True or false? Reverend Oscar Tillman is a civil rights opportunist in the flamboyant tradition of New York's Al Sharpton.

Yes or no? Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega looks the other way when his officers abuse Valley blacks.

A six-week investigation by Phoenix city manager Frank Fairbanks was supposed to clear the air.

Life should be so simple.
At a February 4 press conference, Reverend Tillman demanded that Chief Ortega resign because of "racial insensitivity," a charge arising out of the alleged brutalization of blacks by Phoenix police. One week later, on February 11, Tillman met with the mayor, the city manager, the police chief and a delegation of the concerned. Ortega was instructed by Fairbanks to look into the minister's charges and prepare a report.

Three weeks afterward, and before the final draft could be completed, the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police on March 3 was televised nationally, and all discussions of excessive force took on a disturbing new perspective.

When the Phoenix City Hall report was completed, a March 29 meeting among politicians, bureaucrats and community activists was set with the not-unreasonable expectation that fireworks would follow. Instead, the parley was anticlimatic, at best.

Those anticipating a fiery outburst from Tillman were disappointed--or relieved, depending on your view of the Baptist minister.

Reverend Tillman announced to the press his satisfaction with the city manager's investigation, his hope for an ongoing dialogue, and the withdrawal of his request for Ortega's resignation.

Like a spring storm, the clouds had darkened, but the rain never came. Rather than a roll of thunderclaps on March 29, the skies opened up and sunlight poured forth.

"I guess I surprised them," said Reverend Tillman.
The report that so pleased Reverend Tillman, however, was as misleading as it was artful.

In his cover letter to the report, deputy city manager Pat Manion wrote: "From my review of the facts, I do not find evidence to suggest any consistent pattern of unfair treatment of minorities by the police department."

A detailed examination of the city's probe by New Times, however, uncovered an entirely different story.

Confidential police records pertinent to the city's report were never submitted for review. Obtained by New Times, the files contradict the glib assertions in the City Hall white paper. Furthermore, a second set of records--the original working documents released to New Times following a demand under the Arizona public records law--contains data that underscores the violence blacks suffer at the hands of Phoenix police. This information was dropped from the final report presented to Reverend Tillman.

Rather than putting to rest the tensions that have rocked Arizona nationally in the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday uproar, the latest developments complete another chapter in the history of local racial division.

Closer scrutiny of the Tillman-Ortega confrontation reveals that:
Though instructed by city manager Frank Fairbanks to prepare a full response, Chief Ortega withheld damaging information from his own Internal Affairs Bureau files on a recent and controversial shooting.

Statistics on blacks shot by Phoenix officers were released by Ortega to City Hall. The charts show clearly that blacks are more likely to be victims of police gunfire than whites. Deputy city manager Pat Manion sidestepped that data, focusing instead on more benign figures.

While this six-week probe into excessive force was under way, blacks continued to complain of local police abuse to little avail and even less public notice.

Press reports that Reverend Tillman was placated were inaccurate. Though he felt progress was made, he said his principal agenda still consists of meaningful civilian review of the police department and that he will go to City Hall every month, if necessary, to achieve his goal. Moreover, Tillman revealed for the first time that city manager Fairbanks agreed to explore the idea of citizen oversight.

Behind the scenes, Reverend Tillman established a beachhead with police administrators before the sit-down on March 29. The startling rapprochement between Ortega and Tillman culminated with the police chief asking his harshest public critic to "stop by for coffee anytime." It is too soon to tell if this is progress or an attempt to co-opt this city's most visible civil rights spokesperson.

ONE OF THE FIRST CASES originally cited by Reverend Oscar Tillman was the publicized shooting of a black man in a nightclub parking lot.

"I reviewed at great length the incident of the off-duty officer who shot suspect Johnny Ray King on January 5, 1991, at Vinnie's, 2110 East Highland. From the detailed police reports available, I find no evidence to indicate improper conduct by the officer," wrote Pat Manion in the report.

Police explain the shooting by alleging that King attempted to run them over and that they fired in self-defense.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey