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Police oversight board concerned their work must wait for criminal investigations

Columbus Police vehicles outside the division headquarters.
David Holm

At its 14th monthly meeting since forming, Columbus’ Civilian Police Review Board is looking for answers on its function and ability to investigate questionable police actions.

The members are concerned that they seem to be blocked from commencing their reviews until after criminal proceedings against officers are complete.

“We could be talking years,” said board Chair Janet Jackson.

The oversight board is capable of recommending policy changes and officer discipline following their reviews. Board members questioned how timely their recommendations could be if they aren’t able to act.

Voters approved the creation of the police oversight board in a ballot measure in November 2020, after years of calling for the feature in Columbus—which was one of the only large cities in the country without one. The police union criticized the creation of the board as an attack on police collective bargaining rights.

The board is reliant on the newly created Office of the Inspector General to conduct the civilian investigations of police for their review. Jacqueline Hendricks-Moore wasn’t appointed to the position until February.

Now it seems guidelines in place bar the two agencies from conducting their work until the cases proceed through the criminal justice system and wrap up.

It’s a bad idea to pause administrative investigations like these, said Jayson Wechter, the president of a police oversight board in San Francisco who provides training through NACOLE, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

He gave the Columbus board a training session during their October meeting on Tuesday. He said abstaining from their investigation will hamper their outcomes.

"You don't want to put the administrative investigation on hold while the criminal investigation proceeds and potentially lose evidence,” Wechter said.

Jackson said she is seeking clarity from attorneys to see if their investigation and the criminal investigation could run concurrently, as long as there is a firewall between the two.

Wechter said it is typical for these investigations to proceed in other places, and that the criminal investigators and an inspector general typically agree on a schedule of what can be released to them and when without interference.

Jackson said she worries the public won’t understand why it would take so long for their board to act.

"I do think that many in the community believe, ‘Well, this has happened. And the IG can do her work. And the civilian review board can do this, and it's going to be over,’” she said.

Jackson said she will work with the IG and the county prosecutor who decides what to do—like filing charges or not—after the criminal investigation is complete, to determine what they can share with each other and when.

Jackson expressed doubt that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the state agency that investigates fatal police involved shootings, would share their investigation before it is complete. But, she'd like to know if the investigations could proceed simultaneously.

These questions loom more than a year since the board was assembled and amid recent police involved shootings, including the August death of Donovan Lewis, 21, who was shot and killed in his Sullivant Avenue home by Columbus police officer Ricky Anderson. Anderson is on paid leave, something Lewis’ family is unhappy with. They want to see Anderson fired.

Former Columbus police officer Adam Coy was fired within a week after shooting Andre Hill, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by Coy. Coy's criminal case is still pending in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. He has been indicted, but not tried yet.

When asked why the city fired Coy so quickly, but not Anderson, the Department of Public Safety’s spokesperson said it could not make any moves until the criminal investigation into Lewis’ shooting is complete followed by the IG investigation and the oversight board’s review and recommendations.

Then, it is up to the director of the department, Robert Clark, to make a determination of what will be done, which must also follow police union contracts. The department couldn't explain why Coy was handled differently.

Former oversight board member Aaron Thomas resigned following Lewis’ shooting, citing frustration with the board’s ability to enact change. New applicants can apply through the mayor’s office to serve.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.