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Columbus City Council Delays Vote On Restricting Police Use Of Chemical Agents

Police in riot gear in front of a protest at the Ohio Statehouse.
Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
Police in riot gear in front of a protest at the Ohio Statehouse.

Columbus City Council on Monday decided to table proposed restrictions on the police department's use of military equipment and non-lethal weapons like tear gas.

The ordinance, sponsored by Council member Elizabeth Brown, was one of several measures introduced in the weeks after protests over racial inequality and police violence, and in response to criticism of the Columbus Division of Police.

Council President Shannon Hardin was one of four members who moved to postpone voting on the proposal. In an emailed statement, Hardin says it and other measures will be discussed through the "Reimagining Safety" process leading into the 2021 budget.

“And so here we are again,” says Tammy Fournier Alsaada, executive director of the People’s Justice Project. “They put forth measures and now, if we’re talking about tabling those measures, then all of us should be concerned. We have an unchecked police force.”

Alsaada worked on a Community Safety Commission that created 88 recommendations and ways to address trauma and the effects of violence and over-policing in communities of color.

The tabled ordinance would prohibit "the use of any form of tear gas to disperse crowds," and allows officers only to use such chemical agents if the group is "engaging in aggressive or violent actions towards officers or others." However, officers must preface any deployment of those agents with at least three warnings.

"Failure to leave a street, or to move, by itself, shall not justify the use of a control agent against a non-aggressive, non-violent crowd," the ordinance reads.

It similarly restricts the use of "non-lethal" or "less lethal" ammunition such as wooden bullets, rubber bullets or sandbags.

Fournier Alsaada says banning such tactics is necessary to protect the rights of citizens to protest.

“It’s a necessary measure that must be fought for and put in place,” says Fournier Alsaada. “Does it go far enough? No. Because what we need is independent oversight. We need a way to hold police accountable.”

In mid-June, Mayor Andrew Ginther announced a policy change that restricts the use of tear gas or pepper spray on non-violent demonstrators. However, police returned to deploying pepper spray on protesters less than a week later. At the time, Ginther claimed that officers were "met with violence" and did not violate his order, while Columbus Council members said the actions were indiscriminate and not justified.

Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan has repeatedly defended officers' use of chemical agents, arguing that they helped disperse large crowds and prevented arrests.

Columbus is currently undergoing a $250,000 independent probe of the police department and city's wider response to protests, which is expected by the end of the year. And a ballot issue to establish a Civilian Review Board with independent oversight over the police department will appear before Ohio voters in November.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.