Leonard Pitts Jr.
The coroner says he called it homicide only 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 acting strangely — dancing and barking out numbers — and then became combative during an encounter outside a fast-food restaurant.
Video of the Nov. 30 beating, captured by a camera in a police cruiser, has been played on television nonstop, heightening racial tension in a city where tension doesn’t need the help — a city that, two years ago, endured days of street violence after police shot to death an unarmed black man. Last week’s ruling by Coroner Carl Parrott appears to have only splashed gasoline on this latest fire.
This, even though the doctor took pains to stress that the term “homicide” was not meant to suggest “hostile or malign intent.” Jones, he pointed out, bore only superficial bruises on his lower body from the beating. Far more important in determining a cause of death were the facts that he weighed 350 pounds, had heart disease and high blood pressure, and was on cocaine and PCP. The coroner 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 the latest black man brutalized by police.
I understand their anger. My problem is that I also understand PCP, having lived in Los Angeles during 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 knew that people who were “dusted” might dance naked in the middle of busy intersections or hurl themselves from skyscrapers believing they could fly. PCP users sometimes seemed to possess a freakish strength, an impression created by the fact that the drug leaves some people in a violent, agitated state while simultaneously desensitizing them to pain.
That would be a dangerous combination in a man who only weighed 120 pounds. Consider it in a man Jones’ size and it offers a certain context for the images captured on that video. Might even induce a 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 benefit because there is no doubt: the police are racist, the police are unjust, the police do not value black 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 black moral authority, undermines the argument it purports to advance, makes anger seem not righteous, but reflexive.
The facts as they stand simply do not justify adding this case to the dishonor roll of police misconduct. Jones did not have his head broken like Rodney King. He was not sodomized with a stick like Abner Louima. He was not executed in a doorway like Amadou Diallo. He was, in the final analysis, a morbidly obese man with a diseased heart and high blood pressure who chose to use cocaine, 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 than the coroner: Nathaniel Jones committed suicide.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.