falsely reported in the media that these are 15 white officers involved in these deaths,” Fangman said. “That’s not true. Prior to the Timothy Thomas shooting, we had three shooting incidents in a two-month period. Three of those shooting incidents were all done by black officers. Two black officers shot and killed two black suspects that shot at them. A third black officer shot and critically wounded a black suspect who robbed a bank and then pointed the gun at the police officer.”
Fangman also pointed out that since 1995, Cincinnati has suffered 238 murders, of which 80 percent have been black-on-black homicides.
While he conceded on This Week that “black bigotry is just as cruel and evil as white bigotry,” NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said nothing to denounce the misdeeds of these or any other black perpetrators or suspects. In fact, he belittled the facts Fangman presented as “finger pointing” and “what happened in the past.”
Timothy Thomas’s life ended violently and at age 19. His death left his family, friends and neighbors monumentally aggrieved and frustrated. However, there is no escaping the fact that he led Cincinnati police officers on a chase on foot and over several fences after they tried to arrest him on 14 outstanding misdemeanor warrants, mainly for traffic violations. According to the Los Angeles Times, police had tried twice before to arrest Thomas. He fled each time.
Thomas should have surrendered peacefully and argued his case before a judge. Once he saw Thomas leap into an alley, perhaps Officer Steve Roach should have aimed at Thomas’s leg to hobble rather than kill him. But how would he know that Thomas might not fall to the ground, then attack him with a switchblade — or worse — before being handcuffed? Indeed, Roach says he shot Thomas in the chest when he saw him reach into his waistband, as if for a gun. While Roach was lethally in error, had Thomas reached for the stars when cops approached him, Cincinnati would be a calm city of 331,000 residents, Thomas among them.
The Cincinnati police department’s use of pepper spray and high-velocity beanbags against peaceful demonstrators is much harder to justify. Critics of urban police departments often correctly denounce the deployment of excessive force when more restrained methods would suffice. The War on Drugs criminalizes activity that should be legal among adults, thus giving police a portfolio of powers to accost blacks — and others — that legislators never should have granted. And, of course, there are some white cops who pick on black citizens because they dislike their skin color.
But the one thing almost holistically absent from this national discussion is the notion that black criminals bear any responsibility for driving their law-abiding brethren into police dragnets. Indeed, black offenders are one of the root causes of racial profiling.
When the authorities seek a 20-year-old, five-foot, 10-inch tall, black male for robbing an elderly black man at gunpoint, it is not bias but sound policing to question black men who match that description. Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, and Maxine Waters would excoriate the police in this situation while uttering nary a syllable about the young, black hoodlum behind the initial armed robbery and the suspicion it consequently casts on decent young men who resemble him.
Two years ago, four undercover New York police officers sought a black suspect who allegedly had raped four dozen women in minority communities between 1993 and 1999. On a darkened Bronx stoop on February 4, 1999, they encountered a young black man with an uncanny likeness to the police artist’s sketch of the accused rapist. Either overzealous or confused, they opened fire and shot him 19 times. After he died, police learned he was not Issaac Jones, who would be arrested the following April 7 for four rapes, but Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant.
Had Issaac Jones not forced himself on his black, female accusers, Diallo might be alive today. Police suspected Jones of raping and robbing 51 women during 30 attacks in the Bronx, eight in Harlem and one in suburban Mount Vernon. Jones happened to live about a mile from Diallo, according to the Associated Press.
Of course, Issaac Jones’s name has remained almost entirely outside this discussion. (The Nexis news database discovered a total of eight mentions of Jones, but stopped retrieving citations about Diallo after finding 1,000 of them.) Jones’s mere presence undermines the myth that a rogue gang of white cops — inspired by Gotham’s Bigot-in-Chief Rudy Giuliani — unloaded their sidearms into Diallo due to race hatred or maybe just for laughs.
Facts are stubborn things. The ongoing debate over racial profiling and law enforcement in America’s black communities would benefit from less chest beating and more facts about the direct and indirect victims of black criminals — stubborn and unpleasant though these facts may be.