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Behind the death of Timothy Thomas

The death of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati launches Dateline NBC to examine a pattern of ticketing that raises questions of racial profiling.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

April 7, 2001 was an unseasonably warm spring night in Cincinnati, Ohio. Late that night, around 2 a.m., in a neighborhood called “Over the Rhine,” a young man walking down the street is spotted by an off duty police officer outside “The Warehouse,” a local nightclub. As the officer approaches the man runs and a chase is on.

Radio officer: “Ah we have a suspect, male, black, about 6 foot, red bandana, last seen east bound on east 13th. He has, ah, about 14 warrants on him...”

Other officers quickly join the pursuit.

Radio dispatcher: “Okay cars in the area copy on that. Chasing a subject with open warrants, approximately 14 of them, male black.”

A 27-year-old Cincinnati police officer spots the suspect as he runs into a dark alley. As a police car approaches, its camera rolling, the officer runs towards the alley and almost immediately a shot rings out. A single bullet fired from the officer's gun pierces the suspect's heart. He's pronounced dead at 3:02 am. The officer later tells investigators he thought the suspect was reaching for a gun – but no gun was ever found. By dawn, the identity of the suspect comes to light. The man was 19-years-old, a young father with an infant son. The man'sname was Timothy Thomas.

For many of Cincinnati's African Americans, Thomas, the latest in a growing number of black men to die at the hands of Cincinnati police, felt like the last straw. Within 24 hours, the anger and mistrust the African-American community felt towards its police exploded on the streets. Riot police marched through the streets, firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Days of civil unrest followed, painful for the city to endure.

But while it was the death of Timothy Thomas that enraged many in the city, it was the story of what happened to Thomas months before his death that would raise the most disturbing questions. Those questions would launch Dateline on a 14 month investigation revealing new information on racial profiling.

Our search began with something as simple as a traffic ticket.

Angela Leisure (Thomas’s mother): “One day Tim came in the house, and he was like, ‘Mom, I got two tickets… it's like two tickets, Mom, for the same thing." Later on that same day he got two more tickets for the same things, in the same area, from different police officers.”

Dateline obtained traffic records that show beginning in February of 2000, as Timothy Thomas drove his friend's car, Cincinnati police began pulling him over, and ticketing him at an astounding rate. On March 10, Thomas is ticketed for not wearing a seatbelt and driving without a license. Later that same day, Thomas is pulled over again by a different officerand ticketed for driving without a license.

In fact, in just more than two months, Thomas was pulled over 11 times by six different white officers and four black officers. They cited Thomas for 21 violations, almost all of them for the exact same things -- not wearing a seat belt or driving without a license. Driving without a license is a criminal offense and can be dangerous -- which is why the law requires people to take a test to get their license.

John Larson: “Was there ever a point where you just said, "’You know Timothy, get your license? Wake up?’"

Angela Leisure: “There was a point where we had conversations like that. It was actually several points in time we had conversations like that.

Larson: “Nothing should have cost him his life that night, and at the same time I know people will also be thinking, if he had just gotten his driving license, if he just hadn't run, he'd still be here.”

Leisure: “But what did you do when you were 19? Did you always think? Regardless of what your parents taught you, how they brought you up, did you always think first?”

While it is clear that Thomas broke the law, repeatedly driving without a license, the reason his tickets may be an indication of something larger is this: Driving without a license is a non-moving violation that police can only detect after they've pulled you over, It's not a moving violation, like running a red light, something police can see as you drive by. And driving without a seat belt is an infraction police must look very closely to spot. So the question is, if Thomas was being ticketed for infractions that were impossible or difficult to see, why was he being pulled over in the first place?

Larson: “A mother may be the last person to ask this to, but any way, shape and form you think your son might have been hooked up with the drug trade?”

Leisure: “Oh no.”

Larson: “I mean if he was a drug dealer…”

Leisure: “He was the broke-est one you would ever meet.”

Legally, police must have a justifiable reason to pull someone over. The officer who tried to stop Thomas the night he was shot said he recognized him after ticketing the young man a year earlier. Dateline asked Roger Webster, who was then the head of the Cincinnati Police Union, why he thought Thomas had been pulled over and given so many non-moving violations.

Roger Webster: “It's generally a cop trying to be a nice guy and say, ‘Well, I'm not going to cite you with running that stop sign. I'll just give you a seat belt violation or I'll give you a no driver's license. You get you driver's license, take it to court, and it'll be over and done with.’ And that's generally what it is.”

Had 10 different officers all really just been nice guys, pulling Thomas over for running a stop sign or speeding, but only once issuing him a moving violation, or was something else going on?

Larson: “Was this guy being profiled in some way?”    

Webster: “It’s very hard to tell the color of the driver of the car at night.”

Larson: “A lot of these are the middle of the day.”

Webster: “A lot of them are the middle of the day. And again, it's hard to see into a vehicle in the daytime and tell what color the driver is in a split second to say, ‘Well, there goes a black guy. I'm going to stop him. He probably doesn't have a driver's license."  You know, I can't see an officer doing that.”

But Timothy's brother, Terry, says officers routinely pulled over Timothy, for the same reason they pull over most of the young men in the neighborhood -- because they are black and, he says, police view them with more suspicion.

Terry Thomas: “They figure they out there selling drugs, and this and that. I mean yeah, there's a few drug dealers but you can't just point them out and say, yeah, he’s a drug dealer. “If you ‘aint seen it or know he doin' it, you can't just point him out. But that's what they was doing. They was just picking you out the crowd, like. And Tim got picked out a lot of times. But they didn't have no reason to pick him out.”

It is a charge the Cincinnati police vehemently deny.

Webster: “Not in Cincinnati.”

Larson: “Ever.”

Webster: “Ever. You know, it's suspicious behavior to say that a guy is stopped because he's one color or another color. I don't think so, I don't believe so, I don't believe we've done it. And I don't know of anybody that's out there that's doing it. Look at the total picture of what's going on, before we go out and accuse the cops of racial profiling."

Look at the total picture? Fair enough. Dateline began one of the most ambitious statistical projects of this kind ever undertaken. Before our investigation was over we would gather, sort, and analyze more than 100,000 traffic tickets in Cincinnati and more than four million tickets in major cities across the country. We were looking for new, conclusive answers to the question: Are black drivers routinely being racially profiled, pulled over because they're black?