Cincinnati 2001: Police Killing of Timothy Thomas and Insurrection

General Background

The events in Cincinnati were often referred to as the largest riot or rebellion since 1992 in Los Angeles and/or the largest riot or rebellion in Cincinnati since the 1960s.

On Saturday April 7 2001, 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed while running away from Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach. He was the fourth Black person killed by police since the previous November, and all 15 who had been killed by police in Cincinnati since 1995 were Black. Police narratives later emphasized that some (not all) of those killed had been armed. The Cincinnati Police Department was about 20% Black, and some of the officers involved in police killings were Black. Although police tactics in responding to protests never became a major issue in news coverage, news accounts of the various events in the episode often mention police actions that could be considered to involve excessive force or even inappropriate abuse or provocation.

Two weeks before Timothy Thomas was killed, on March 16, a coalition including Cincinnati’s Black Citizens United and the ACLU had filed a lawsuit charging the Cincinnati police with racial bias in its patterns of policing and violence. After the Timothy Thomas killing and the ensuing disorder, the NAACP joined the suit, and the city quickly agreed to mediation by May 2. Legal negotiations continued for months along with a variety of community fact-finding forums, and the final settlement occurred in April 2002 and was approved by the judge in August 2002. After the Officer Roach was acquitted in the fall of 2001, protests including a tourism boycott continued into 2002.

The First Day

Accounts of the opening moments of the Cincinnati protests are garbled in our newswire data and our Black newspaper source, Ethnic NewsWatch, does not have full text copies of Black newspapers from the area for this year, so we consulted external sources. Protests began Monday Morning April 9 at the City Council, where protesters packed a meeting called for other business, demanded answers about the killing, and refused to leave. All accounts agree that the morning protesters remained essentially peaceful although they were loud and even disruptive. Protester disorder (rock throwing, breaking windows, setting fires) began later in the evening, after the protesters left City Hall and marched to the police headquarters. An Associated Press article dated April 9[1] says that the protesters did not want to leave while police on horseback were patrolling City Hall and left peacefully when the police left; this story also says there were a half dozen demonstrators carrying signs at the police station earlier.

Dozens of angry citizens packed city council chambers demanding answers in the death of Timothy Thomas, 19, of Cincinnati. The crowd shouted down city officials during a scheduled meeting of the council’s law committee. “We want an answer! We want an answer!” the crowd chanted often during the meeting that continued for more than three hours. While the meeting was under way, police officers on horseback were stationed at various sites around City Hall. Several people in the crowd said they would not leave until the police were moved away from the building. “This shows how they feel about the African-American community,” said the Rev. Damon Lynch III, head of Cincinnati Black United Front. “We don’t leave here with riot police surrounding the building.” City officials agreed, and the demonstrators left peacefully as the meeting adjourned. Many of the demonstrators marched together on the sidewalk for several blocks as they left City Hall. Earlier Monday, about a half-dozen demonstrators carried signs outside police headquarters while Streicher told a news conference that a Hamilton County grand jury will investigate the shooting.

Another account that is overtly opposed to the protesters[2] describes “racial activists” Kenneth Lawson and Damon Lynch III “inflaming” the crowd at city hall but no physical confrontations. As with other sources, it says that when the protesters left City Hall, a group described variously as a few hundred to a thousand marched to the police station.

An article by Andrew Conte, Kevin Osborne, and Post staff reporters in the Cincinnati Post, April 10, 2001. “A Night of Anger; Protest Spills into the Streets; Crowd Takes over at City Hall” describes protests during the first day as peaceful and mentions the overt efforts of protesters to stay peaceful, quotes city officials as praising the restraint of most protesters and of the police for having restraint even as some protesters created a “screaming melee.” Protesters removed an American flag from the station and flew it upside down and taunted officers. According to Conte et al, a crowd moved toward the police station in the evening and a few bottles were thrown. “By midnight, only a few older protesters and five or six dozen teens were left.” Police fired three rounds of beanbags from shotguns and “clear-out gas” was used to disperse the crowd.

Despite the clear order of events given in the earliest accounts, the brief allusions to the city council protest in later newswire stories implied an inverted order of events in which police aggression occurred only after protester disorder: “On Monday, police also fired bean bags as about 800 demonstrators gathered downtown. Some of them disrupted a City Council committee meeting. ‘We tried to keep the situation from escalating any more,’ Lt. Col. Ron Twitty said.”[3] Descriptions of the initial peaceful protests disappeared from newswire accounts after April 12 and the entire period of April 9 to 12 was referred to subsequently as “four days of rioting” or “three days of rioting.”

Several Days of Disorder

There appears to have been an escalation of conflict on Tuesday. It was frequently stated at the time that a contribution to the disorder was that it was the week before Easter and schools were closed for spring break. Newswire accounts of Tuesday’s events describe clergy meeting and wanting to act to quell violence, but the police will not let them. Again, newswire articles describe police firing rubber bullets on people who are fleeing and report that most injuries are to residents hurt by police crowd control measures. Local newspapers also printed long stories giving the police version of events in which Officer Roach feared for his life, although the police could not say how or why that was the case, except that Roach thought Thomas was reaching for a gun.

The headlines and the bulk of the text in newswire stories about April 9 to 12 describe physical battles between police and protesters, generally emphasizing police actions. There are clues that there were also peaceful protests happening, but they are rarely described coherently. All stories mention police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags at protesters. An April 10 story says: “Police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators who threw rocks and bottles at officers.”[4] An April 11 story says: “Earlier Tuesday, officers clad in helmets and shields set up protective rings around City Hall and police headquarters and fired bean bags and rubber bullets at about 50 demonstrators who roamed downtown streets throwing rocks, cans and bottles. Police on horseback, accompanied by shotgun-armed foot patrols, arrested 66 people on rioting, disorderly conduct and other charges. Fire department paramedics took about 25 people to hospitals and treated about 40 others on the streets, said police Lt. Ray Ruberg. The injured included people hit by police with rubber bullets.”[5] Another story describes “groups of young men [that] roved through the area Tuesday night, setting fires, looting stores and beating motorists.”[6]

Some stories mention civilian injuries from the police bullets, and a few mention a specific incident in which police prevented a man from helping a neighbor woman who had been hit by a rubber bullet, where the implication is that she was not attacking police: “James Johnson, 33, a Ford Motor Co. assembly worker, said he tried to help a bleeding neighbor who’d been hit in the head by a police-fired beanbag. He said police ordered him to get away from the woman, whom he identified as Juanita Jackson, 42, a resident of his apartment building.”[7]

Reconstructing events from our event catalogue, on Wednesday (11th) an officer was shot at but his vest (or belt buckle – accounts differ) deflected the bullet. Violence was mostly centered in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. There were about 100 protesters blocked from crossing the main road. The group Faith Walk Baptist Church organized around 100 clergy from neighborhood churches to try and ease tension. There was damage done to about a dozen stores, and around 25 people sought hospital treatment.

On Thursday (12th) a curfew was imposed from 8pm to 6am. As of April 13, more than 200 people had been arrested and 50 treated at the hospital, mostly rubber bullet injuries. Police made 98 arrests for violating curfew. A carryout was burned in Kennedy Heights, causing $100,000 in damage and broke the windows of a pager store in Madisonville on the 12th.

On Friday the 13th, which was also Good Friday, many services were cancelled due to the curfew but there was a community religious service calling for peace.

The funeral and aftermath

The funeral was held on Saturday April 14. Newswire stories gave substantial advance coverage of the police preparing for a possible riot. It was a large event with many prominent Black leaders present, including Al Sharpton (NAN), Kweisi Mfume of NAACP, Martin Luther King III of SCLC, representatives of Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party. Also attending were the mayor, governor, city council and other officials. A crowd of between 200-300 people protested outside before and after the funeral. Police fired beanbags at protesters after the funeral. After the funeral, hundreds of people marched through the streets. Overnight Saturday (the 14th), the police arrested 187 people for curfew violation; on April 15th the curfew was rolled back. As of the 15th, more than 700 people have been arrested for looting, arson, vandalism, and curfew violations.

The citywide curfew was loosened for Easter (April 15) and lifted the following day, when a Youth Forum where teens expressed their anger with the police, media, and city leaders.[8] Coverage also stressed youth criticism of adult Black leaders and quoted the youths as calling for an economic boycott, but that does not seem to have been acted on until July.

Coverage of Police Aggression

Although the newswire stories almost universally emphasized protesters’ disorderliness, one-fifth (14 of 70) of the stories also describe Cincinnati police’s culpability in the violence, which includes a history of biased policing, an unprovoked attack on protesters, and de-policing in Black neighborhoods following the riots. A Walnut Hills resident commented in one NYT article on “years of frustration” with “police [who] are out of touch with the community.”[9] During the four days of rioting, one article quoted residents complaining that officers were “overzealous as usual”[10] in their treatment of Black men participating in the protests. Another article notes that religious leaders, and not the police, had “the most effect dispersing the protesters, sometimes yelling at them to be peaceful and other times physically pushing them back from the police lines.”[11]

Articles emphasizing rioting and violence also described police actions against peaceful protests. A description of April 11 says: “Before vandals hit other neighborhoods, the only clashes Wednesday were minor and occurred as a dozen officers on horseback blocked about 100 protesters from crossing the main road that divides Over-the-Rhine from the city’s downtown business district. The crowd tried to head south to City Hall for an impromptu demonstration, but dozens of officers in riot gear stopped them.”[12] A story about lifting the curfew that emphasizes rioting says: “Hundreds of protesters marched through the riot-scarred Over-the-Rhine neighborhood after Saturday’s funeral. Four people were injured by crowd-control bean bags shot by police and State Highway Patrol officers, but the march was otherwise peaceful.”[x][13]

In the most egregious incident, On April 14, the day of Thomas’ funeral, a carful of police drove up to “a crowd of peaceful protesters,” shot beanbags at them, then drove off.[14] [An eye-witness account of this incident and others was written at my request by Carl Sack and is posted separately on this blog.] This seemingly-inexplicable police attack becomes the subject of later stories as the victims file lawsuits for damages from the incident. After the events of April 2001, the police “retreated from ‘proactive’ patrols in black neighborhoods, saying they fear fresh charges of racism.”[15] The same article which describes this culpability takes a sympathetic view of the police, quoting then-Police Chief Streicher who “said police were experiencing a ‘tough time.’ ‘They’re just not feeling a lot of support,’ he declared.”

As several of the quotations above indicate, the newswire accounts of the events in Cincinnati between April 9 and April 15 include many sentences that describe police aggression against protesters who appear to be peaceful, usually in constructions that imply normality or acceptance of the police actions or that police aggression makes a protest not peaceful. Although there is overt criticism of the police given in some articles, there is no overt discussion in any of the articles that police actions may have provoked protester responses. Only the egregious beanbag attack receives any overt commentary and that is not linked in any of the newswire articles to a broader pattern. There are also many sections of the coverage that are sympathetic to the police.

Continuing Protests and a Boycott

On Tuesday, April 17th, the City Council held a 5.5 hour long special session. More than 300 people attended a teen forum the day before at the New Friendship Baptist Church. On April 20th a prosecutor announced 62-63 (accounts vary) people were indicted on charges related to the rioting. On May 1st the mayor appointed three people to lead a new race relations commission.

A crowd of 75 people waited for the grand jury decision outside the courthouse the week of May 7th. Officer Roach was indicted May 7th on two misdemeanor counts, prompting mostly peaceful protests by residents. On May 8th 30 to 50 protesters gathered downtown to protest the ruling. They entered a restaurant with signs and chanting during the lunch hour the went to the city council’s neighborhood and public works committee meeting at City Hall and addressed the committee for 2.5 hours. Later, around 150 people marched to police headquarters and dispersed after an hour of peaceful protest.

The funeral of the only officer to die on duty in the past year was held on Friday May 18th; about 1,000 police supporters and 20 protesters attended.

On June 2nd, between several hundred and 2,000 protestors gathered to protest economic conditions and police treatment of Black people in Cincinnati. Around 100 volunteers passed out fliers and posters urging nonviolent protest. After the protest about 50 people marched through a residential area downtown.

Officer Roach went to trial in September on misdemeanor charges of making a falsified report and was found not guilty on September 27th. Protesters were gathered at the courthouse. There was a vigil for Thomas where hundreds of people gathered. Some cars were pelted with rocks and some trash cans set on fire. The mayor quickly declared a curfew.

In July, Black organizations called for a tourism boycott of Cincinnati. This boycott continued through 2002 and multiple Black entertainers and Black organizations were covered for honoring the boycott, including the National Urban League (which changed first decided not to boycott then reversed its decision after protests), the National Progressive Baptist Association, the Black Pilots Association, Bill Cosby, Wynton Marsalis and Smokey Robinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Ed Gordon, and Spike Lee. It was estimated that the boycott had cost the city $20 million. The Cincinnati Arts Association sued the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati for losses due to the boycott.[16]

There was a great deal of coverage in the newswires of official responses to the issues raised by the lawsuit that tended to downplay the role of local Black organizations.

Black Newspaper Coverage

The newswires printed some Black activists who countered the main narrative of the 2001 protests as violent riots were contested by leaders of the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party who became involved with the events in Cincinnati following Thomas’ death. Black leaders including Jamil Muhammad and Malik Zulu Shabazz were quoted in two different NYT articles in which they constructed a narrative that gave legitimacy to the protesters’ actions as “righteous.” According to Muhammad, “the violence last week should not be characterized as riots but as ‘righteous indignation’ and ‘righteous divinely ordained rebellion.’ Attention to Thomas’ death, he said, was unjustly being diverted to the unrest.”[17] Similarly, Shabazz called the riots a “righteous rebellion” and stated that “last week’s violence finally got the city’s attention after leaders ignored the cries of the black community for decades.”[18] “Police fired bean bags and rubber bullets to quell demonstrators who broke windows downtown Tuesday in a protest over the police shooting of an unarmed black man.”[19]

None of our Black newspaper sources quoted either Jamil Muhammad nor Malik Zulu Shabazz. As noted above, we do not have access to full texts of Ohio Black newspapers, which leads to there being relatively few Black newspaper articles about Cincinnati in our data. An April 12 article in the Amsterdam News has the headline “Protest becomes a riot in Cincinnati.”[20] It leads with a detailed account of the Monday protest emphasizing the confrontation in the morning at City Hall and the desire for answers about why Thomas was killed. It says that window breaking and bottle throwing and then looting happened later while protesters were marching through the streets. The second part of the article recounts a variety of recent racist incidents in the city. Many Black newspapers publish weekly and there are more Black newspaper articles beginning April 17. These mention the disorder but are less focused on describing the details of disorder or protests. Instead they give more voice to local Black activists and focus more on the conditions that led to the problems and what needs to be done going forward. Several articles give detailed coverage to the April 16 forum and the concerns of youth. Several point to the unrest in Cincinnati as a sign of unrest around the country that is waiting to explode. As the year progresses, Black newspapers give more coverage than the newswires to the boycott as the year progresses.

A Quantitative Comparison

We have been exploring the use of keywords to compare mainstream newswire and Black newspaper coverage of Black protests. Because newswire coverage was especially frequent in the first few weeks while Black newspaper coverage was more likely to occur later and follow subsequent protests and the boycott, we compared sources within eras. In the Cincinnati case, the main thing we found is that the sources differed markedly in their coverage of Cincinnati events in April and early May. Newswires used proportionately many more words that emphasized disorder and the legal system. Black newspapers gave proportionately more coverage to the protests in the summer of 2001 and to the later boycott and urged people to support it, but were did not find statistically significant differences in the keywords used by the sources to describe events in these eras. We also found that the phrase “Black man”, generally in the phrase “Black man was shot” was used much more often in the newswires than in Black newspapers.

Some research articles about this case.

Campbell, Shannon, Phil Chidester, Jason Royer and Jamel Bell. 2004. “Remote Control: How Mass Media Delegitimize Rioting as Social Protest.” Race, Gender & Class 11(1):158-76. Analysis of news coverage. Argues that news coverage of the Los Angeles and Cincinnati events emphasized racial differences and racial solidarity rather than the effectiveness of disorderly protest.

Collins, P. Kamara Sekou. 2004. “The Roof Is on Fire.” Journal of Black Studies 35(1):23-39. doi: 10.1177/0021934703261937. Gives an account and interpretation of events as a rebellion.

Hogan, Wesley. 2001. “Cincinnati: Race in the Closed City.(Issues).” Social Policy 32(2):49-55. Gives attention to the Cincinnati context and post-rebellion organizing.

Hood, Ashton. 2020. “A Candid Discussion About Social Justice: Iris Roley, the Black United Front, and the History of Cincinnati’s Collaborative Agreement.” Freedom Center Journal 2019(1 Article 9). A detailed account written 20 years later that emphasizes local organizing.

Lachlan, Kenneth, J Pete Blair, Paul D Skalski, David Westerman and Patric R Spence. 2007. “Media Coverage of the Cincinnati Riots and Implications for Law Enforcement Public Relations.” Police Forum 16:12-23. From a pro-police perspective discusses the failure of police to do adequate public relations and control the narrative after the Thomas killing.

Malik, Anas, Richa Kumari, Arthur Shriberg and James Buchanan. 2005. “Religion, Race, Conflict, and Civic Pluralism in Cincinnati.” International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities & Nations 5(3):7-14. A study of inter-group relations in the aftermath of the rebellion and 9/11.

Rothman, Jay. 2006. “Identity and Conflict: Collaboratively Addressing Policy-Community Conflict in Cincinnati, Ohio.” Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 22:105. This is an analysis of the collaborative agreement that ended the lawsuit.

A number of articles investigated the claims of de-policing and/or crime as consequences of the rebellion.

Chamlin, Mitchell and Andrew Myer. 2009. “Disentangling the Crime-Arrest Relationship: The Influence of Social Context.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 25(4):371-89. doi: 10.1007/s10940-009-9072-z.

Chamlin, Mitchell B. 2009. “Threat to Whom? Conflict, Consensus, and Social Control.” Deviant Behavior 30(6):539-59. doi: 10.1080/01639620802467797.

MacDonald, John, Robert J Stokes, Greg Ridgeway and K Jack Riley. 2007. “Race, Neighbourhood Context and Perceptions of Injustice by the Police in Cincinnati.” Urban Studies 44(13):2567-85. Racial differences in community perceptions of police.

Jenkins Sr, Derrick J and Edward V Wallace. 2012. “African American Perceptions About Crime in Cincinnati, Ohio since the 2001 Riots: Over a Decade Later.” Journal of Arts and Humanities 1(1):14-24. Perceptions of crime in Cincinnati 10 years later.

Newman, Mary. 2006. “Barnes V. City of Cincinnati: Command Presence, Gender Bias, and Problems of Police Aggression.” Harvard Journal of Law & Gender 29(2):485-92. Primarily about masculinity and the CPD failure to promote a man who dressed as a woman when off duty, provides some context about the 2001 events and lawsuit.

Shi, Lan. 2009. “The Limit of Oversight in Policing: Evidence from the 2001 Cincinnati Riot.” Journal of Public Economics 93(1):99-113. doi: Examines decline in arrests after April 2001.


These citations include both our internal database identification codes and the title (headline), date and source of the article. Our source for most newswire articles is Annotated English Gigaword, a database of newswire articles we purchased from the Linguistic Data Consortium in an earlier phase of our research. Associated Press and other newswire articles can often be located by title (headline) and date in the Factiva database (and possibly others). New York Times newswire articles are often reprinted in the New York Times and can be located by date and title (headline). Black newspaper articles were retrieved from the Ethnic NewsWatch database and can be located there or often in other news archives. We are unable to share our compilation of newswire and newspaper articles outside our project due to copyright restrictions.

  1. Associated Press April 9, 2001 00:07 “Police offer condolences, won’t discuss shooting.” Factiva Document aprs000020010710dx4904trw ) By TERRY KINNEY
  3. APW_ENG_20010410.0752 “Ohio Shooting Protest Resumes “ April 10, 2010. Associated Press Worldstream. (not in MPEDS). MPEDS did not retrieve the April 10 and 11 stories in the Gigaword data that described the Cincinnati events. We found them by searching the Gigaword corpus directly. An examination of signed AP stories for April 10 available through Factiva, which are different from the Associated Press Worldstream articles in the Gigaword file, shows a progression across time stamps in the description of the city council event from that quoted in the text to a shorter allusion that is the first part of a sentence that also describes the later confrontation and then to the inverted phrase we see in the Gigaword files.
  4. APW_ENG_20010410.0263 (not in MPEDS) “Ohio Demonstrators Protest Shooting” April 10, 2001 Associated Press Worldstream.
  5. APW_ENG_20010411.0536 (not in MPEDS) “City Quiet After Nights of Riots” April 11, 2001, Associated Press Worldstream.
  6. AGW_APW_ENG_20010412.0089 “Cincinnati Clergy Try To Keep Peace” Associated Press Worldstream April 12, 2001
  7. [DOCID: APW_ENG_20010411.0349 PUBLICATION: Associated Press Worldstream, English Service TITLE: Ohio Shooting Protest Resumes 4/11/2001]
  8. AGW_APW_ENG_20010417.0367 “Cincinnati Clergy Try To Keep Peace” Associated Press Worldstream April 17, 2001.
  9. AGW_NYT_ENG_20010413.0448 New York Times newswire April 13, 2001 “Cincinnati safety director resigns amid call for new leadership”
  10. AGW_APW_ENG_20010412.0089 Associated Press Worldstream April 12, 2001 “Cincinnati Clergy Try To Keep Peace”
  11. AGW_APW_ENG_20010412.0345 Associated Press Worldstream April 12, 2001 “Cincy Mayor Mulls Calling in Guard”
  12. AGW_APW_ENG_20010412.0345 Associated Press Worldstream April 12, 2001 “Cincy Mayor Mulls Calling in Guard”
  13. AGW_APW_ENG_20010415.0279 Associated Press Worldstream April 15, 2001 “Cincinnati Police Report Calm Night”
  14. AGW_NYT_ENG_20010417.0386 New York Times newswire April 17, 2001 “Anger, frustration apparent at Cincinnati council meeting”
  15. AGW_NYT_ENG_20010718.0399 New York Times newswire April 18, 2001
  16. 4/11/2002 New-York-Amsterdam-News;-New-York,-N.Y._2002-04-11_7e88a14a4bb5180cb93ec712ac6bd288 One year later, Cincinnati tries to heal racial wounds
  17. AGW_NYT_ENG_20010414.0192 New York Times newswire April 14, 2001 “BRUISED BY RACISM CHARGES, CINCINNATI POLICE RETREAT”
  18. AGW_NYT_ENG_20010416.0428 New York Times newswire April 16, 2001 “Uneasy calm blankets Cincinnati”
  19. APW_ENG_20010410.0752 not in MPEDS “Ohio Demonstrators Protest Shooting” Associated Press Worldstream, April 10, 2001
  20. 4/12/2001 Protest becomes a riot in Cincinnati New York Amsterdam News April 12, 2001 New-York-Amsterdam-News;-New-York,-N.Y._2001-04-12_a33139ab765f36c54f47eb223fbb9bd2

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