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Study Finds Columbus Police Were Unprepared For Last Summer's Protests

Protesters on the sidewalk of the Ohio Statehouse face Columbus Police officers, who stood in the middle of High Street, on June 1, 2020.
Paige Pfleger
Protesters on the sidewalk of the Ohio Statehouse face Columbus Police officers, who stood in the middle of High Street, on June 1, 2020.

A team of Ohio State researchers found that Columbus city leaders and the Columbus Division of Police were unprepared for the scope of last summer's protests demonstrations, and out of touch with community discontent.

Researchers from Ohio State's John Glenn College of Public Affairs on Monday shared results from their investigation into Columbus police's conduct during last summer’s protests.

Former U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart, who served as lead investigator on the study, said police in Columbus didn’t think the police killing of George Floyd would impact the city like it did.

“Police felt that their relationship with the community was good, they didn’t focus on the fact that protesters in Columbus view policing as a national issue, and they care deeply about what happens in other cities,” he said.

Stewart says the police division’s mass protest training hadn’t been conducted since 2015, and there wasn’t a clear sense of how to respond to downtown demonstrations at any level of city leadership.

“Do you let protesters have streets—versus the sidewalks? When is it the right time to use chemical munitions? How do you analyze and utilize social media to both gather intelligence and get out a consistent coherent message,” Stewart said.

The researchers uncovered distrust between the community, particularly people of color, and the division of police, as well as between the police and city leadership. Within the division, researchers found estrangement between the rank and file and command officers. Under its key recommendations, the report paints a bleak outlook for the department.

“There is distrust, anger and fear directed towards the police that not only undermines the basic functionality of the criminal justice system, but also sows seeds for future, conflictual protests,” the authors wrote.

While the authors note those feelings aren’t “universal,” they argue that mistrust played a significant role fueling and extending protests.

Still, Stewart and others were quick to note moments in which both demonstrators and police felt interactions were positive. They also highlight instances where both groups felt police demonstrated restraint in the face of verbal and sometimes physical abuse.

But those positive moments were outweighed by others in which protesters and police experienced fear, confusion and aggression as the primary emotions on display.

Frank Straub leads the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies at the National Police Foundation. He’s also a former police chief with 30 years of experience. He emphasized the need for community outreach as the city considers police reform efforts.

“We think that the community needs to have a voice in the revision if they’re needed of any policies and procedures around first amendment events and protests,” Straub said.

He also said restoring trust will take time and conscious effort from city government and the police.

“There really has to be now a period of reconciliation,” Straub said. “The city, the police department has to really extend its hands and welcome the community in and figure out what do we do? How do we move forward as the city of Columbus.”

Among the team’s recommendations: the division of police should reconsider its use of riot gear and develop outreach teams who engage with activist leaders before, during and after protests to build trust.

They also urge the city and police force to bring the community into the process of developing clear guidelines for the use of chemical munitions like tear gas in response to mass demonstrations.

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.