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|CINCINNATI -- With the city of Cincinnati teetering on the
edge of renewed protests, a grand jury on Monday indicted a
Cincinnati police officer accused of killing an unarmed black
teen-ager last month, charging the officer with negligent homicide
and obstructing official business, both misdemeanors.
The charges, filed exactly one month after Officer Stephen Roach shot 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in a darkened alley, set off a string of minor disturbances in a city still recovering from April's violence, which resulted in more than 800 arrests and left dozens of people injured.
Many African-American leaders had pushed for much stronger charges, with some saying they would settle for nothing less than murder charges.
If convicted on both counts, Roach, 27, faces a maximum jail sentence of 9 months.
As darkness fell Monday, city officials considered imposing a state of emergency and enforcing a curfew, but said any decision would be made after watching how protests evolved.
"I know that emotions are running high over the tragic death of Timothy Thomas, but the case against Officer Roach cannot be decided based on emotion," prosecutor Michael Allen said. "For those who say the charges are too light and for those who say they're too severe, my response is the same: Please withhold your judgment until you know all the facts."
Roach's lawyer, Merlyn Shiverdecker, said his client, who has been on unpaid leave since the shooting, would plead not guilty.
"Nobody's happy being indicted," Shiverdecker said. "It's my expectation that the case will proceed to trial."
Earlier Monday, the Bush administration opened its own civil rights investigation of the Cincinnati Police Department, with Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft vowing to review the department's "policies and practices."
Thomas was the 15th African-American killed by Cincinnati police since 1995.
The police union said 10 suspects had pointed guns or shot at police, and two had threatened officers with their cars.
Two white officers are awaiting trial in one of the deaths. The coroner said Roger Owensby Jr., 29, suffocated during his Nov. 7 arrest.
"Our focus will be on assisting the city to solve its problems and rebuild trust among the citizens of Cincinnati," Ashcroft said. "Trust is necessary for any police department to effectively protect citizens."
Police have said Thomas fled when Roach tried to arrest him on more than a dozen misdemeanor warrants. Roach chased Thomas into an alley, where he said he saw the teenager reaching for what he thought was a gun.
Roach then shot Thomas, who was unarmed.
At a news conference Monday, prosecutor Allen said Thomas may have been reaching down to pull up his pants, which were loose.
The early-morning shooting of April 7 sparked violent protests, with demonstrators looting area businesses, lighting fires to buildings and clashing with police on Cincinnati's streets.
Five days later, Mayor Charles Lucken declared a state of emergency, implementing a dawn-to-dusk curfew that stretched through a weekend.
Police arrested more than 800 people during the disturbances, the city's worst racial violence since the 1968 assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Immediately after lifting the curfew April 16, Luken established a commission on race relations and vowed to create 3,000 jobs this summer for area youths.
But African-American leaders say anger and distrust have simmered since the shooting, and called the days leading up to Monday's grand jury announcement tense.
Before the grand jury decision was announced, community leaders urged calm, while Cincinnati police beefed up their presence, hoping to discourage violent demonstrations. Some business owners boarded up windows.
Norma Holt Davis, president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, told followers to protest peacefully and rely on the impending federal investigation to bring stronger charges.
"I am really concerned," Davis said Monday afternoon. "I know the minority community has had about all it can take."
Minutes after the nine-person grand jury's decision was made public, Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure, criticized the outcome.
"I feel it was a slap on the wrist," she said. "I don't feel like justice was served. I feel it was not severe enough for the severity of what [Roach] did. He took a life. Negligence, that doesn't cut it for me."
Jesse Jackson said he was disappointed by the indictment.
"Killing an unarmed person is not a misdemeanor, and to say so is to cheapen the life of a black person," Jackson added.
Police credited heavy rains with keeping crowds small early Monday evening, though demonstrators had broken windows at some businesses in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, an area that was the scene of much of last month's violence.
Lt. Ray Ruberg said a crowd of "a couple hundred" protesters had gathered in the rain, some throwing bottles and rocks. "We are prepared for anything that may occur," he said.
City Manager John Shirey said his office spent much of the day preparing for the fallout from the grand jury's announcement, and hoping for the best.
Critics say Cincinnati has had a history of racism and police mistreatment of blacks. African-Americans make up 43 percent of the city's 331,000.
In March, before the Thomas shooting, the American Civil Liberties Union and several black activists sued the city in federal court, accusing the police of failing to end 30 years of officers' harassment of blacks.
"I think the environment, the atmosphere of the city is still very much racially divided," said Eric Abercrumbie, an instructor of black studies at the University of Cincinnati.
Tribune news services contributed to this report.