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Columbus police say they declined Ohio State's request for assistance at pro-Palestinian protests

A member of the Columbus Division of Police Dialogue Unit approaches a group of protestors gathered on Ohio State University's campus.
George Shillcock
A member of the Columbus Division of Police Dialogue Unit approaches a group of protestors gathered on Ohio State University's campus.

Columbus police and its specially-trained dialogue unit were absent from a protest where OSU police and Ohio State Highway Patrol arrested dozens. Here's why.

The bright blue vests of the specially-trained Columbus Division of Police Dialogue Unit — or any CPD officer — were noticeably absent from last week's Ohio State University campus protests. And there's a reason why.

Ohio State University Police, Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers and Franklin County Sheriff's deputies were some of the dozens of officers who helped arrest nearly three dozen people that day. There were cops on bikes, large black buses marked "sheriff" and there were even helicopters shining spotlights on the crowd of 600 protestors.

Columbus police were not there.

OSU spokesman Ben Johnson told WOSU CPD officers were inside the Ohio Union during the protest, but were not there for enforcement or to help arrest people.

Courtney DeRoche, a 29-year-old graduate instructor at Ohio State, was arrested that day during the protest. She said she was loaded into one of the black sheriff's buses which rolled around the Ohio Union to the front where she and the dozens of others were offloaded and brought into the Ohio Union.

She said CPD officers were inside but were just standing around watching the protesters as OSUPD processed. She said this happened until 1 a.m. when law enforcement brought them to Jackson Pike to be detained.

Columbus city officials told WOSU that Ohio State requested their assistance, but CPD chose not to come.

"In this situation, the division did not have the available resources requested or the ability to interact with the community the way it was requested," Columbus Department of Public Safety spokesperson Glenn McEntyre said in a statement.

Columbus City Council was quick to applaud the absence of their 1,800 officers from the protest. The government body said CPD did not carry out Thursday night's arrests.

But, Johnson said in a statement OSU did not directly request CPD's assistance. Johnson said OSU did discuss the protest and the potential for CPD to help respond.

"Before large events, there is always a conversation with partner agencies about likely public safety plans. After discussion between OSUPD and CPD, OSUPD did not request enforcement assistance from CPD," Johnson said.

At the scene of the Thursday night protest, OSUPD officers issued multiple warnings over a loudspeaker telling the hundreds of protestors "you have 15 minutes to depart the area."

Officers told WOSU on the scene that they were waiting for backup to arrive before even formulating a plan to disperse the protests. Backup eventually came from OSHP and the county sheriff, but not from the university police's nearest neighboring police agency, CPD.

Despite CPD's absence, protestors shouted one of their most used chants: "CPD, KKK, IDF, they're all the same." This chant references the Columbus police, the Ku Klux Klan and the Israeli Defense Forces.

The protestors were there demanding OSU disclose and stop funding companies and other financial investments related to the Israeli government. The university has refused to do so and said it is against Ohio Revised Code to cave to some of the protestors' demands.

The university ordered the protest to disperse, because it said the protestors were setting up tents for an attempted encampment and that violated the university's space-use policies.

Officers dispersed the protest more than an hour after those initial 15 minute warnings after 10 p.m.

Why weren't Columbus police at the protest?

McEntyre said CPD stays in close communication with their law enforcement partners in situations like this. He pointed out the protest was confined to campus and was being handled by OSU and OSHP.

"We also operate under city code and the federal court injunction that are specific to Columbus police when it comes to any protest response. We carefully weigh every request made for assistance against city code, the court injunction and the mission of the division," McEntyre wrote.

CPD officers and the department's Dialogue Team have shown up to multiple protests in the last year, including one where pro-Palestinian protestors started on campus at the Oval and moved across North High Street and blocked the doors of then-interim OSU President Peter Moeller's office.

CPD's Dialogue Team also showed up when protestors attended multiple Columbus City Council meetings and when masked neo-Nazis demonstrated outside Land Grant Brewing Company during a drag brunch.

Like city council, McEntyre said that since 2020, the city has overhauled and retrained officers on how to respond to protests. This included the creation of the Dialogue Team.

"Our Public Order Public Safety Team, including the Dialogue Team, is the result of these reforms, with a focus of improving police engagement with people exercising their First Amendment rights to speech and peaceful assembly," McEntyre said.

Columbus Division of Police Dialogue Team's instructor criticizes OSU's response

British Professor Clifford Stott trained the CPD Dialogue Unit late last year on how to respond to rowdy protest and sports crowds. He is now in Seattle observing how police there are responding to similar protests on college campuses.

Columbus paid $94,000 to train with the international expert and some OSU experts on how to de-escalate rowdy sports and protest crowds.

Stott said it was the right decision not to assist OSUPD and welcomes CPD's choice not to intervene. He said Columbus police would have done things differently if the protest was held on city of Columbus property.

"Should protesters undertake the exercise of their First Amendment rights in the jurisdiction of the Columbus Division of Police, they will experience a very different policing response," Stott said.

Stott said OSUPD and the other law enforcement agencies are not trained to deploy the methods that he has tried to instill in CPD to de-escalate and negotiate with protestors. He said that lack of training and knowledge is why there have been arrests at some college campuses.

"I don't believe that (CPD) would have had the right strategic context in relationship to the policing of the protest on OSU's campus. And I think had (CPD) been there, that would have been a very, very difficult challenge to the commitment that they've shown thus far to that policing model," Stott said.

He said if police are going to have a policing model based around the facilitation of First Amendment rights, the situation that unfolded at OSU was not an ideal environment for that practice.

OSU President Ted Carter said in multiple statements he respects and encourages students to practice their rights to free speech and protest. But Carter also issued a warning this week and said campus "will not be overtaken" by these demonstrations.

Columbus City Council defends lack of police response as it approves more funding for CPD

Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin addressed attendees at Monday's city council meeting before several people who were arrested last week came up to speak. He allowed Columbus Department of Public Safety Director Kate McSweeney-Pishotti and Deputy City Attorney Laura Baker Morris to talk about the city's response.

Pishotti told the crowd that CPD was not at the protests. She said also took the time to speak about the reforms Columbus police have made.

"We've seen the success of this approach multiple times over the last year, plus utilizing dialogue as a primary focus to build relationships with the community we serve," Pishotti said. "(CPD) has been able to keep order and peace in tense situations that could have easily turned volatile, and they did this while protecting and enabling the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights on all sides."

Baker-Morris said no decisions have been made regarding any of the cases of people charged with criminal trespassing at the protests. She said the cases have already been continued until June or will be this week at Franklin County Municipal Court at the request of the protestors.

"In the interim, the City Attorney's Office will be conducting a full review of the facts, including the footage of the events. Once we gather all the facts, decisions will be made on how to proceed with each case," Baker-Morris said.

She did not rule out the city dropping the charges.

Aaron Ellington was one of the people arrested Thursday who spoke at city council. Ellington, a Christian minister in the city, said he was addressing an officer away from the main protest crowd when he was arrested.

"(I) spoke to police and told them that I pray that they never had to experience the terrors that they brought upon people that day. I witnessed folks of the Muslim faith, faith that I don't even share, pray as police pushed the line, broke the line, and arrested people in the midst of prayer," Ellington said.

Dalal Shalash was another speaker at the city council podium Monday. She said she got a severe concussion after officers picked her up by her hair and neck and slammed her to the ground and dragged her through the grass. She said at one point three officers picked her up by her ankles as another officer "explained to trainee officers what a three-man hold was."

"I'm glad somebody learned something on campus that day, because it certainly wasn't the 16 students brutally assaulted emotionally and physically by officers," Shalash said.

Shalash asserted that it was CPD who did that to her.

Hardin had Pishotti explain for a second time that CPD was not present. Hardin had to do so again when a protestor claimed CPD officers processed the protestors at a county jail.

"This is the people's house where folks come to have these type of conversations. This is actually not the body that would determine who gets prosecuted or who doesn't," Hardin said.

Shalash and other protestors objected to Columbus City Council considering a pay increase for CPD officers that night.

During Monday night's meeting, city council voted unanimously to give a 16% pay increase to CPD officers under a new union contract.

Will CPD be at the next protest?

Columbus Department of Public Safety spokesman McEntyre and Columbus police have not said if officers will be at the next protest. OSU spokesman Johnson said the university is aware of the planned demonstration, but declined to comment further.

Protest organizer Students for Justice in Palestine said on its social media that the group is planning to gather at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the South Oval on OSU's campus.

Corrected: May 2, 2024 at 11:32 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said the nearest Columbus police officers were stationed on North High Street. WOSU learned CPD were stationed inside the Ohio Union. This story has been updated to reflect this.
George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.