CINCINNATI – City police, already under scrutiny for a fatal shooting that led to riots last spring, sent out a new task force Wednesday to fight an increase in street violence.
"This task force was created primarily to stop the escalation in violence over the past few months," police spokesman Lt. Kurt Byrd said. "Apparently many of the criminal element wrongly believe that there is an air of permissiveness. This task force sends the message that the escalating violence and crime will not be tolerated."
The task force hit the streets only hours after two more shooting deaths pushed the number of homicide victims to 27, up from 18 this time last year. Four of the victims have been killed in the past few days.
Crime has escalated in Cincinnati's predominantly black neighborhoods since three days of rioting broke out in April after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. A total of 73 shootings since the riots have left 85 people wounded or killed, compared with nine shootings and 11 victims for the same period last year.
The two most recent deaths under investigation are the fatal shooting of Mary George, 39, who was found unconscious around 2 a.m. on a sidewalk in front of her Avondale neighborhood apartment early this morning. She died at University Hospital a short time later. Police said she apparently had been talking to two men shortly before the shooting.
The body of an unidentified man was found about 3 a.m. in his van at an intersection in the Madisonville neighborhood. Police said he was apparently shot while in the van.
No arrests have been made in either case.
The task force does expect to be making many arrests as it works to get the most wanted criminals off the streets. The 70 members of the Violent Crimes Task Force have been given lists of the identities and alleged crimes of 42 of the city's most wanted felony suspects.
"Many of these people have been involved in violent crimes and many of them are habitual offenders," said Byrd. "Their names keep popping up in other incidents in addition to the ones they are charged with."
Byrd said most of the 42 have been involved with crime that has been concentrated in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where most of the rioting occurred in April. The suspects, however, are from various parts of the Cincinnati area.
Black activists have been critical of the police, not only for the use of force in the shooting of Timothy Thomas in April, but also for what they say has been a police reluctance to crack down on criminals since the riots sparked by Thomas' death.
Juleana Frierson, spokeswoman for the Cincinnati Black United Front, said Wednesday that she and others working to stop violence in Cincinnati don't know whether the task force will help.
"They wouldn't have needed to create a special task force if they were doing the regular policing that they are paid to do," she said.
"We have always been for proper policing," she said. "It is police brutality that we are opposed to."
She said various black groups will continue to walk the streets at night to help quell the violence.
"The police need to work with the community to solve this problem," she said.
Byrd wouldn't comment on Frierson's remarks, and he said he couldn't provide a timetable for the task force.
"Chief Streicher has said that he would like to say that the task force might be finished in a week, but he also says that is not realistic," said Byrd. "We are going to do what it takes to get the job done."
Task force members in uniform and undercover will focus on areas of high drug traffic, gang activity and other crimes.
"We hope that as more people become aware of the task force, they will be less likely to commit crimes," he said. "They won't know who to trust or who might be an undercover police officer."