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Columbus Police Struggling To Keep Up With City's Growing Population

Esther Honig

Columbus saw its deadliest year yet in 2017, with 143 homicides, a record that was last broken in the midst of the cocaine epidemic a quarter-century ago.

Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs says it's not just the opioid epidemic that's to blame for the rising number of deaths – it's also that the number of of police is far short of where it should be. The numbers back her up: Columbus lags behind comparable cities in the size of its police force, and the department is struggling as a result.

Lagging In Comparison

According to public records, the number of sworn personnel has remained stagnant as Columbus’ population has grown. In 2006, there were 763,351 people in Columbus. That year, there were 1,822 officers on the city police force, which amounted to about 2.39 officers per 1,000 city residents.

Today, there are about 860,100 people in Columbus and about 1,918 officers. That amounts to about 2.23 officers per 1,000 people in Columbus - a smaller ratio than a decade ago.

Columbus lacks police in comparison to other Ohio cities. Public records from Cincinnati and Cleveland police forces show that Cincinnati has about 3.3 officers per 1,000 people, and Cleveland has 3.9 officers per 1,000 people. (The latest city-by-city breakdown of Ohio police force numbers in 2016 can be found here.)

"Our resources are being taxed," Jacobs said in a press conferenceon Dec. 11, 2017.

Jacobs said she wants the city to add officers to the police force, but will not specify the amount. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 9 President Jason Pappas said the department needs at least 200 new police officers.

“I would take as many as we can get,” Jacobs said. “I believe that solving crime now, I mean we’ve got DNA to analyze, we’ve got fingerprints to pick up, we’ve got video to watch, all of that takes more time.”

A Bulging Backlog

With fewer officers, the city’s homicide detectives quickly become backlogged with cases - which are only becoming more common in Columbus.

According to Jacobs, it is best practice for a detective to take the lead on three homicide cases a year. The lead detective makes sure all information surrounding the case stays organized, but that becomes more difficult if they have to take on more cases. 

“Our homicide detectives are the ones being taxed with extra work," Jacobs said. "And certainly when they are getting called out several times a week on a homicide and they’re the primary detective on that particular case, then they have to do double duty."

It's led to a big backlog: Columbus Police solved less than 40 percent of homicides in 2017, according to department data. And there are more than 1,000 cases in the cold cases unit, which reviews unsolved cases.

“If I’m a homicide detective and I’m working a particular shift and I get a homicide and then I go to investigate that case, and then two nights later I get another homicide,” said Jason Pappas, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 9. “I have to take care of the one that is a fresh case. Then the unsolved one is still sitting. Then I get another, and another and another. So those sit for long periods of time.”

Jacobs said each homicide costs the city about $1 million to investigate. 

On The Same Page?

At Jacobs' December 11 press conference, she said she would go to Columbus City Council to request as many officers on staff as the city can afford. But that was news to Mayor Ginther – spokeswoman Robin Davis said Ginther was not made aware of the press conference prior to it happening, which is atypical. 

When asked whether Ginther was offended or surprised about not being informed, Davis said, "I wouldn't say either word is accurate."

While Ginther has been somewhat receptive to Jacobs' request, it's perhaps not to the extent she would like. His 2018 city budget includes funding for two new police recruit classes, which is about 70 new officers. That plan falls far short of Jacobs’ request for 200 officers.

Jacobs said that the mayor’s allowance will only keep pace with officer departures and retirements. A statement from Mayor Ginther’s office said the budget also includes $2 million to increase neighborhood-based patrols and community engagement. 

(In August, the police union voted "no confidence" in Ginther and members of the Columbus City Council after Ginther supported Safety Director Ned Pettus in firing former Columbus Police officer Zachary Rosen.)

The mayor’s office said adding 200 police officers would cost a minimum of $26 million a year, “which means the same amount would have to be cut from other departments.” That equates to about half of the general operating fund budget for the Columbus Department of Health and the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Staffing isn't the only way the city is trying to combat the rise in homicides, of course. In November, Ginther announced the end of controversial Community Safety Initiative, which sent officers and specialty units into areas identified as high-crime.

Now the city is now in the process of implementing the Comprehensive Neighborhood Safety Plan. Ginther says his new plan focuses on “not just adding more police officers. It is about policing differently – using intelligence, reform and innovation.” 

In the meantime, the crime wave continues. As of January 6, Columbus has already seen six homicides in 2018.

An earlier version of this story said Jacobs wants at least 200 officers added to the Columbus Division of Police. 

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.