Cincinnati riots of 2001

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Cincinnati riots of 2001
Date April 9–13, 2001
Location Cincinnati, Ohio
Causes Shooting of Timothy Thomas
Methods Riots, vandalism and looting in Over-the-Rhine, downtown, Walnut Hills, Bond Hill, and Avondale.
Result an estimated $3.6 million in damage;[1] an estimated loss of $10 million due to the subsequent boycott;[1] reform of police procedures concerning racial profiling
Parties to the civil conflict
Arrested 158 in civil disobedience, 800 for curfew violations.[2]

The Cincinnati riots of 2001 were a series of civil disorders which took place in and around the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of downtown Cincinnati, Ohio from April 9 to 13, 2001. The riots were the largest urban disturbance in the United States since the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The riots were sparked after 19-year-old African American Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Cincinnati Police Department Patrolman Stephen Roach. Tensions, which were already high following a series of other incidents of alleged police brutality and racial profiling, erupted into four nights of rioting in Cincinnati, with rioters throwing objects at police, vandalizing and looting businesses before a curfew effectively ended the unrest.

Ultimately it was determined the riots caused $3.6 million in damage to businesses and another $1.5 to $2 million to the city. A subsequent boycott of downtown businesses had an estimated impact of $10 million to the downtown area, and coincided with a rise in violent crime in the downtown area for several years thereafter.


The initial incident and much of the subsequent unrest took place in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood immediately north of Cincinnati's central business district. A 2000 demographic profile of the neighborhood showed a resident population of 7,368, of whom 5,974 were African American. The profile also showed significant poverty, unemployment, and a lack of development in the area for several decades, with 1,667 of 3,594 housing units in the neighborhood empty. About 96 percent of the occupied houses, in the meantime, were renter-occupied.[3] The neighborhood was home to a disproportionate share of African Americans, who made up 40 percent of the 331,000 residents of the city. At the time of the riot, the median income in Over-the-Rhine was $8,600 compared to $26,774 for the city overall. Author David Waddington attributed the poverty of the area to high unemployment resulting from a loss of manufacturing jobs in the city, as well as cuts in youth programs in the city. Thus the neighborhood had a high rate of crimes, in particular drug-related offenses.[4]

The incident followed an era of heightened tensions between African American residents in the neighborhood and the Cincinnati Police Department.[5][6] In Cincinnati between 1995 and April 2001, fifteen black males suspected of crimes had been killed by Cincinnati police during confrontation or while in custody, including four since November 2000, while no white suspects were killed in that time.[7][8] In particular, two recent deaths had sparked tensions, including the death of Roger Owensby, Jr. who had died November 7, 2000, allegedly of asphyxiation from a chokehold from a police officer, and Jeffrey Irons, who died the next day in a scuffle with police. One of the officers was acquitted, while the other case ended in a mistrial and the officer was not re-tried.[8] Three weeks before the riots, the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of local organizations filed a civil lawsuit alleging 30 years of racial profiling.[7] A number of other civil suits were initiated against the department, including one African American man who alleged he was handcuffed and beaten during a traffic stop.[8]

A local independent newspaper, CityBeat, published research that an "analysis of 141,000 traffic citations written by Cincinnati Police in a 22-month period found black drivers twice as likely as whites to be cited for driving without a license, twice as likely to be cited for not wearing a seat belt and four times as likely to be cited for driving without proof of insurance." [9] The NAACP argued that such statistics were the result of police targeting "driving while black," rather than differences in offending between-groups.[10] A black businessman, Bomani Tyehimba, filed a lawsuit in 1999 against the city of Cincinnati. He claimed that police illegally ordered him out of his car, handcuffed him and held a gun to his head during a routine traffic stop.[11]


In the early morning hours of April 7, 2001, Cincinnati police in Over-the-Rhine attempted to execute an arrest warrant against 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, an African American male. Thomas was wanted on 14 nonviolent misdemeanor counts, including 12 traffic citations.[12][13] Thomas was pursued for 10 minutes by nine officers, who were later joined by Patrolman Stephen Roach.[2] The pursuit culminated at 2:20 a.m. when Thomas rounded a corner in a dark alley and surprised Roach, who shot him in the chest at close range.[12] Roach stated he believed Thomas was reaching for a gun in his waistband, but investigation later determined Thomas was trying to pull up his "baggy pants." Roach also stated he was not aware of the nonviolent nature of Thomas' charges and that Thomas ignored an order to stop.[8] Thomas was rushed to a hospital, but died of his injuries.[2]


The shooting provoked tension in the community. On April 9, a group of 200 protesters brandishing signs, including Thomas' mother Angela Leisure,[8] gathered outside Cincinnati City Hall while the city council was in session, to demand public explanation for Thomas' shooting.[2] The protesters also demanded to know the results of the police investigation of the shooting, but were told the department was not ready to issue a report.[8] The council members were trapped inside city hall for three hours but did not answer to the crowd's demands.[2] Later that evening, several hundred residents gathered outside the Cincinnati Police District 1 headquarters in Over-the-Rhine and confronted a line of police officers on horseback and in police cruisers. For about an hour, the crowd threw stones and bottles at police, smashed the station's front door, pulled the station flag from its mast and re-hung it upside down. Police in riot gear then dispersed the crowd with tear gas, bean bags and rubber bullets. Ten arrests were made during the incident.[2]

Cincinnati Mayor Charles J. Luken who issued a city-wide curfew largely ending the riots.

On the afternoon of April 10, violence resumed after a static protest of 20 to 50 young African American men unexpectedly began moving and was followed by police officers. At two road intersection, the crowd began throwing bottles and garbage at police, who retreated both times. Parts of the crowd then headed downtown and began to overturn garbage cans, vendor carts, and newspaper boxes. The crowd then began smashing windows of businesses and looting stores. A number of white motorists were allegedly pulled from their cars and beaten. Police then moved in on horseback or with linked arms and dispersed the crowd with bean bags, tear gas and rubber bullets. Sixty-six arrests were made over the course of the day.[2] Deputies from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office were called in as looting and vandalism began to occur in other poor neighborhoods in Cincinnati, including Walnut Hills and Avondale where vandals broke windows and set small fires.[14] Several gunshots were fired during the night and there were a number of injuries reported in the incidents. Rioting dispersed in the early morning hours.[8]

Many of the damaged downtown businesses resumed normal operations the next day. However, at nightfall on April 11, another round of rioting broke out downtown and more businesses were damaged and looted.[1] Sporadic incidents continued the next evening with police crackdown which resulted in another 82 arrests.[2] By April 12, many downtown businesses did not open, and workers for many others refused to come downtown. A third night of rioting continued that evening, causing further damage.[1]

The morning of April 13, Cincinnati Mayor Charles J. Luken announced a city-wide curfew for all but work travelers from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. He also declared a state of emergency and brought in 125 Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers to assist with policing. In all, 800 people were arrested for violating curfew conditions.[2] This curfew did not extend to the city's suburbs, prompting some criticism from Cincinnati residents of uneven enforcement of the curfew.[14]

Another incident occurred on April 14, the day of Thomas' funeral. Police kept a helicopter airborne and stationed riot police two blocks from the service.[4] About 2,000 began a peaceful march downtown following the service.[1] A procession of 30 from the funeral marched to the intersection of Elm and Liberty streets. A group of seven law enforcement arrived in patrol cruisers and fired bean bag ammunition into a crowd of 20, injuring four including two children. Police contended they were acting under orders to disperse a large crowd blocking the intersection, while witnesses claimed the police did not provide warning and singled out black members of the group.[4]


The total damage sustained from the riots amounted to $3.6 million.[1] In all, the city said 120 businesses suffered damage from the rioting. It cost the city another $1.5 million to $2 million for emergency responders and equipment damage.[15] The four days of riots are considered the largest urban disturbance in the United States since the 1992 Los Angeles riots.[12] It prompted discussion among the local community on the effects of suburbanization and urban decay in the city,[14] as well as the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine, a historic neighborhood.[16] However, the incidents again strained the relationship between the police and residents of the city's minority communities.[6] In 2002, the city signed an agreement for initiatives to improve police service to minority communities, revise use-of-force guidelines and form a committee for community policing initiatives.[1]

CPD officers then began an unofficial work slowdown which coincided with a rise in violent crime in the downtown area.[1] In 2001 and 2002, Cincinnati saw increases in both its violent crime and property crime rates, with property crime rates peaking in 2003 before declining through 2010.[13] The city maintains a crime rate higher than the national average but still similar to other major cities.[17] Initiatives were subsequently begun by community groups to reduce violence.[18]

Sixty-three rioters were indicted on felony charges.[19]

Roach was tried for negligent homicide in September 2001. Cincinnati police attempted to waive the trial in favor of a bench ruling. Roach, who left the force to join a suburban police department, was later acquitted of the charges, and several isolated incidents of violence resulted. An internal investigation found Roach had lied in his incident report, not followed firearm procedures and not given Thomas sufficient time to respond.[1]

Angered by police reaction particularly to the April 14 incident, several community groups organized a boycott of downtown businesses. Several prominent African American entertainers scheduled to perform in the city, including Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, and Smokey Robinson cancelled their performances there. After a year, the boycott had an estimated a $10 million negative economic impact on the city.[1] Still, significant gentrification of the Over the Rhine community began just before and after the riots, and a number of tech companies and nightlife spots have opened in the neighborhood, as well as several new community events.[5][3] Several large Cincinnati companies, including Fifth Third Bank, Procter & Gamble and Kroger also announced support for reforms in the city, such as investment in schools and minority hiring programs.[20]

Still, some would argue that positive change came from the riots, especially in police behavior and protocols. An article in USAToday noted the following positive developments, carefully conceding "{t}he riots neither initiated the racial tension nor the police reforms, but accelerated both." [21] Some of these changes are listed below, taken directly from the article:

  • Training officers in low-light situations, like the alley where Thomas died, and in dealing with suspects with mental health issues
  • Training in how to recognize possible mental health issues in suspects and to better handle mentally ill people.
  • Computers in officers' cruisers to give them access to a person's detailed criminal record, complete .
  • Foot pursuit policy changed to require that officers assess whether a pursuit is appropriate, taking into consideration the seriousness of the offense, whether the suspect is armed and their ability to apprehend at a later date.
  • In late 2003 the city bought updated Tasers for all officers after the death of Nathaniel Jones, an African-American man with drugs in his system. Officers hit him repeatedly with their batons.
  • Officers are now required to fill out "contact cards" when they stop vehicles. The cards include details about those in the car, including their race. The cards grew out of allegations that Cincinnati officers stopped more minority drivers than whites.
  • The Citizens Complaint Authority was created in 2002 to do independent reviews of all serious uses of force by police officers.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Rucker & Upton 2006, p. 110.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Waddington 2007, p. 65.
  3. ^ a b Grace & White 2004, p. 8.
  4. ^ a b c Waddington 2007, p. 66.
  5. ^ a b Waddington 2007, p. 67.
  6. ^ a b Rucker & Upton 2006, p. 108.
  7. ^ a b Waddington 2007, p. 68.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Rucker & Upton 2006, p. 109.
  9. ^ CityBeat
  10. ^ "Driving while black". Washington Times. 19 April 2001. 
  11. ^ Gottbrath, Paul (2001-03-14). "Suit kicks off battle over racial profiling". The Cincinnati Post (E. W. Scripps Company). Archived from the original on 2006-10-20. Retrieved 2007-10-01. 
  12. ^ a b c Waddington 2007, p. 64.
  13. ^ a b Ross 2013, p. 75.
  14. ^ a b c Stradling 2003, p. 151.
  15. ^ City estimates riot cost at $1.5M-$2M, Cincinnati, Ohio: Cincinnati Business Courier, April 24, 2001, retrieved February 15, 2014 
  16. ^ Grace & White 2004, p. 7.
  17. ^ Ross 2013, p. 74.
  18. ^ Ross 2013, p. 76.
  19. ^ McCain, Marie. "Grand jury indicts 63 in looting, violence" The Cincinnati Enquirer, 21 April 2001. 29 October 2006 [1].
  20. ^ Stradling 2003, p. 152.
  21. ^ a b [2]