September 2021

Panelists discuss: What will it take for Columbus police to rebuild community trust?

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Eric Lagatta
September 16, 2021

The Columbus Urban League and YWCA Columbus co-hosted a panel whose participants, including new Chief Elaine Bryant, discussed rebuilding trust between officers and residents.

A civil rights attorney, a local pastor, a former judge who now chairs the civilian police review board and the city’s new police chief gathered Wednesday night to discuss what it will take to help repair a deeply fractured relationship between Columbus police and many residents they serve.

More than 100 viewers tuned in virtually to the nearly 90-minute conversation from the historic Lincoln Theater via 10TV’s YouTube channel for what was the first of three panel discussions across the U.S. sponsored by the National Urban League about the topic of community and police relations. WBNS-10TV’s Andrew Kinsey moderated the event, which was co-hosted by the Columbus Urban League and YWCA Columbus.

Elaine Bryant:New Columbus police chief making strong first impression with community through events

The event takes place as the U.S. Department of Justice begins a review of policies and procedures of the Columbus Division of Police that is to include racial bias but which some members of the Black community feel glosses over the division’s past actions, including several recent killings by law enforcement.

Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League, introduces a panel discussion Wednesday night among community leaders and Columbus police at the Lincoln Theater to discuss ways to repair trust between the police and the community. The event was co-hosted by the Columbus Urban League and YWCA Columbus, and is one of three across the U.S. sponsored by the National Urban League.

Columbus Urban League president and CEO: ‘We need to change the way we think, not just the way we act’

Despite some clear lingering tension and resentment, the community leaders who participated in the forum expressed β€” to varying degrees β€” an optimism that healing is possible.

Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League, said it was her belief that the city could be an example of how police and community members can re-establish trust that was long ago broken.

“Rebuilding confidence and trust between law enforcement and the community it serves requires a collective realignment. We need to change the way we think, not just the way we act,” Hightower said at the beginning of the forum. “Our community could become a leader in achieving constructive, enduring change for the good.”

The event also included a pre-recorded discussion between Jerika Richardson, a senior vice president with the National Urban League, and Cedric Alexander, a former chief operating officer for public safety in DeKalb County, Georgia, and former acting Rochester, New York, police chief who served on an Obama-era task force on 21st Century policing.

Columbus panelists discuss community divide, public safety reform

But the bulk of the evening featured a Kinsey-moderated conversation between the four panelists that underscored the frayed relations between the city’s police division and many community members that have sometimes boiled over into protests that have, at times, turned confrontational and destructive.

The panelists included Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant; Sean Walton, a local civil rights attorney who has represented families of Blacks killed by police; Victor Davis, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church on the Near East Side; and Janet Jackson, who chairs the Columbus Civilian Police Review Board and who is both a former Columbus city attorney and a former Franklin County Municipal Court judge.

Together, they discussed the factors that have contributed to the current divide and debated possible solutions for reforming public safety.

Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant speaks during a forum hosted Wednesday night at the Lincoln Theater co-hosted by the Columbus Urban League and YWCA Columbus discussing ways to repair trust between police and the community.

As the city’s first police chief hired outside of the division β€” as well as its first Black woman leader β€” Bryant was appointed by Mayor Andrew J. Ginther with the task of reforming the culture from the inside.

However, some advocates, including Walton, are concerned that little has been done to address what he said are years of injustices against the citizens of Columbus.

“It’s difficult for the community to feel like they can trust law enforcement because they won’t acknowledge the ways they’ve harmed the community,” said Walton, one of the leading members of the Columbus Police Accountability Project. “We really have to be honest about the relationship in Columbus between police and the community over the years.”

Andre Hill, Ma’Khia Bryant killings spark local, national outcry
Just within the past 10 months, multiple high-profile killings of Black residents by Columbus police have roiled residents, with two cases in particular igniting widespread national outcry.

In December, former Columbus police officer Adam Coy shot and killed Andre Hill, a 47-year-old unarmed Black man, inside a garage on the Northwest Side. Coy was later fired by Columbus police and awaits trial on charges of murder and reckless homicide after his attorneys’ motion for a change of venue was denied in August.

Public outrage was reignited when 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed on April 20 by Columbus police officer Nicholas Reardon as the girl appeared to be trying to stab another young woman during a dispute outside a foster home on the Southeast Side where Bryant and her sister resided. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office completed its investigation into the killing in early July and the case remains under review by the Franklin County Prosecutor’s office.

Such killings β€” coupled with the May 2020 murder of George Floud Jr. in Minneapolis and other national fatal police shootings of Black people β€” have sparked protests that have periodically turned violent.

Columbus police chief: ‘We cannot act like people haven’t been harmed’

In April, a U.S. District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction against Columbus police prohibiting them from using tear gas and wooden bullets against non-violent protesters. The ruling came after more than two dozen protesters filed a lawsuit alleging police used excessive force during the Summer of 2020 racial justice demonstrations in the Downtown area.

More recently, Mayor Andrew Ginther announced late last week that the U.S. Department of Justice had accepted a request from the mayor and City Attorney Zach Klein to conduct a comprehensive review of the police division’s training and practices with an eye on racial bias.

On Wednesday, Chief Bryant said she welcomes such scrutiny, saying that it can only boost transparency and accountability within the division.

“It’s extremely important that we acknowledge there have been some issues between the police department and the community,” Bryant said. “We have to address that. We cannot act like it doesn’t exist and we cannot act like people haven’t been harmed and there’s not trauma that is deeply embedded.”

City of Columbus takes steps toward police reform

And as the panelists recognized, some reform efforts are already in the works.

That includes establishment of a Civilian Police Review Board approved by voters and finalized in mid-July, as well as the the so-named “Andre’s Law” passed in February mandating Columbus police officers use body cameras during any enforcement action and render medical aid if someone is harmed on a call for service.

The city is also testing a 911 pilot program that allows social workers to respond to some non-threatening calls following a city-funded study that found a majority of residents who responded to a survey favored a system that allowed police to handle fewer emergency calls.

There’s also the city’s ongoing “Reimagining Public Safety” initiative that has seen a multitude of programs passed in the last year aimed at violence intervention and youth empowerment grants.

Bryant further conveyed her hope that she will be able to lead efforts to better recruit future police officers from Columbus’ many neighborhoods so that the police division reflects the community it serves.

“I think it’s important to understand the community we’re policing,” Bryant “I’m excited about this city and I’ve immersed myself in the culture of Columbus.”

Eric Lagatta is a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch covering public safety, breaking news and social justice issues. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter @EricLagatta

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