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Columbus Council Grills Police Chief, Who Says 'No Shortage' Of Change Coming

Columbus Police officers maintain crowds around the Ohio Statehouse on May 30, 2020.
Adora Namigadde
Columbus Police officers maintain crowds around the Ohio Statehouse on May 30, 2020.

With protesters again demonstrating in downtown Columbus, City Council on Monday voted to declare racism a public health crisis. 

The resolution passed by Columbus leaders comes about a week after Franklin County officials took similar steps, and after a fifth day of protests calling for swift and decisive changes to police practices.

The measure itself, however, won’t provide those changes—it’s more a statement of purpose.

“Columbus is committed to honestly and directly addressing minority health inequities,” the resolution reads, “including a systematic, data-driven focus on poverty, economic mobility, and other factors that impact the social determinants of health.”

Still, with the backdrop of ongoing protests, the resolution offered a platform for local leaders make their thoughts about the weekend’s tensions clear.

At a press conference before the meeting, Mayor Andrew Ginther acknowledged the anger and frustration that demonstrators felt after harsh tactics from Columbus Police over the weekend, including the use of tear gas and wooden projectiles on peaceful protesters.

“I accept full responsibility for the engagement and the tactics used by the Division of Police on Saturday,” Ginther said. “They did not meet my or the community’s expectations. I had a very direct conversation with the chief on Sunday morning and I think you and many others that have been down there have seen a very, very different approach.”

At the meeting itself Monday afternoon, Ginther committed to making a civilian review board for police use of force his top priority as the city and the police union negotiate a new contract. The current agreement expires this December. Community activists have been calling for independent investigations into police force for years.

Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan joined the meeting as well. He said he was committed to pursuing reform, and explained that a recent retreat with the division’s top brass worked through a series of more than 100 reforms.

Quinlan told Council members he’s planning to establish a chief’s advisory panel in the near term to serve as a kind of bridge until the next contract.

“I didn’t want to wait for a negotiation with the FOP for whatever comes out of a citizen review,” Quinlan said. “I wasn’t going to wait for that I already have a plan for a chief’s advisory panel, I already have it completely spelled out and laid out with what my vision is there and how that will operate and function.”

Quinlan, who in December was promoted from interim chief after a yearlong search, also said he will move use of force complaints out of the chain of command. Under those changes, the bureau of Internal Affairs will investigate complaints rather than an officer’s supervisor.

But Council members took the opportunity to push Quinlan for immediate tactical changes.

President Pro Tem Elizabeth Brown urged the chief to take the opportunity of complaints to review not just an officer’s conduct but the underlying policy. She noted when it comes to use of force against protesters, there are First Amendment implications which are “critically important.”

Rob Dorans highlighted text messages he’d received from protesters trying to leave ahead of curfew, who were met with police in riot gear.

“When they see their, what they perceive to be their exit to downtown, that there are officers there in full riot gear, they don’t feel like that is a appropriate place for them to leave,” Dorans said.

He also urged the chief to make officers’ names and badge numbers readily identifiable—not just to call out misconduct, but to ensure those working safely aren’t painted with the same brush.

Council member Shayla Favor said she saw aggression and overreaction from police when she visited the demonstrations, noting she was on the receiving end of pepper spray four times.

“I think our community needs the acknowledgement that our tactics and our approach may have gotten out of hand, and an unequivocal statement that denounces that behavior in our community,” Favor said.

Council member Mitchell Brown, who heads up the Public Safety Committee, called for a “complete review” of policies related to peaceful demonstrations, and said he’d push for an emphasis on de-escalation.

“It is important that our community’s values of accountability, transparency and respect are manifested in the  actions of the Division of Police,” Brown said. “If this high standard is not met, the appropriate individuals must be held accountable.”

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.