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Are Cincinnati Police Guilty of Racial Profiling?

Aired April 14, 2001 - 08:24   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: This week's racial violence in Cincinnati points to a deeply divided city. Fifteen black men, no whites, have died at the hands of police there since 1995. Most were armed. Some were not, however. Many say it raises a question of racial profiling.

And joining us live from Cincinnati is City Councilman Alicia Reece and from Cleveland, Ohio is Raymond Vasvari, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ohio chapter.

Ladies first, I guess. Ms. Reece, just give us a sense there, we're sort of getting a snapshot of Cincinnati right now, perhaps an unfortunate snapshot for the world to see, and I'm sure not the snapshot you want to give out. But give us some context here. What's been going on there? How much tension has been building up between the community and the police department over the years?

ALICIA REECE, CINCINNATI CITY COUNCILWOMAN: Well, there's been tension that has been building for the last five years, I guess it was heightened in the last five years with incidents that have involved the Cincinnati Police Department that have resulted in deaths of African-American men.

Let me, first of all, say I think there is an overall sense when you talk about an armed individual who points a gun at a police officer, you know, that is not the height of the frustration. The frustration becomes those who are unarmed and when you look at our statistics, crime has gone down in Cincinnati. However, these incidents have escalated and that has brought concern among the community, both black and white.

We have some other deeply rooted issues that are heightened at this time, too, such as we've been fighting over affordable housing in the City of Cincinnati. We've been fighting over the cutting of youth summer employment, which employs over 1,000 youth. So people are saying that, you know, African-American programs and things that affect the African-American community have been cut. And I've been a strong fighter for those issues and I think the time has come now for the city leadership to stand up and recognize those issues and certainly be supportive and take a stand on them.

O'BRIEN: And they might have to stand up in court to address those issues. The American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Vasvari, has filed suit to try to redress this issue of the allegation of racial profiling.

Mr. Vasvari, just tell us a little bit about the suit, what it alleges, and give us a sense of how difficult it is to prove a case like this? After all, you're trying to get inside the mind of a police officer here.

RAYMOND VASVARI, LEGAL DIRECTOR, ACLU OF OHIO: Well, what you prove in a case like this is a pattern or practice of racial discrimination or racial profiling. And we have some pretty shocking statistics on the part of Cincinnati. I'd like to stress that the suit that we brought back in March of 2001, just last month, reflects not just a five year pattern of profiling by the city, but really a 33 year pattern that was first identified after the 1967 race riots by the Kerner Commission, which Congress empowered to investigate riots in a number of cities, including Cincinnati.

And as early as 1968, that commission found that there was a serious problem of communication between the African-American community and the police and that the police used minor offenses to harass black citizens routinely. That's still true today.

This isn't just a problem in Cincinnati. Profiling is an American problem, but it's particularly acute in Cincinnati, where 43 percent of the population is black but something like 80 percent of all the minor traffic stops, things like not wearing a seat belt or minor quality of life offenses like jaywalking, those citations are issued against African-American citizens in twice the proportion than they are members of the city population.

O'BRIEN: As this situation devolves into lawsuits and violence, Ms. Reece, the question becomes how did it get this far? How did things get this far out of hand? Where did the leadership at some point along the way fail to take proper action and you, as part of the leadership, I guess would take some responsibility for that. What can you say to us about what has been done up to this point?

REECE: Well, let me first of all say I've been on council for a year and a half and as I've been pointing out, this is an issue that's been festering even back to 33 years ago. I think that the council in general certainly bears responsibility and it takes more than just one council member fighting for issues like racial profiling legislation, which we certainly have, but also to take a bold step to show that we are committed to change. And that's why I asked for the resignation of our safety director, who is the liaison between the police chief and the administration.

I think in handling this situation and other situations, we have not been proactive on police-community relations. We have not been proactive on healing the community and that's why I stepped out and asked for his resignation, because I think it's time for us to be able to bring someone in who has the experience, the expertise in dealing with the diversity that exists in our city and being proactive on police-community relations.

It can no longer be a buzz word and I've told my colleagues that time and time again. We have to fight for change and I'm committed to that.

O'BRIEN: Ms. Reece, when this comes up in other communities, one of the issues that comes up time and again is the issue of the minority constitution of the police department. Is minority officers the answer, more of them?

REECE: Well, I don't know if just minority officers are the answer. I think all officers, whether you're black, you're white, whether you're a male or a female, we are depending on you to certainly protect us and enforce the law equally and fairly. So I think it's not just a responsibility on minorities. It's a responsibility on all officers when they take the responsibility of being a Cincinnati police officer.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Vasvari, we're just about to run out of time on the satellite. Just quickly, do you think minority officers is the solution? Is it as simple as that?

VASVARI: No, I don't think it's as simple as that. It's as difficult and as painful as addressing a deeply embedded culture of racism that uses race as a proxy for criminality. That's a problem that runs deep. It's time that the city face it and address it or this is only going to be the first of its problems.

O'BRIEN: All right, and we did lose the satellite there. We apologize for that. We were running, pushing the envelope, shall we say. Raymond Vasvari, Alicia Reece, thank you very much for joining us on CNN SATURDAY MORNING discussing this volatile issue.

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