Ohio faith leaders and police reform advocates call for DOJ investigation into Columbus policing

Ohio faith leaders and police reform advocates call for DOJ investigation into Columbus policing

Ohio faith leaders and police reform advocates are calling on the federal government to launch a “pattern or practice” investigation into the Columbus Division of Police, rather than review it as the Justice Department said it would last week.

“As people of faith, we demand more than a review. We need a reckoning that transforms law enforcement into a public safety department which cares for, serves, and protects all of its citizens,” the faith leaders said in a petition addressed to the Justice Department and signed by 107 people. Faith in Life, an advocacy group supporting the request, said the petition was delivered Thursday to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The petition asks the Justice Department to investigate the police department’s hiring process and discipline, as well as union contracts and allegations of racial injustice and police aggression.

“It’s clear to me that there are patterns of systemic racism within the department, which leads to practices of excessive force, biased policing and unconstitutional practices by the Columbus police,” one of the petition’s signees, Rev. Tim Ahrens, senior minister of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Columbus, said during a virtual press conference Thursday.

The call comes one week after the Justice Department agreed to a request from Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther to review the police division’s practices. It also follows an announcement from the Justice Department this week that it is setting new rules for how the court-appointed federal monitors who oversee its police reform efforts will operate.

A message of support, in chalk, at a vigil in memory of MaKhia Bryant, in Columbus, Ohio on April 21, 2021.Jeff Dean / AFP via Getty Images file

Ginther invited the Justice Department to review the police department in April, days after an officer shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant while responding to a 911 call. Officers have also come under scrutiny recently for excessive use of force against protesters and the high-profile killings of Black men in the city, including Andre Hill in December.

“This is not about one particular officer, policy or incident; rather, this is about reforming the entire institution of policing in Columbus,” Ginther said last week after the Justice Department agreed to the request.

The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, is working in partnership with Columbus police to review policies and provide guidance on leadership training, diversity recruitment and technology.

But that plan falls far short of what the police department needs, some critics say.

“It’s disappointing and a misstep.” said Sean Walton, a member of the Columbus Police Accountability Project, which formed in April to shed light on policing and social injustice.

Walton said Thursday that the COPS unit is better suited to advise small cities and police departments that need technical assistance and help with best practices, but lack the resources to get it.

That’s not what Columbus needs, he said. Instead, it needs the federal government to launch an investigation into the department’s culture and relationship with the community that could ultimately lead to the placement of an independent monitor for a period of time and a court-imposed consent decree that dictates the planned reforms.

“It’s as simple as this: We need to allow the DOJ to come in and investigate,” Walton said. “And if they find a pattern or practice of discriminatory practices by the Columbus Division of Police, then this city can begin to heal and we’ll have the assistance necessary to move forward. It’s not an outside the box request. It’s something that happens in cities that have decided to put the people above the police.”

Both the Justice Department and Ginther say the review does not preclude a future investigation.

In a statement, the Justice Department said it consults regularly with the COPS staff and other departments to consider whether a pattern-or-practice investigation or other enforcement action is needed.

“The Division also considers the context of local reform efforts and whether federal enforcement action is needed to ensure that effective reform occurs,” the agency said.

In the April letter inviting the Justice Department’s review, Ginther and City Attorney Zach Klein acknowledged that it was possible the parties would “exhaust all remedies available to us as partners” during the review process and that stronger measures might be necessary to reform policing practices.

“We invited the U.S. Department of Justice to review our reform efforts and assess the operations of CPD, including conducting a pattern or practice investigation if they deem necessary,” the mayor said in a statement Thursday. “We welcome the DOJ engagement and will work with the DOJ in whatever capacity they choose, but our first focus will be about delivering results and bringing about real change and reform.”

In 1999, the Justice Department did file a lawsuit against the city of Columbus after an investigation uncovered a pattern of excessive use of force and other offenses by Columbus officers, according to a case analysis by the Michigan University law school. The suit was later dismissed after the city promised changes such as having the Internal Affairs Bureau implement new training and community outreach programs, according to the analysis.

The Justice Department has recently opened pattern or practice investigations of police departments in Minneapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; and Phoenix.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday that the Justice Department is currently reviewing its own practice of dispatching court-approved federal monitors to clean up and reform police departments in cities across the country. There will be new limits on how much cities will be required to spend on the watchdogs who oversee reform efforts and limits on the tenure of a monitor to five years unless a court approves more time, the agency said.

Detractors have argued that federal monitoring can last for years on end — in some cases more than a decade — with local taxpayers footing the bill.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, doesn’t believe the federal monitoring works because it’s too hard to get the city, police leadership, rank and file and the community to work together.

“You can’t show me the city where there was a problem between the police and the community and a consent decree was imposed, where the relationship today is better than it was before the consent decree was imposed. They tend not to work,” he said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said the new oversight guidelines should add credibility to federal monitoring but its success will largely depend on the city.

“I don’t think you can say one way or the other if it works. In some places it’s had really good results and major changes and improvements. On the other hand, sometimes it just stretches on. And that can be very challenging,” he said.

Results have been mixed in cities that have been under federal monitoring.

In Baltimore, Dana P. Moore pointed to peaceful protests in the city after the death of George Floyd as proof that the city’s four-year-old consent decree is working. The Baltimore Police Department entered into a consent decree in 2017 after the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in police custody two years prior.

“Baltimore didn’t have outsize, unruly protests and demonstrations. There was a real emphasis on protecting demonstrators’ First Amendment rights,” said Moore, director of the Office of Equity and Civil Rights, which oversees the Civilian Review Board of Baltimore City.

In Seattle, however, officials last summer withdrew a motion to end part of its police department’s 11-year-old consent decree after complaints about officers clashing with protesters.

“We were heralded by President Barack Obama for being a role model for what a police department should look like and how a police department should reform itself, and yet somehow, some way in a matter of a few short years we’re now the bad kids again,” Seattle Police Department spokesman Sgt. Randy Huserik said. “I’m not quite sure how that occurred.”

Walton, a civil rights attorney, said he recognizes consent decrees aren’t perfect, but said they still add value and serve a purpose.

“It’s something that ensures a level of accountability for the police. For Columbus, there’s no other option,” he said.

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