In February, when a community review board said Columbus police should be subject to civilian oversight, The Dispatch endorsed the idea but cautioned patience, acknowledging that it would take time to successfully traverse this “delicate territory.”
It should be apparent to all now that the timetable must be more aggressive.
We acknowledge what many people reading this may be thinking: That should have been apparent years ago. Yes, and the events of the past two weeks have made clear that the patience of black and other minority communities that have been disrespected, brutalized and killed with impunity for centuries is exhausted. And the patience of all people of good will to tolerate it should be gone, too.
We welcome Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s and the City Council’s official call on Monday for creation of such a panel. It’s easy to say that in the fervor of this extraordinary moment, after days of street demonstrations have heated the issue to a fever pitch. We encourage Ginther, whose bumpy relationship with the Fraternal Order of Police has been a political headache for him, to stay on what probably will be a difficult course.
Establishing a review board will require agreement of the police union, the FOP. The current contract expires in December, but we hope union leadership is ready to start talking now about how to make this happen.
None of this is to paint the Columbus Division of Police or officers in general as villains — they’re not. They’re expected to do an immensely difficult, stressful and dangerous job that, in the toughest situations, requires wisdom and restraint beyond the capacity of most people.
This nationwide convulsion of anger is about the fact that some law-enforcement officers apparently lack the training or temperament to meet society’s high expectations — and that there seem to be too few consequences when they fall far short.
Bad cops — those who are unethical or whose biases leave them with no empathy for the people they serve — are a small fraction. But the damage inflicted by that fraction is enormous, and when it goes without punishment, the anger that we are witnessing in the wake of George Floyd’s death grows.
That’s where civilian oversight comes in. The traditional avenue for investigating police misconduct — an internal affairs process conducted by police officers — has been undermined too often by a culture of officers protecting each other. That culture of closing ranks is legendary among police and it’s understandable, given the unique stress of the profession. It’s also why expecting cops to hold each other strictly accountable may be asking too much.
No one should think that setting up a civilian review board for police will be simple. It isn’t unreasonable for police officers to fear that a commission could be stocked with activists who have an ingrained hostility toward law enforcement or with people too na´ve to understand that dealing with impaired, violent and enraged people sometimes requires police to use physical force that would be unacceptable in any other job.
Discussions about how a civilian review panel might work should involve a broad cross-section of those who have been critical of police as well as police and academic experts in law enforcement. The grievances of those who have been involved locally should be thoroughly considered.
When the time comes to choose people to serve on a commission, however, it might be best to turn to volunteers who come to the table with fresh eyes. With robust training and preparation for the task, truly neutral evaluators are most likely to produce fair outcomes that will be credible to the public.
Unfortunately, the week-plus of protests in Columbus have reinforced the need for police accountability. Numerous reports describe, and videos seem to show, officers using pepper spray on people who are on the ground or fleeing. Images of three of Columbus’ most prominent black residents — U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, City Council President Shannon Hardin and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce — being sprayed by local police made national news.
It’s important to stress that social media posts and videos can be misleading, intentionally or unintentionally. Especially troubling, though, was the interaction between police officers and three journalists for The Lantern, Ohio State University’s student newspaper. Journalists are exempt from the city-imposed curfew, but officers ordered them to leave anyway.
The students, all wearing Lantern hats and sweatshirts, showed officers their press credentials and stood their ground. Police hit them with pepper spray for their trouble. As they turned and ran away, one of the student journalists says, they were sprayed again from behind.
During a Tuesday news conference, Police Chief Thomas Quinlan’s take on police/protester conflicts was problematic: “We ask the public to have some patience and please comply. … Please don’t stand there and argue; move along and comply and we’ll fix this after.”
Of course, people should comply with a police officer’s lawful orders. But those officers’ disregard for the Lantern journalists — one can be heard on video saying “I don’t care” after they identified themselves — throws into doubt their willingness to respect any rules.
Sorry, Chief, but if journalists are blocked from doing their jobs when an event is happening — or worse, injured by police while doing their jobs, as has happened in some instances — there is no “fix this after.”
No one should ignore the fact that, in some instances, some in the crowd were pelting police with water bottles and even rocks. Many officers were working 12-hour shifts and more. Some lost their cool, but many were consummate professionals. Nana Watson, president of the Columbus chapter of the NAACP, was impressed by the restraint she witnessed during the first day of protests, telling a Dispatch reporter, “Watching those officers stand there like tin soldiers as people stoned them — I won’t soon forget that image.”
Special credit should go to Jennifer Knight, an acting deputy chief, who already is improving the police division’s community relations as head of the Police and Community Together unit, formed to replace the scandal-ridden vice unit and focus instead on stopping human trafficking. Knight further showed her commitment on Monday by walking into the crowd of protesters at Broad and High streets — in ordinary uniform, no protective riot gear — to declare, “Change starts right here. We have a conversation.”
Knight added, “Nobody likes a dirty cop.”
She’s right, and that’s why a properly run civilian review commission is so important: so the good cops and good people of Columbus can rely on each other for protection.