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Columbus Council Promises Police Demilitarization, Independent Investigations

Columbus City Hall
David Holm
Columbus City Hall on April 15, 2020.

Columbus City Council is promising short-term reforms for the police and committing to longer term, structural transformation. Council members aim to complete the first wave of legislation by the end of July.

On Thursday, Council members promised a ban on no-knock warrants, the removal of military equipment from the police department, a requirement to background check new officers for hate group activity, and the shift of use-of-force investigations to independent investigators.

Council president Shannon Hardin says those reforms are only the first step.

“Folks have asked me when are we going to go back to normal, and I hope that we don’t,” Hardin says. “Now is our moment to act. We have the opportunity to move legislation forward and spark a conversation that could change our city forever.”

The first of those conversations will be a finance committee hearing next Tuesday, hosted by Council president pro tem Elizabeth Brown

"We will be looking at what equipment our police force is authorized to purchase and use in our city,” Brown says. “We will hear from the Division, and most importantly we will hear from residents about what they believe keeps all of us safe."

Brown says she’ll use an Obama-era executive order prohibiting certain future sales of military surplus as a benchmark for determining whether Columbus Police should keep the equipment. Although that order covers a vast array of equipment, Brown says the approach is pretty simple.

“What’s on that list is everything from tanks, which we don’t own a tank, to camouflage uniforms,” Brown says. “Uniforms are not weapons, but they do militarize the presence of police, and that’s really the bottom line. The presence of our officers should never look or feel to residents as if we are at war.”

In a press conference outside police headquarters, Commander Elrico Alli declined to respond to Council’s proposals, or Mayor Andrew Ginther’scall Wednesday to pick a side between participating in reform or standing at odds with the community.

Alli insisted officers and elected officials are united in their aims.

“We all have to remember that we all have a common goal, we all want the safety of our citizens, we all want justice over anarchy, and we all want things to return to a normal, peaceful state,” Alli says.

And while Council members are promising long-term fundamental transformation, they’re still far from embracing the rhetoric of defunding or abolishing police. Council member Mitchell Brown voiced support for Police Chief Tom Quinlan and the division more broadly, insisting that police play a unique role in the community.

“There are individuals both inside and outside our community that commit violent acts against others, and violate their rights,” Brown says. “Those individuals must be subject to the law and it is imperative that we have a well-trained, well-equipped law enforcement agency to maintain our community’s safety.”

Brown went on to say that while most officers have a “true calling” to serve their community, independent investigations of police conduct and real accountability are needed to restore public trust.

Like Brown, Council member Shayla Favor emphasized the importance of reassessing police spending. She raised the possibility of reallocating some of that money toward affordable housing—an issue Favor advocates for regularly.

Favor also highlighted how personal these efforts are to her as a Black woman with four nieces and nephews. She worries any one of them could be the next hashtag decrying police violence.

"We still have so much work to do to solve these problems that have existed long before each and every one of us, and we have to remember the principles upon which this system was built,” Favor says. “The truth is, they weren't originally designed to include all of us, but we are here now, and we can make the difficult but necessary changes to advance true equity in the city of Columbus.”

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.