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Columbus City Attorney Calls For Independent Probe Into Police Response To Protests

Protesters on the sidewalk of the Ohio Statehouse face Columbus Police officers, who stood in the middle of High Street, on June 1, 2020.
Paige Pfleger
Protesters on the sidewalk of the Ohio Statehouse face Columbus Police officers, who stood in the middle of High Street, on June 1, 2020.

Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein is recommending the appointment of a special counsel to perform an independent investigation into Columbus Division of Police, following complaints about the department's use of force during recent protests.

Klein presented his recommendations Wednesday with the support of the NAACP and the Columbus Urban League. He began with a stark assessment.

“The reality is there’s systematic racism in every step of government," Klein said. "There’s policies that we put forth in government—city, state, federal—that are suppressing the ability of people to succeed.”

Klein's idea for a special counsel review of the city's handling of demosntrations comes from a similar report prepared in Charlottesville after a violent clash in 2017 between white supremacists and counterprotesters. 

"It highlighted all the great things the city of Charlottesville did, and it highlighted all the things that Charlottesville fell short of doing and how they could improve and get better," Klein explains. "And that’s exactly what I think we should do here in the city of Columbus."

Klein is also urging a review of Columbus Police policies and procedures on clearing streets, "in order to avoid unnecessary confrontations between law enforcement and those exercising their First Amendment rights." Klein is recommending that department policies be updated to ban the "broad use of chemical agents against nonviolent protesters."

He notes under current policy police officers can use pepper spray on a nonviolent crowd in an "exigent circumstance," like blocking a street or a sidewwalk. Klein says a division-wide report suggested that standard was too low.

"Over the last week I've had a lot of people reach out to me and ask outside of just being in the street without a permit, what are these people doing wrong? And I think that's a fair question," Klein says.

Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan defended the deployment of tear gas and pepper spray in a press conference Tuesday, saying it was a more appropriate tactic than arresting protesters.

"That's the idea of the agents we're using, is to get people to move," Quinlan says. "Not to have to then take people and put a criminal charge on them, have that on their record, have to go to court, have to hire an attorney. We just want them to leave and stop damaging our city."

When it comes to longer-term reforms, Klein joined other officials in calling for the creation of a Citizen Review Board to examine police use-of-force cases. Local activists have demanded such a system for years, but Klein said that the current Fraternal Order of Police contract prevents it from being instituted.

He says his office is currently reviewing the contract for any opportunities to provide oversight.

"They may fall short of community expectations, because we're under the current contract, and I understand wanting subpoena power and others will have to be negotiated n the future contract, but what opportunities currently exist now," Klein says.

The Columbus Urban League’s Stephanie Hightower knows it won’t be easy, but they’re backing city officials’ efforts—both to give more weight to their demands, and to hold them accountable.

“What’s not going to be acceptable is for any of them to come back, and to your point, in a year from now, there’s nothing there," Hightower says. "Because then what is going to result, and I’m not trying to predict, but you’re going to have them same thing that’s out here right now.”

In recent days, several members of Columbus City Council, including president Shannon Hardin and president pro tem Elizabeth Brown, have offered their supportfor a Citizen Review Board and other police reforms.

Klein's other recommendations would alter how Columbus Police handle nonviolent offenses. Klein proposed moving charging decisions for alleged misdemeanors to his office for review, to "assure only appropriate charges are then filed." Most people charged for many non-violent crimes would receive a court summons, rather than being jailed before their trial.

Klein also called for a reviewing traffic and pedestrian offenses in the city code to avoid racial profiling. He notes black and brown men routinely bring up their experience of seemingly unnecessary police stops.

"That harbors and builds ill will in the community," Klein says. "So if we want to strengthen police community relations, and we want to strengthen trust in the community, we have to have a positive interaction every single time."

On Tuesday, Klein said he sent a letter to Columbus Police leadership about an incident in which staffers from The Lantern, who identified themselves as reporters, were pepper-sprayed by officers near Ohio State - despite the fact that media are exempt from Columbus' 10 p.m. curfew.

"The curfew order couldn't be clearer," Klein tweeted, adding that the use of mace against reporters must be investigated.

Klein urges people to report incidents of potential mistreatment by police at reportCPD@columbus.gov, which the Department of Public Safety recently established to receive complaints about protests. People can also file reports with the Internal Affairs Bureau at IABDeskSgt@columbuspolice.org.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.
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.