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Investigation Finds Most Complaints Against Columbus Police During Protests 'Not Sustained'

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.

An independent review of complaints against Columbus Police during this summer's protests found that the vast majority of excessive force allegations were unprovable due to lack of evidence or an inability to identify officers.

In July, Mayor Andrew Ginther announced the city had referred 40 complaints of police conduct to the law firm BakerHostetler, which was tasked with determining if officers should be departmentally charged for violating internal policy.

BakerHostetler's investigation relies on the preponderance of evidence standard—essentially, more likely than not—when determining if a policy violation occurred. Their findings can have a range of outcomes: They can sustain an allegation when they find evidence backing up the complaint, or exonerate an officer when they find clear evident there was no violation.

Complaints can also be withdrawn, or they can be shown as unfounded. The final possibility is "not sustained," when they able to neither prove or disprove misconduct.

Of the more than 30 investigations completed so far, BakerHostetler was able to sustain complaints against just one officer. Four officers were exonerated, but the vast majority of excessive force allegations were not able to be proven.

“We were unable to sustain the allegations, so again, to prove as true or not true, 25 of the allegations,” explains BakerHostetler partner Jennifer Edwards.

Edwards says her team faced numerous obstacles in carrying out their investigation. One issue was lack of footage from body worn cameras. Although the spread of smart phones means there is more civilian video available, she says body camera footage is far more useful to investigators.

But Edwards also notes that prior to the protests, SWAT officers hadn't been issued body cameras.

“They’re the best trained and the most accustomed to using force," Edwards says. "Thus, when the allegations are the most serious, the most likely to have resulted in a specific injury to a protester, they were also the most likely not to have been wearing a body worn camera.”

Edwards says they also encountered problems with incomplete documentation. Many officers neglected to file use-of-force reports during the contentious first weekend of protests, and therefore could not be identified or interviewed during their investigation. But Edwards notes some officers seemed reluctant to give a full account in interviews as well. 

“I would remiss if I didn’t mention that our team also experienced disappointment at some officers whose memory might have seemed strong throughout an interview, and then seemed to experience difficulty in remembering things at the time that they were asked to identify officers who were around them,” Edwards says.

Even when cases showed conduct that could violate city policy, another BakerHostetler partner, Mark Hatcher, says they simply could not find the officer involved.

“So there were potential violations of the use of force policy, but because we could not identify the officers involved we were unable to say, to determine that those instances were sustained,” Hatcher says.

The firm also found that the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #9, the local police union, obstructed the investigation by refusing the extend the 90-day timeline for investigating citizen complaints. That deadline is set by the union contract, and the union has blocked all requests for extensions. Under the union contract, officers also have the right to listen to all interviews that have occured in an investigation against them before conducting their own interview.

Ginther says changing those restrictions will be a priority in the city's upcoming contract negotiations with the FOP.

The mayor says several "egregious" cases where officers could face criminal charges are still ongoing. Those complaints are being reviewed by Richard Wozniak, a retired FBI agent.

Columbus Police has been widely criticized for its response to the protests that broke out in May, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police. Both advocates and City Council members raised particular issue with officers' use of force, chemical agents and less-lethal projections on non-violent crowds.

Police officials say that crowds became violent, and they were trying to restore regular traffic in downtown Columbus.

U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Franklin County commissioner Kevin Boyce and Columbus City Council president Shannon Hardin were among those hit with chemical agentsduring non-violent demonstrations this June. In statements Tuesday, the officials expressed "disappointment and disbelief" about the BakerHostetler investigation and the lack of accountability for officers.

"The fact that so few complaints are being sustained is a damning indictment of the system of oversight, reinforcing the lack of faith Black residents have in the system," Hardin wrote. "It is clear Columbus must create an independent Citizen Review Board that has subpoena power to get to the facts and improve accountability for law enforcement.”

Columbus voters will also have a chance this fall to weigh in on the possible creation of a Civilian Review Board, which will be tasked with investigating allegations of police misconduct.

"We can also agree that this report painfully highlights the need to pass meaningful police reform in Columbus and ensure greater accountability through the creation of an independent Inspector General and a citizen review board," Beatty added. "Because when it happens to three elected officials, who just so happen to be Black, it speaks volumes to the likely behavior and aggression many citizens face from some in law enforcement.”

Although many larger reforms remain up in the air, Columbus officials have made some changes to the Division of Police in the wake of the protests. After holding a hearing earlier this summer on the demilitarization of Columbus Police, City Council approved ordinances that limited the use of no-knock warrants and instituted hate group background checks for police.

On Monday, City Council on Monday tabled a measure that would have limited the police department's use of chemical agents, helicopters, and alternative munitions.

In addition to the review of complaints, Columbus leaders also funded a $250,000 independent probe of the police department and city's wider response to the protests.

That review is being led by John Glenn College of Public Affairs dean Trevor Brown and former U.S. Attorney Carter M. Stewart, who will hire a team of researchers and community members to interview both officers and protesters. It's expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.
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.