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Columbus' Police Chief Wrote The Book On Crowd Dispersal. Did Officers Follow It?

Columbus Police used tear gas to disperse protesters on May 31, soon after arriving downtown.
Paige Pfleger
Columbus Police used tear gas to disperse protesters on May 31, soon after arriving downtown.

Exercise restraint. Use only the minimum amount of lawful force. Do not show anger.

Every officer in training in Ohio is taught crowd control policies, outlined in a document that Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan helped write. Following recent demonstrations over police violence, however, protesters question if Quinlan’s officers followed those guidelines.

Jordyn Close and her friends were among hundreds gathered in downtown Columbus on the city's first night of protests over the killing of George Floyd. Tensions were already running high between police and protesters.

"They were telling people to disperse, but they had blocked off three out of four of the main streets, so even if people wanted to leave they really couldn’t," Close says. "And then they started spraying people indiscriminately." 

Close says an officer pepper sprayed her from a few inches away. She alleges the officer grabbed her by her hair and the back of her shirt, and threw her into a group of other police officers.

"I could not see," Close says. "But I was kicked in the side and the ribs, and as I was trying to get up, they were pushing me down."

For three days, Columbus Police tactics toward the demonstrations largely stayed the same – despite going against guidelines on handling crowds that Quinlan helped write.

"This document wasn’t intended to be a Bible. It was intended to be a guide," Quinlan said in an interview with WOSU. "And make sure officers have the tools available to them to make good judgement decisions on what we should do in ideal circumstances."

The plan on "civil disorders" is taught to every new officer in the state, and lays out guidance on crowd control.

The document provides distinctions between large gatherings, from “mobs” to “riots” to “civil disorders” like nonviolent demonstrations or labor disputes. One section is titled "Balancing First Amendment Rights And The Need To Protect Public Safety And Property."

"The First Amendment does not protect against unlawful, violent, or destructive behavior," the document reads. "Law enforcement’s responsibility is to objectively discern when a lawful protest becomes unlawful."

At peaceful protests, officers should wear their normal uniforms. For non-peaceful protests, the guide lists protective gear like gas masks, body armor and shields.

Another section of the document outlines dispersal techniques. The guide instructs officer to give three warnings before using force.

"A dispersal order establishes the illegal nature of the crowd's actions and shows the intent of the police to arrest perpetrators and/or use chemical/specialty munitions," the document reads.

After the warning, officers should allow a reasonable amount of time for crowds to disperse, and should communicate what direction they want the protesters to move in.

However, during the Columbus protests, WOSU reporters witnessed multiple instances where a warning was given while officers were already firing projectiles or using chemical agents like tear gas.

"It’s certainly expected, but there are times where things happen so fast it can’t always be given," Quinlan said. "However, in almost all cases we are able to give the order."

After issuing an order, the document says officers can use a variety of tactics and tools to get protesters to disperse. Police can deploy tear gas into the crowd, use pepper spray, or fire wooden projectiles called "knee knockers."

"Advantages of using chemical agents as riot control measures: 1. They have an immediate effect on a large group 2. Can cause psychological effects, such as mental disorientation and confusion, which may keep the crowd from regrouping 3. In most cases, they will not cause permanent damage," the document reads.

Protesters treat their eyes after being hit by tear gas from Columbus Police.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Protesters treat their eyes after being hit by tear gas from Columbus Police.

The document warns that pepper spray should not be used closer than 7 feet away, and that exposure can lead to vomiting, chemical burns or even death for people with health conditions. 

Kaiti Burkhammer says police pepper sprayed her and other protesters from just a few feet away with no warning. The spray hit her open mouth, causing her to vomit.

Burkhammer is the daughter of a retired police officer, and says she was shocked by the use of force.

"There were plenty of officers on site who did not participate in the actual pepper spraying," Burkhammer says. "But you can see from photos or videos of that day from protesters that they looked on and said nothing. They did not pull back and say, 'We’re supposed to issue a warning' or 'You’re standing too close, you’re not supposed to spray that close.'"

Columbus City Council member Shayla Favor was one of several elected officials pepper sprayed by Columbus Police officers during the demonstrations.

Protocols say officers should "remain neutral and keep calm." Favor says that was not what she saw.

"There were moments when I did feel there was an aggressive approach that was unwarranted at that moment," Favor says.

Favor echoed Mayor Andrew Ginther's statement that Columbus Police's actions did not live up to expectations. City Attorney Zach Klein has since recommended a ban on the "broad use of chemical agents against nonviolent protesters."

When asked if he felt his officers followed their training, Quinlan said real life is different than the classroom.

"Nothing is perfect in application," Quinlan says. "When we’re sitting in a room at the state police academy, and writing how this should look ideally, and how it looks when bottles or rocks or chunks of concrete or fireworks are being deployed. Sometimes you have to make adjustments on the fly based on what you’re facing."

Columbus Police observe demonstrations over police violence on June 2, 2020.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Columbus Police observe demonstrations over police violence on June 2, 2020.

Columbus Police eventually did make adjustments. On the fifth night of protests, following criticism from Ginther and City Council members, officers de-escalated the crowds using techniques laid out in their training.

Instead of riot gear, police dressed in their normal uniforms and engaged one-on-one with protesters.

One man lifted his shirt to show Sergeant Kerry Hollis a bruise on his side from where he was hit with a wooden projectile.

"I think we need to find a better way," Hollis said to him. "I think there’s a better way to do things and I think the division needs to take a look at that, we really need to take a look at how we do things, and there needs to be change. There needs to be change for there to be progress."

It’s unclear if part of that progress will include a change to the state’s training on crowd control.

This week, Gov. Mike DeWine called for new state minimum standardsfor how police should respond to protests – including determining when measures like tear gas and non-lethal projectils are necessary, best practices for crowds that fail to disperse, and when tactics become excessive.

Paige Pfleger is a former reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.