April 7, 2001: Timothy Thomas Killed by Police, Sparking Cincinnati Riots


On April 7, 2001, a 19-year-old unarmed African American named Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Cincinnati Police Department Patrolman Stephen Roach. He was attempting to arrest him for non-violent misdemeanors, mostly traffic citations.

In the days after, from April 9 through April 13, there were a series of civil disorders around the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, which was the largest urban disturbance since the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

The riots caused $3.6 million in damage to businesses and another $2 million in city damages. A boycott of downtown businesses after the riots incurred an estimated $10 million impact on the area.

For several years after, incidents of violent crime rose in the downtown area. The city worked with the community to improve police training to prevent incidents such as the ones that killed Thomas.


On the night of April 7, 2001, a young man was spotted by an off-duty police officer outside of a local nightclub. The officer approached him, and he ran. The officer radioed in, saying that he had a suspect, a tall black male, who had about 14 warrants out for him.

The man ran into a dark alley. A police car approached him, its cameras rolling. The officer ran toward the alley, and almost immediately shot his weapon. It hit him directly in the chest. The officer said he thought the he was reaching for a gun, though no gun was ever found. The warrants on him were for traffic violations, including driving without a license or driving without a seatbelt. He was not a violent criminal.

His name was released: 19-year-old Timothy Thomas. A father of an infant son. The latest in a string of black men to die at the hands of Cincinnati police.

Leading up to his death, Thomas had had been pulled over 11 times by 10 different officers, and he had been cited for 21 violations, all for not wearing a seatbelt or driving without a license. His mother had told him to just get his license.

But while nobody argues that Thomas broke the law, here's the weird thing, and the thing that made people even more wary of the Cincinnati police: Driving without a license is a non-moving violation. And driving without a seatbelt is an extremely tricky thing for police to see while the car is moving. He wasn't pulled over for a moving infraction, such as speeding or running a red light. So even though he was driving without a license, why was he being pulled over in the first place?

Roger Webster, the then-head of the Cincinnati Police Union, said sometimes cops will be a "nice guy" and not cite them for running the stop sign, but will give them the lesser seatbelt violation charge. But had 10 officers just been "nice guys", always allowing him to get out of the moving violations? Did he draw attention after the first one as a person driving without a license? Or, was it a case of what his brother Terry said: police officers routinely pulled over black people in the area.

A local independent newspaper published research that in an analysis of 141,000 traffic citations written by Cincinnati police in 22 moths, black drivers were twice as likely to be cited for driving without a license, twice as likely to be cited for not wearing a seatbelt, and 4 times as likely for driving without proof of insurance. The NAACP believed the statistics supported police targeting, deemed "driving while black" as opposed to actual discrepancies between the rate of those offenses being committed.

The tensions between black residents and the Cincinnati Police Department weren't new when Timothy was killed, it was just the straw that broke the camel's back. Between 1995 and 2001, 15 black males suspected of crimes had been killed by police during confrontation or while in custody, but no white suspects.

Two higher-profile cases had begun to further spark tensions, including the death of Roger Owensby Jr. in 2000, who allegedly died from asphyxiation from a police chokehold, and the death of Jeffery Irons the next day in a scuffle with the police. Neither resulted in a conviction. One an acquittal, the other a mistrial.

A few weeks before the killing and the riots, the ACLU filed a civil suit against the police department, claiming 30 years of racial profiling.

All of this to say, the death of Timothy Thomas may have been the final straw for the riots to break out, but there was plenty of built up tension that it was bound to happen regardless.


On April 9, 2 days after the shooting of unarmed, teenaged Timothy Thomas, 200 protestors with signs, including Thomas' mother, gathered outside of Cincinnati City Hall, demanding a public explanation for Thomas' death. They also demanded to know the results of the investigation into the shooting. After all, why would an officer kill an unarmed teen who was being pursued for traffic violations?

Later that evening, several hundred protestors gathered outside the Cincinnati Police headquarters. The crowd threw stones and bottles at the police, smashed the front door of the station, and pulled the station flag out and re-hung it upside down. The police donned riot gear and dispersed the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. 10 people were arrested during the incident.

The protests continued into April 10, with 20-50 young men began throwing bottles and garbage at the police. Some of the growing crowd headed downtown, overturning garbage cans, vendor carts, newspaper boxes. They smashed windows of businesses, and allegedly pulled people from their cars and beat them. Again, police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. This time, 66 people were arrested. They called the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office for help, as looting and vandalism were running rampant in poor neighborhoods.

Businesses tried to resume to normalcy the following day, but on the evening of April 11, riots broke out again, damaging more businesses. The riots continued into the following evening, resulting in 82 further arrests. Many businesses didn't open, as workers feared for their lives if they went downtown.

On the morning of April 13, the mayor of Cincinnati, Charles J. Luken announced a citywide curfew from 8pm to 6am, and declared a state of emergency to help with policing. 800 people were arrested for violating curfews. After that, the riots began to dissipate.

Thomas' funeral was held on April 14, 2001. 2,000 protestors peacefully marched downtown following the service. Some marched into an intersection, and 7 law enforcement personnel arrived, firing bean bag ammunition into the crowd, injuring 4 people, including 2 children. The police said they were acting under orders to disperse the crowd blocking the intersection, but the peaceful protestors claimed they were given no warning to move first.


In total, 120 businesses suffered damage from the riots. The incidents continued to strain the relationship between police and the minority members of the city. In 2002, the city signed an agreement to improve service to minority communities, and revise guidelines for use-of-force in the police.

Roach, the officer who shot Thomas, was tried for negligent homicide in September of 2001. He was acquitted of the charges. Though large organized protests did not breakout, there were several incidents of violence after the verdict was announced. An internal investigation found that Roach had lied in his incident report, and had not followed department procedures.

A story written 10 years after the riots summarizes it well: "The riots neither initiated the racial tension nor the police reforms, but accelerated both". Reforms included low-light situation training, training on interacting with mentally ill people, equipping patrol cars with computers to access detailed criminal records, changes in "foot pursuit policy" based on the seriousness of the offense and the ability to apprehend at a later date, the use of "contact cards" to detail race of those being pulled over, and an independent review of all "serious uses of force" by police.

Unfortunately, even with reforms to the Cincinnati Police Department, and police departments around the nation, police still kill unarmed black people disproportionately. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was sparked from the 2012 death of teen Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. In 2018, Botham Jean was killed in his own apartment by an off-duty police officer who walked into the wrong door. Just last year, Atatiana Jefferson was killed in her home when a neighbor called for a wellness check after her door was left opened.

Studies show that black people, especially black men, are seen as more dangerous and threatening. While that is obviously a problem in every single aspect of life, the problem becomes exacerbated when the person who has to decide if the person is safe or dangerous has a gun. Trayvon Martin was just walking around. Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson were in their homes. But it doesn't matter: When you are seen as a threat for the color of your skin, just existing can be dangerous.

There are almost too many cases to count of black people who have been killed at the hands of the police, and further, who's killers were acquitted. Because it is arguable. Police officers are often in scary situations, and they have to make a quick decision: were they reaching for their gun or not? And if they're wrong, they're dead. But that is why police training and policies need to be reevaluated. We have the data to support our brains immediately seeing black people as being more dangerous. Did you think he was reaching for his gun because you thought he was reaching for his gun, or because you are conditioned to assume a black person is inherently more dangerous?

We have a long way to go, and unfortunately, when people automatically believe #BlackLivesMatter means other lives don't and that being anti-police brutality makes you entirely anti-police, it becomes difficult to get the message across. But changes can be made, and some of those changes help. Perhaps the new training for the CPD saved the next unarmed black kid from suffering the same fat as Timothy Thomas, 19 years ago today.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cincinnati_riots_of_2001

2. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4703574/ns/dateline_nbc-dateline_specials/t/behind-death-timothy-thomas/#.Xon9F2RKjjA

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