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Racism Within Columbus Police: Black Officers Say Union And City Don't Protect Them

Paige Pfleger
Lieutenant Melissa McFadden says the local police union does not protect her or other Black officers.

This is part two of a two-part series about race inside Columbus Division of Police. Read part one here

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Columbus Public Safety Director Ned Pettus, who oversees the Columbus Division of Police. He was interviewed prior to publication, but his comments were erroneously not included in the original story.

"There’s absolutely no where to go with it," one officer says. "Nowhere to go."

WOSU spoke to seven current Black Columbus officers for this series, most on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation for speaking out.

Officers say they do not trust supervisors in the Columbus Division of Police to take allegations of racism seriously. Last year, a third-party survey of the departmentshowed Black respondents were more than twice as likely to say that they experienced discrimination than white respondents. And fewer than half of the Black respondents said that the division takes these allegations seriously.

Officers say that is not helped by the fact that white officers disproportionately dominate the highest-ranking positions inside the division. The chief, Tom Quinlan, is white, and according to recent department data, there are no Black deputy chiefs and only one Black commander.

Multiple officers allege that their colleagues in the Internal Affairs Bureau, which is charge of investigating personnel complaints, are not trustworthy.

"They’ll let you talk and then they’ll twist your words to make it seem like you said something you didn’t say," one officer alleges. "And if they list you as a problem officer, they’ll do whatever they can to get rid of you."

A year ago, the Department of Public Safety hired a dedicated Equal Employment Office director to help make investigations independent from Columbus Police. Since then, they have received two race-based harassment complaints and five allegations of disparate treatment based on race, religion or gender.

But because of budgetary constraints, EEO director Kathleen Bourke still works with the police’s Internal Affairs Bureau. And that has made some officers question her independence.

"I know that that’s a concern that has been raised, but operationally at this point, it is not feasible for me to complete all of these investigations without some sort of assistance," Bourke says.

Bourke says the final call on investigations comes from her, not Internal Affairs. The department says they are planning to hire an additional person to work with Bourke so they can be less reliant on the Internal Affairs Bureau. But the perception that she is not independent is just one of several things making it hard to get officers to come forward, she says.

"We know that there are probably other officers who have concerns and have complaints but have not come forward because of concerns, mostly concerns of retaliation," Bourke says.

Ned Pettus, director of city's Department of Public Safety, says when people bring forward complaints, they monitor the situation for retaliation.

“They can come directly to this office and lodge their complaint, which causes this office to put a laser focus on whether those complainants are experiencing retaliation or not,” he says.

One Black officer says he was retaliated against after he filed an EEO complaint against a white supervisor who called citizens "sewer rats" and "sub-human."

"And that was pretty much the end of my career," the officer says. "After I did that, it put a target on my back as a problem officer. Any time I had a complaint, I was relieved of duty and the investigation was dragged out over a year. In 24 years, I’ve sat relieved of duty for a total of five years. That’s unheard of."

Disciplinary records from March 2019 through 2020 show that, while Black officers make up about 10% of the force, they represent 13% of total punishments doled out. White officers make up 86% of the force, but received 81% of the punishments.

Complaints of disproportionate punishment are not new: WOSU obtained a 2003 internal email from a staff meeting where then-Chief James Jackson said, “Although the number of people who are disciplined is small, it appears Blacks and females are disciplined to a far greater degree than white males.”

Take, for example, the case of former officer Kevin Morgan. Morgan, who is Black, was fired over getting paid for hours he did not work.

Two white sergeants, Doug Jones and Bronson Constable, committed the same offense for longer periods of time. Rather than being fired, however, the white sergeants were given six weeks of suspension after advocating from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #9, the local police union.

"That makes African American officers feel like, we pay dues like everybody else, but obviously they pick and choose who they want to go to bat for, and a lot of the times those people are not people of color," another Black officer says of the police union.

Pettus, a Black man and former firefighter who served as Chief of the Division of Fire for 10 years, says it's a personal issue for him.

"That is deeply upsetting for me, especially as someone who has faced that at different points in my career," Pettus says. "We just have no tolerance for any kind of discrimination or harassment within our safety forces. We want those officers to come forward and file a complaint."

Regarding allegations of discriminatory treatment by the union, Pettus says, "I had a case come before me that involved an African American female, and I don’t know what members of the FOP feel, or what their emotions might be, but their representation of that African American female officer was very strong."

During a press conference in August, the head of the local FOP, Keith Ferrell, said he did not believe that past leaders of Columbus Police would allow systemic racism to exist in the department.

But Ferrell says he knows racism is an issue, and race would not affect how the union defends an officer.

"We represent every person that comes to us, regardless of race," Ferrell says. "It’s the merits of the case that drive that. We’ve had minorities involved in critical incidents and we’re there, just like we are for everybody else."

Two Black officers, who did not want their voices recorded for this story, say they tried to get union representation for disciplinary cases but were turned down, once because the union was already representing the white officer accused in the case.

"There may be a situation that just doesn’t call for a lawyer, based on the circumstances, but race never comes into play with that," Ferrell says.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Melissa McFadden outside the Columbus Police headquarters.

Lt. Melissa McFadden say the FOP’s denial of systematic racism was the final straw for her.

"You’re telling me there’s no systemic racism, so that tells me that you’re allowing this mess to go on, and you know it’s happening, 'cause you’re a part of the problem," McFadden says of the union. "You’re making these back-door deals, settling with the white officers, but you’re not doing it for the Blacks."

McFadden, one of the highest ranking Black women in the Columbus Division of Police, recently withdrew from the police union. And a few other Black officers who spoke to WOSU say they plan to join her.

In 2018, McFadden was accused of having a "Black militancy mindset" and creating a hostile work environment, allegations that McFadden says were brought against her as punishment for helping another Black officer file an EEO complaint over racial harassment. Pettus cleared McFadden of the charges, saying they could not be proven.

McFadden filed a discrimination lawsuitagainst Columbus Police, which is still pending.

During her tenure with the department, McFadden says she has seen both racism and retalliation, and if the FOP won't acknowledge those problems, she can no longer be a part of it. 

"I’ve got to get out of your organization because you and me are not aligned, and you’re not protecting me," she says.

Until there is a Civilian Review Board in place, officers say there won’t be any truly independent investigations into racism within Columbus Police.