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Columbus Police Restricted From Using Tear Gas Or Pepper Spray On Peaceful Crowds

Columbus Police confront protesters at a demonstration downtown on June 2, 2020.
Paige Pfleger
Columbus Police confront protesters at a demonstration downtown on June 2, 2020.

Columbus Police will no longer use tear gas to disperse peaceful crowds, Mayor Andrew Ginther announced Tuesday. 

The policy change comes as the police chief and local officials announce the members of a new policy advisory panel.

Ginther says the decision to restrict the use of tear gas and other chemicals came from his office.

"I have directed Chief [Tom] Quinlan to complete a thorough review of how chemical spray agents are deployed by police, and to immediately stop the use of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse non-aggressive, non-violent crowds," Ginther said.

The policy changes mean officers aren’t allowed to use chemicals to clear peaceful demonstrators from a street or other area.

Police officers’ indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray has been a constant critique since protests broke out nearly three weeks ago. Columbus City Council members, several of whom were pepper sprayed or tear gassed themselves during protests, have demanded a change to officers'"aggressive" approach,and on the use of pepper spray against members of the media.

Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein says he was unsettled by the fact that officers were operating within division policy when they used chemicals against demonstrators who simply stepped in the street.

"We’re adding explicit language and working with the Division of Police to add this language that failure to leave a street or to move by itself shall not justify the use of chemical spray against a non-agressive, non-violent crowd," Klein said.

One potential complication is the policy’s emphasis on “non-aggressive” and “non-violent.” In early clashes between demonstrators and police, when large groups squared off against officers, police deployed gas or spray on the entire group after a few individuals threw objects like water bottles.

In a meeting with the city’s Safety Advisory Commission two weeks ago, Quinlan defended such use of chemical agents, noting those few individuals can turn the crowd into a flashpoint, and that it was more appropriate than making arrests. 

Now, Quinlan explains, the department is pursuing new strategies, but refused to share explicit details, saying that the tactics could then be countered.

When it comes to community’s disapproval of police conduct, Quinlan insists he “gets it.”

“We are developing ways to be able to isolate people who are committing criminal acts of violence, and go in and remove them from the crowd, and allow the people who are there to have their message heard,” Quinlan says.

On Tuesday, the mayor and City Council also announced their picks for a new 14-member policy advisory panel in the police chief's office. Quinlan pitched the group as a kind of bridge to the formal Citizen Review Comission, to examine police misconduct and use-of-force cases, that city leaders are pushing for in the next police contract.

City Council and the mayor, not the police, are responsible for the selections of the advisory panel.

“The one thing that I would note is autonomy,” said City Council president Shannon Hardin. “As the chief said, we didn’t consult with him when we put this group together.”

As Quinlan has described the group, members would be able to raise policy concerns during regular meetings and gain access to documents or other materials that might not otherwise be publicly available.

Hardin says the group represents a diverse group in terms of race, experience and age from around the city. He said he believes their perspective could be helpful as the chief navigates future policy decisions.

“I think that that’s what we really wanted, were folks with independent voices and clear voices that could share their information and insight with our police chief," Hardin says.

Meanwhile, Klein and members of City Council have also called for an independent investigation into Columbus Police's response to protests.

Quinlan says the first meeting of the advisory panel will be held in July. The members of the panel are:

  • Aba Azeem, vice chair of the Create Columbus Commission
  • Lourdes Barosso de Padilla, director of the Latina Mentoring Academy
  • J. Love Benton, vice chair, Black, Out and Proud
  • James Burke IV, president, Columbus National Pan Hellenic Council
  • LaShaun Carter, chief diversity officer at Franklin County Children Services and Columbus Community Safety Advisory commissioner
  • Stefanie Coe, commissioner, Civil Service Commission
  • Yaves Ellis, pastor and director of community affairs at Urban 1
  • Tammy Fournier, founder and organizing director, Peoples Justice Project and Columbus Community Safety Advisory commissioner
  • Florence Latham, human resources consultant and executive coach
  • Kristy McCray, associate professor, Otterbein University
  • Diane Menashe, partner, Ice Miller
  • Andrew B. Pierce II, undergraduate student, John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University
  • Randall Sistrunk, director of development, Orange Barrel Media
  • Erin Upchurch, executive director, Kaleidoscope Youth Center
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.