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With Criticism Mounting, Columbus Mayor Says Police Review Board Is 'Top Priority'

Mayor Andrew Ginther announces the selection of Tom Quinlan as the new Chief of Columbus Police, on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019.
Adora Namigadde

In a heated meeting, Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan and Mayor Andrew Ginther checked in with the Safety Advisory Commission to give a progress report on reform recommendations and gather feedback on police response to protests.

Quinlan laid out the department's progress on the commission’s recommendations, noting 61% are complete or in progress. Meanwhile, Ginther said he expects to form a working group for an independent review board by July, and members seated by the end of the year.

Ginther reiterated that review board is his top priority for the next police contract.

“The collective bargaining contract is up at the end of the year, and we are preparing to head to the table right now,” Ginther said. “And this, and other reforms you recommended and the public has demanded, will be my top priority.”

Still, commission members pressed the chief and the mayor over the department's protest response.  Commission chair Janet Jackson, who led the United Way of Central Ohio for more than a decade, opened with a question about the division’s crowd dispersal techniques, such as the use of tear gas, pepper spray and wooden bullets.

Jackson said she found many of the images she saw “challenging.” She asked the chief skeptically, “Is it your belief that the policies that we currently have were being utilized over the last several days?”

Quinlan explained the policy and his recent changes requiring an “exigent circumstance” and three warnings before using chemical agents. He noted officers often made many more warnings than that. But, Quinlan says, a few actors can turn a crowd into a “flashpoint.”

“Crowd mentality, mob mentality can take over, and good people who mean no harm can get caught up in the moment, and a flashpoint can happen, and it can suddenly erupt into violence,” Quinlan told commission members. “Using control tactics to spread that crowd out, can bring the temperature down of that crowd so that people that are instigators are not able to create that crowd into a flashpoint.”

But commission member Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, from the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, argued it was police who escalated tensions. She pointed specifically to Saturday, when numerous public officials, including U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), attended demonstrations and got pepper sprayed.

“People were angry, yes, and they were verbally abusive, yes, but your officers quickly escalated,” Fournier-Alsaada said. “And no one was looting, no one was stealing, no one was doing anything that would require that level of force in the middle of the day in downtown Columbus. Period.”

More than 165 Columbus Police officers suffered injuries during demonstrations so far, according to Quinlan, and 13 required medical attention.

“Without the option of using a device that allows us to have no personal hands on someone, what other option have you left us?” Quinlan asked. “It is worse to have officers go into a crowd and go hands-on. Plus when you go hands on, you’re seizing somebody, and now you’re obligated to arrest them.”

But commission member Matthew McChrystal argued that’s not what he is seeing in many of the photos and videos circulating online.

“The videos we’re seeing are not just general use of force against crowds, but individual officers who look like they’re just—it’s retribution against an individual who didn’t listen to them,” McChrystal said. “We’re seeing people who are walking away, who are being sprayed in their back of their heads or shot in the back of their legs.”

Ginther joined City Attorney Zach Klein’s call for an independent, third-party review of use of force incidents during demonstrations. 

Emily Buster, another commission member who works with Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services, worried about how much recent clashes have set back the division’s efforts at increasing diversity in the ranks. 

She brought up the differences in how law enforcement responded to the George Floyd protests, compared to the Statehouse demonstrations against Ohio's stay-at-home order.

"I think a lot of us in the community wonder why such a different response, when we have armed white protesters at our Statehouse protesting Dr. Acton, and they're met with such a different response from police than what we saw the past seven days, when we have predominately communities of color," Buster said.

Quinlan insisted the differing response had to do with the actions of the protesters. But Fournier-Alsaada and commission member Oleatha Waugh of the Columbus Urban League saw it differently.

“When protesters are met with police in riot gear, that gives the impression that we are not as valued, and that’s as politically correct as I can put it," Waugh said.

“It gives the impression that our bodies are a threat," Fournier-Alsaada chimed in. "That's the impression. Because every time we show up, our bodies are a threat. Joyce Beatty and Shannon Hardin, Kevin Boyce's bodies were threats.”

After a long pause, Ginther responded, “I accept that—that challenge and that charge to seek justice change and reform.”

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.