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Probe Of Columbus Police Misconduct Finds Only One "Sustainable" Complaint

Sep 15, 2020

On June 1, the city established an email for residents to report accounts of excessive force by police.

A law firm has been examining claims of officer misconduct stemming from interactions between Columbus police and protesters that started during the final weekend of May.

Mayor Andy Ginther ordered the examination this summer, setting up an email for residents to send in their complaints. A retired FBI agent continues to investigate 21 cases for potential criminal charges. But the law firm took the cases that might require administrative action or discipline within the division. 

Of the 36 cases investigated, only one complaint has been sustained against an officer. Most of the cases are in the unable to sustain category - meaning there's not enough evidence to prove or disprove the complaint. The law firm continues investigating another 13 cases, but the process and lack of clarity has left all sides frustrated. BakerHostetler Partner Jennifer Edwards said investigators had trouble identifying officers in the videos as riot gear and masks covered up their faces and badge numbers. She also noted instances where the contract between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police hindered the officer misconduct investigations, including a 90-day deadline to complete a citizen's complaint. 

"In addition to the 90-day timeline, an officer is entitled (both by virtue of public records law but also by the collective bargaining agreement) to receive a recorded copy of every interview that has taken place in that case prior to that officer's interview," Edwards continued. "We are required to produce in advance every document that we looked at, every video that we reviewed, every radio traffic recording that we listened to - all of that has to be presented to the officer prior to his or her interview. I don't expect that is the right I would have if I were interviewed related to my own misconduct. We have to have sufficient facts to identify for them what it is we'll be talking to them about and what the allegations are. We were not allowed to ask questions outside the scope of those allegations. So in a situation like this where we have days and days and days of interaction between citizens and officers, we were only allowed to ask questions about the very specific allegation that brought the officer into the room with us. This made it very difficult to figure out what happened before, during, and after the event that the citizen has brought to our attention."     

Changes were made after that first weekend of protests, including making sure officers could be more easily identified, ensuring body cameras were attached to riot gear, and prohibiting the use of tear gas to disperse crowds. The report also noted instances where officers failed to file the required paperwork for use-of-force altercations. Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan said the division takes use of force cases seriously and officers have received discipline in the past, but the protests presented a unique challenge.   

"The magnitude of this incident has never been anticipated by anyone negotiating a collective bargaining agreement or someone writing policy," Quinlan said. "We simply have never seen where there's over 900 officers in the city of Columbus all engaged in interactions with the public with this level of sustained damage and looting going on in the city and be able to stop what they're doing, call a sergeant over, and report that use of force at that time. Four or five hours later, they may not even remember where all they used force at because there was so much occurring so fast. What burden we placed on officers in this situation was unprecedented. That's why I'm proud of the fact they still showed up to work and still stood that line and did what they could to keep people safe."   

Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther acknowledged being surprised and angered by the results of the investigations. 

"Like all of you, I saw the photos," Mayor Ginther continued. "I saw the videos. I heard from friends, colleagues, and neighbors about what occurred on our streets those first days of protests. The results from these investigations prove to me more clearly than ever before the need for police reform. The need for a civilian review board with subpoena power and an inspector general office is more important now than ever before for fair, equitable, and transparent investigations into resident complaints - not done by CPD, not done by a law firm but by our neighbors with professional independent investigators."

Columbus voters will decide in November on a measure establishing a civilian review board. Columbus City Council president Shannon Hardin issued a statement expressing frustration with the initial report calling it an indictment of the system of oversight. Hardin last night though was part of council's vote to indefinitely table a proposed ordinance to demilitarize police by limiting officers use of chemical agents, helicopters, military-style rifles and rubber and wooden bullets. Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Carter Stewart is also conducting an independent review of the city's response to the protests.