Heimlich's maneuver

National | Amid riots and charges of police misconduct, a Cincinnati official calls for character programs

Issue: "Target: Taiwan," May 5, 2001

In a city divided by race, crime, and controversial police conduct, Cincinnati City Councilman Phil Heimlich-son of Dr. Harry Heimlich, who invented the Heimlich maneuver to save the lives of choking victims-seems to have come up with a potential point of harmony.

Last fall Phil Heimlich proposed that the Ohio River municipality devote itself to becoming a "city of character." As a Christian, Mr. Heimlich knew the importance of striving for virtues such as diligence and compassion in his personal and political life. As a conservative Republican outnumbered by Democrats on the council, he had attracted more than his fair share of controversy in advocating school choice and competition in city government services. But the council, finding no controversy in the idea of emphasizing the importance of character, adopted his resolution unanimously.

Maybe that seemed like a motherhood-and-apple-pie idea-but then came this year's inner-city riots, in response to several police killings of black residents. The riots arose last month after Officer Stephen Roach shot Timothy Thomas, who was fleeing from an attempted arrest for previous charges and traffic tickets. The officer said he thought Mr. Thomas, who turned out to be unarmed, was reaching for a gun. That shooting came on top of last November's police arrest and subduing of a 29-year-old black man, Roger Owensby, who died from being choked, or from extreme pressure on his chest and back. Two officers were indicted in that case.

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The city is divided not only over those two deaths, but the killing by police of 13 other blacks since 1995. Mr. Heimlich's defense of the police department on many occasions landed him in the center of controversy, but his push for emphasizing character virtues may point to a way out. Tough officers in a tough job are not likely to listen happily to lectures, but so far police have given positive reviews to training sessions put on with private funding by the Character Council for Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. During those sessions police are asked questions like, "What if you smiled twice as much, listened twice as well, and were twice as humble? How would that affect police-community relations?"

Emphasizing humility, along with other good character traits such as self-control and truthfulness, might not seem sufficient in a racially torn environment. Blacks account for about 43 percent of Cincinnati's population of 331,000, and two-thirds of black residents fall below the federal poverty level, according to city officials. That economic disparity contributes to tension, and there's plenty of bitterness to go around. Cincinnati has spent millions on new construction along its riverfront, but activists in poor areas complain that their neighborhoods have not prospered from the development.

And yet, better personal relations can cover over a multitude of grievances and give time for hard work and improved education, if they come, to make an impact. As the Cincinnati Enquirer in a supportive editorial last December noted, "Americans have become so accustomed to accommodating lack of character in our society that we can hardly imagine it otherwise. But culture is more powerful than politics."

The Heimlich goal is not just to see police officers develop; Cincinnati schoolteachers are also getting some training, and efforts are under way to promote the character emphasis in business and other areas of life. "We need a lot more than the police division," said businessman Michael Daly, who has also championed the effort. As tension over recent shootings continues, the police tendency is to wait for citizens to show trust, and inner-city residents are waiting for police to improve their behavior. "Our theme here is, it starts with me," Mr. Daly said.

As a leader in the character initiative, Mr. Heimlich has found himself held to a higher standard. In one City Council session, an observer noticed that he was not always listening to the speakers, and a letter writer to a local newspaper rebuked him. Mr. Heimlich admitted his lack of attentiveness, thanked his critic, and humbly promised to do better. "I was guilty. We need to look at ourselves. This is not a question of us telling other people how to develop character. It's a question of examining ourselves."

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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