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Year-Long Revision of Police Policies is Just the Beginning, Participants Say

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Year-Long Revision of Police Policies is Just the Beginning, Participants SayPhoto by Walker Evans.
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Following the criticism and controversy that has encircled the Columbus Division of Police over the last several years, the City has been in the process of reforming the department’s priorities, practices and procedures. 

With the help of the Community Safety Advisory Commission, a 17-person group comprised of local interested parties, and California-based Matrix Consulting Group, the Division of Police will implement recommendations that transform internal policies and the way officers are trained and hired. The end goal is to align closely with the established best practices nationwide, and more specifically those laid out in former President Barack Obama’s report on 21st century policing.

The Commission and Matrix are working both separately and together to publish two reports that will inform the changes coming to the Division of Police, says Bryan Clark, Chief Policy Advisor for Mayor Ginther’s office. The Commission, which includes four subcommittees handling training, hiring, “hot topics,” and 21st century policing, is focusing on proven best practices and utilizes the input of national and local experts. Matrix’s work is a review of the police department completely through the lens of 21st century policing, which centralizes community policing, problem oriented policing, de-escalation, cultural competency, and implicit bias.

Tammy Fournier Alsaada is co-founder of People’s Justice Project (PFP), an organization confronting police violence and mass incarceration in Columbus. As a member of the Commission’s 21st Century Policing subcommittee, she’s focusing on repairing trust between the community and the police.

“That’s why I came to the table. After the high profile killings of Henry Green and Tyre King, we reacted and responded,” Alsaada says. “Our role has been, how do we bring the community that is policed the most into the conversation on how they’re policed?”

The Commission has been meeting for over a year at this point, and Alsaada says there’s no set timeline. Even after recommendations have been gathered by the Commission and Matrix, though, Alsaada says reformation of police practices in Columbus is going to take many years and many partnerships. Analyzing the policy changes adapted by the city of Denver, Commission members have learned that it will take revising police contracts, the city charter, and the help of City Attorney Zach Klein to fully implement and replicate 21st century policing.

Interim Chief Thomas Quinlan has already adopted new policies and has reformed what used to be the department’s vice unit. Dissolving earlier this year, after the indictment of vice officer Andrew Mitchell on federal charges, vice has been replaced by PACT, or Police and Community Together.

Through PACT, Quinlan hopes to restore accountability between vice officers and their superiors and the public.

“The problem with vice in my evaluation was that people would get into an assignment where it was covert, had little oversight, with officers disappearing and nobody knows what they’re doing,” says Quinlan.

Quinlan says prostitution stings will now occur with both plainclothes officers and uniformed officers. An undercover agent will pose as a john, and the actual arrest will be with a uniformed police officer in a cruiser.

“[Mitchell] tried to make an arrest himself with no backup, no one knowing where he’s at,” Quinlan says. “This way, there will be no mistake that the police are there.”

For victims of human trafficking, or for those suffering from mental illness, addiction, or poverty, Quinlan says there are now officers who can connect these individuals with community resources. 

More changes to the department include reducing the number of officers assigned to a sergeant from 17 to eight or nine, improving oversight; endowing a specific lieutenant on the street with the authority of the chief to expedite and streamline decision-making; and placing neighborhood coordination officers (NCO), modeled after the New York Police Department, in specific communities to identify and solve their unique issues, such as panhandling, nuisance carry-outs, after hours clubs, etc.

Quinlan says in the near future, he’d like to instate a policy to write a citation in lieu of making an arrest, if the offense is nonviolent. On top of saving the police officer’s time, Quinlan says the change would keep more people out of jail, reducing taxpayer costs. He says that at least presently, law enforcement officers are on the frontline, managing society’s major ills: poverty, mental illness, and addiction. 

“This would create another way of dealing with nonviolent crimes that are driven by those three things,” he says. “We can find new ways to engage that community and get better results. It is a burden, but one we have to take on.”

Quinlan says the department has already used the same techniques seen in the REACT program, a mobile response team mitigating the opioid crisis. Teaming up a police officer, a social worker, and someone from the fire department, REACT responds to overdoses, but also follows up with vulnerable or at-risk individuals to connect them with treatment. Quinlan has expanded that program into the realm of mental health, with a response team charged with checking in on those known to suffer from mental illness. During these check-ins, officers make sure individuals who are mentally ill are taking their medication and seeing a counselor if necessary. 

There are more changes Quinlan would like to implement, but he’s waiting on the city to decide on the new chief of police in order to prevent wild swings in policy.

Ultimately, the new chief of police will be charged with executing the recommendations produced by Matrix and the Safety Advisory Commission. Those recommendations have also been informed by a series of community forums on the topic, both with the Commission and with Matrix.

Bryan Clark says the feedback from the community has focused on issues that police departments across the country are facing:

“The desire for increased training and oversight, especially in the areas of crisis intervention, mental health first aid, de-escalation, cultural competency, and implicit/explicit bias,” Clark says. “Their feedback has also highlighted the diversity of experiences different neighborhoods have when engaging with the police.”

Community members call for equitable and community-oriented policing, Clark says, with accountability systems that support that community-based approach. A group of faith leaders also specifically mentioned a racial bias they’ve observed within the division, and asked for changes that directly addressed those concerns.

Kayla Merchant, a community member who has attended meetings with the Commission and for the search for the new police chief, has little faith that community recommendations will carry much weight in the changes headed for the division. She said she was disappointed to hear during one meeting, a half hour of the Department of Public Safety “lauding CPD’s accomplishments while neglecting to acknowledge the critical needs for improvement across the division.”

Merchant says the city is unwilling to truly reevaluate the culture of the division of police and, by extension, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). She believes input from the Commission and Matrix will do little to help.

“The FOP has a stranglehold on Mayor Ginther and is one of the sources of the toxic culture,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how many folks we put through implicit bias training — if the CPD leadership and FOP leadership aren’t reckoning with their issues of excessive force and violations of residents’ civil rights on a consistent basis, we won’t see change.”

Merchant says she would like to see a housecleaning within the FOP, requirements for officers to have at least an associate’s degree, and mandatory implicit bias training. She says her preferred police chief would be from outside of Columbus and African-American. She’d like to see Columbus emulate cities like Gary, Indiana, which works in partnership with the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“We have a host of resources at our fingertips in Columbus, but the issue always seems to be getting city leadership and the FOP to swallow their pride enough to actually work with the experts in this area (and I don’t mean hiring a random group of consultants from outside the city),” Merchant says.

Bryan Clark says the Matrix review and report won’t be artificially rushed, as Columbus is the only large city currently conducting an operations review focused on “building an organization grounded in 21st century policing from recruitment to retirement.” The Commission’s charge will also include a review and response to Matrix’s final report. No timeline for the end product was given, but Clark says, “based on these factors, the work of the Safety Commission remains on track.”

For more information, visit columbus.gov/safetycommission.

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