Leonard Pitts Jr

Dec. 8, 2003: Cincinnati case not a tough call: Man killed self

The coroner says he only called it homicide because he had no choice.

Under Ohio law, he explained, his only other options were to categorize the death as accidental,natural or suicide. None of those, he felt, adequately accounted for how Nathaniel Jones died -i.e., after being beaten with nightsticks wielded by Cincinnati police officers.

The officers say they were only seeking to subdue the 41-year-old black man after he began actingstrangely - dancing and barking out numbers - and then became combative during an encounter outsidea fast-food restaurant.

Video of the Nov. 30 beating, captured by a camera in a police cruiser, has been played ontelevision nonstop, heightening racial tension in a city where tension doesn't need the help - acity which, two years ago, endured days of street violence after police shot and killed an unarmedblack man. Last week's ruling by coroner Carl Parrott appears to have only splashed gasoline on thislatest fire.

MORE IMPORTANT FACTORS

This, even though the doctor took pains to stress that the term "homicide" was not meant tosuggest "hostile or malign intent." Jones, he pointed out, bore only superficial bruises on hislower body from the beating. Far more important in determining a cause of death were the facts thathe weighed 350 pounds, had heart disease and high blood pressure, and was on cocaine and PCP. Thecoroner ruled that Jones died, in essence, because his heart couldn't take the exertion.

Those caveats aside, Cincinnati police are infuriated by the word "homicide."

Local activists, on the other hand, say it bolsters their contention that Jones was just thelatest black man brutalized by police.

I understand their anger. My problem is that I also understand PCP, having lived in Los Angelesduring the years that city became the epicenter of its illicit production and use.

PCP is phencyclidine hydrochloride, an animal tranquilizer we knew as angel dust. We also knewthat people who were "dusted" might dance naked in the middle of busy intersections or hurlthemselves from skyscrapers believing they could fly. PCP users sometimes seemed to possess afreakish strength, an impression created by the fact that the drug leaves some people in a violent,agitated state while simultaneously desensitizing them to pain.

DANGEROUS COMBINATION

That would be a dangerous combination in a man who only weighed 120 pounds. Consider it in a manJones' size and it offers a certain context for the images captured on that video. Might even inducea fair observer to give police the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, where police and black people are concerned, many would say there can be no benefitbecause there is no doubt: the police are racist, the police are unjust, the police do not valueblack life as highly as white. End of story.

Except that it's not. For all the many valid reasons black people have to distrust the police,it's a mistake to automatically presume malfeasance on the part of every officer in every encounter.To do that is to put the good cop on the defensive and give the bad cop no incentive to change.Worse, it undercuts African-American moral authority, undermines the argument it purports toadvance, makes anger seem not righteous, but reflexive.

The facts as they stand simply do not justify adding this case to the dishonor roll of policemisconduct. Jones did not have his head broken like Rodney King. He was not sodomized with a sticklike Abner Louima. He was not executed in a doorway like Amadou Diallo. He was, in the finalanalysis, a morbidly obese man with a diseased heart and high blood pressure who chose to usecocaine, chose to use PCP and then, under their influence, chose to slug it out with cops.

Which is why, from where I sit, there is no choice but to reach a very different conclusion thanthe coroner: Nathaniel Jones committed suicide.

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