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Special prosecutor pursuing Columbus Police misconduct cases speaks out following resignation

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.

Katheen Garber, the lead special prosecutor who was tasked with pursuing criminal charges against three Columbus Police officers accused of alleged misconduct in the 2020 downtown racial justice protests, resigned on Wednesday.

The announcement of her resignation came one day after prosecutors dismissed the misdemeanor charges in the second case. Before that, prosecutors lost the first case that went to trial.

Garber spoke with WOSU on Friday afternoon. She was reluctant to explain the reason for her resignation, given that one other case is still pending. However, she spoke candidly about the challenges presented by prosecuting such high-profile cases against three Columbus police officers.

"Well, it's the hardest thing I've ever done," Garber said. "And that's, you know, having prosecuted serial rapists and death penalty cases and domestic violence and everything else."

Garber said she and the rest of the prosecutorial team were in new territory, given that police officers typically don't face criminal misconduct charges and that complaints of excessive force are usually handled administratively.

One of the biggest challenges, Garber said, was that her investigator had a great deal of difficulty getting officers to give them usable information, saying it was like "pulling teeth."

She says she can probably count on one hand the number of officers who agreed to be interviewed voluntarily, and even then, the information they were providing was not all that helpful.

"It was more trying to help explain the focus officer's actions and trying to get us to look at it from their point of view, which of course, we already were. However, we were seeking actual details, what was actually witnessed identifying those officers who did not display their badge numbers, or could not be identified by or would not be identified by any of the other members who were standing beside him or her," Garber said.

Last week, a judge found Columbus police Sgt. Holly Kanode not guilty of charges stemming from the 2020 protests. Then on Tuesday, prosecutors dismissed the charges against Columbus police officer Traci Shaw, who was set to go to trial this week.

Officer Shaw was accused of pepper spraying a group of women who had been at the protests on May 30, 2020, and were, by all accounts, simply trying to make it home. Prosecutors dropped the charges after one of the alleged victims in the case withdrew their complaint. Garber said the woman wanted the trial to move forward, but the not-guilty verdict in the Kanode case had exacerbated the victim's distrust of the system.

"She followed that case. She heard the court's rationale for his verdict. And the message to her was that everyone gets a pass, you know, simply because one officer wanted to describe the entire week of protests as 'one big riot,'" Garber said.

Garber said her resignation did not have anything to do with the Kanode acquittal or the resolution in the Shaw case, but she also said regardless of the outcomes of these cases, she believes the truth will come to light.

"We've all seen the videos where hundreds of people are peacefully protesting, as well as videos were officers were using force on peaceful protesters. They can be ignored, but they're not—they're undeniable," Garber said.

Garber said the police department needs to recognize that they have the same duty to protestors as anyone else: to protect their First Amendment rights.

The trial against a third officer, Sgt. Phillip Walls, is still moving forward and is set to begin next month.

Garber said she looks forward to spending more time with her family.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.