Cops, racism and cover-ups in Columbus

Pranav Jani investigates the long history of police violence in Columbus, Ohio, in the wake of the killing of Tyre King. This article is based on a speech Jani, a member of the International Socialist Organization and the Ohio State University Coalition for Black Liberation, gave at a teach-in at the university this past summer.

Protesters rally to demand justice for Tyre KingProtesters rally to demand justice for Tyre King

ON THE tragic evening of September 14, 2016, Tyre King, aged 13, was shot and killed by Columbus Police Department (CPD) officer Bryan Mason. Around the city, people are mourning the death of this child. The scars are still new, and will never fade.

We mourn for Tyre and his family, and hope they can find some solace in the vigils and protests that have started to emerge around this atrocity.

While Tyre's story is unique and individual, the violence against him is also part of a larger pattern. So far this year, at the time of this writing, the police have killed 788 people (and counting), and a disproportionate number of them--almost 25 percent--were African American.

In terms of police killings that have received a great deal of media attention, Ohio stands out, with the deaths of Tyre King; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed by police in November 2014, while he was holding a BB gun in a Cleveland public park; and John Crawford III, a 22 year old who police shot in August 2014, while he was in the aisle of a Walmart store near Dayton holding an air gun he was considering buying.

Looking at figures from 2011, the Columbus Free Press reported that among big cities, only Las Vegas recorded more police killings per capita than Columbus. More recent statistics mapping racist police violence from January 2013 to June 2016 in the biggest 100 cities in the U.S. showed Columbus ranking 16th in police homicide rates involving Blacks--way above the national average, and the highest, by far, among Ohio cities.

Tyre's death was the 13th police shooting this year, with five fatalities--including the very recent police murders of Henry Green on June 6 and Kawme Patrick on June 30.

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IN FACT, the CPD has a long history of police violence and excessive force, especially in the Black community, with city officials enabling and covering up for the cops.

Between 1996 and 1998, the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated the city and the CPD, chastised them harshly and sued the city in 2000 after Mayor Michael Coleman and the police refused to cooperate. Since 2002, when the city successfully forced the DOJ to drop the suit, Columbus and the CPD have been operating under the false claims that they can investigate and police themselves.

This is why the words of current Mayor Andrew Ginther and Police Chief Kim Jacobs ring hollow when they speak of a transparent process in Tyre's case and promise to build bridges with the African American community.

"We ought to be shocked and angry as a community," Ginther said at a press conference on September 15. "We're the safest big city in America, we have a 13-year-old dead in our city. That is unacceptable."

While it certainly is unacceptable, so is the mayor's immediate defense of the police that began right away, at the same press conference.

The blowup image of the BB gun Tyre was allegedly carrying was displayed prominently and deliberately--going viral and suggesting that he was responsible for his own death. Ginther even had the gall to say, less than 24 hours after Tyre's death, "It is a dangerous time to be a police officer in this country. It is our job to protect them as well as the people they protect."

According to the city and the police, Tyre was chased because he matched the description given by a 911 caller who was robbed of $10 at gunpoint. Police chased Tyre and, according to them, shot him when he pulled a gun from his waistband that turned out to be a BB gun--the same claim of self-defense made by Cleveland police after Tamir Rice was shot.

But according to an independent forensic investigation, the 4-foot-10-inch, less-than-100 pound Tyre King was probably killed while he was running away. A 13-year-old is dead, and somehow we need to be concerned about the safety of the man who shot him, or focus on why Tyre had a BB gun.

The criminal negligence involved in shooting Tyre; the cynical misdirection of the conversation by the mayor and police chief onto issues of gun control and parenting, and away from racism and police brutality; and the overall tactics of a cover-up--all of this this is business as usual in Columbus.

Bob Fitrakis, a social justice organizer, Columbus Free Press editor and Green Party candidate for Franklin County Prosecutor, has done tremendous work over the years documenting police abuse and city misconduct.

From interviews with today's victims of violence to articles from decades ago, Fitrakis helps activists understand that we're dealing with an institution that has very deep roots. The sketch below is indebted to Fitrakis' reporting.

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THE ORIGINS of the police goes back centuries--to suppress the exploited and impoverished of society and, in the U.S., to the slave patrols for disciplining enslaved people, containing revolt and preventing escape.

In every phase of policing in the U.S., we see the same dynamic: the poor and working class are policed very heavily, and in a racially divided society, this means a specific and special repression against Black people.

The context of the DOJ investigation of the Columbus police in the late 1990s was part of the changing rhetoric and practices around crime in the aftermath of the videotaped and much-publicized beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in March 1991.

The same day that four LAPD officers were acquitted in the case was the beginning of a rebellion from late April to early May in 1992 in which 53 were killed and over 2,000 wounded. The National Guard, Army and Marines occupied LA to end the riots--and a bipartisan "tough on crime" mentality led to the 1994 Crime Bill under Bill Clinton's presidency.

As many have noted today, the Crime Bill has been responsible for the heavy militarization of police, draconian laws and prisons overflowing with nonviolent offenders.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the beginning of globalization, economic profits were skyrocketing even as the gap between haves and have-nots accelerated. A more repressive criminal justice system kept rebellion among workers and the poor in check, and used racism and the specter of Los Angeles as a whip to keep everyone in line.

At the same time, the 1994 crime bill also contained provisions for some more national oversight on local police departments. Law enforcement agencies were prohibited from engaging in conduct that violated the constitutional rights of individuals.

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IT WAS under this provision that the DOJ opened an investigation into the CPD in 1996. Upon its completion, in July 1998, acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lan Lee wrote a scathing letter to Columbus City Attorney Janet Jackson, informing her:

We have determined that CDP officers are engaged in a pattern or practice or using excessive force, making false arrests and lodging false charges and conducting illegal searches and seizures.

As the Columbus Free Press reported in 2000, even the mainstream Columbus Dispatch reported at the time that the City Council had paid $3,414,647 in settlements and legal fees for police misconduct through the 1990s.

The DOJ letter is worth citing at length for its general comments about patterns in CPD policing--patterns that many Columbus residents and activists experience to this day.

Our investigation indicates that incidents of police misconduct in Columbus frequently share many common elements. Many of the victims of excessive force, false arrest or charges, and/or an improper search are, at the time when the misconduct occurs, carrying out some ordinary, routine daily activity (either not violating the law or committing some minor infraction). Misconduct often is triggered by the officer's perception that the victim in some way disrespected the officer, although often the victim's conduct in fact is relatively or completely innocuous.

The importance of "perception" and the officers' subject experience is crucial here. This is, in fact, where racism and racial prejudice do great damage, because making even "ordinary routine daily activity" a potentially criminal act.

The letter continues to say that even the courts find such police behavior frivolous and biased:

Often, victims are arrested and charged with such crimes as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and/or obstruction of official business, but the charges then are dismissed or the victim is found not guilty. Victims frequently are African American, or are young, female, or lower income whites. The officers involved in misconduct many times have a history of complaints against them, and fail to report accurately to their superiors what transpired in the incident (changing the facts to portray the victim as responsible for the arrest, the use of force, and/or the search).

The fact that such behavior went unpunished but was actually condoned by the CDP hierarchy confirms why this is a deep-rooted institutional problem--and not just an issue with individual racist and poorly trained cops. As the DOJ points out:

Our investigation further indicates that the pattern or practice of misconduct is tolerated by the failure of the CDP to adopt and implement proper management practices and procedures. There exist significant problems with the manner in which the CDP trains, supervises, and monitors police officers, investigates and adjudicates citizen complaints, and disciplines officers who are found guilty of misconduct.

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ONE MIGHT think that such a criticism from a national body like the DOJ would lead to some substantive reform and self-reflection. And for a time, it seemed that some collaboration might happen between the city and the federal government.

In August 1999, as the Free Press reported, DOJ and City Attorney Jackson signed a "consent decree" settlement calling for measures that would lead to "best practices" for police, including "computerizing data on the demographics of police stops, mandatory retraining for police with frequent citizen complaints" and ending "the long-standing police practice of filing citizens' complaints as 'inquiries' that could be informally disposed of by the officer's immediate superior with little or no investigation."

Activists hailed as the consent decree as a victory, but the Fraternal Order of Police didn't agree, preferring its old agreement with the city for less salary but more control over investigations.

By October 1999, the consent decree compromise had failed. Columbus became the first city sued by the DOJ under the 1994 Crime Bill. As the Columbus Free Press reported in 2000, "The Justice Department today sued the city of Columbus, Ohio, alleging that the city has tolerated a pattern or practice of excessive force, false arrests and illegal searches and seizures by its police department."

Jackson and Michael Coleman, the new Democratic mayor of Columbus, immediately got to work fighting the DOJ. Coleman and Jackson, the first African American mayor and city attorney of Columbus, respectively, carried great support within the Black community and were effective fighters against the DOJ's claims of a racist and overly aggressive police force.

Coming to office in January 2000, Coleman and Jackson declared that the DOJ had no authority over the CPD, and that the 1994 law was unconstitutional, and soon secured $700,000 from the City Council to fight the suit.

In 2002, the DOJ dropped the suit, accepting Coleman's assurances that the CPD had reformed sufficiently. This was a great victory for the city and the FOP, which felt vindicated and had now received a green light to continue business as usual.

But observers like the Free Republic were shocked, stating, "Similar cases in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Montgomery County, Maryland, and other cities resulted in agreements that imposed broad federal rules, federal monitors"--much more than happened in Columbus.

Activists kept up the pressure, with coalitions and groups like the Columbus October 22nd Coalition, formed by Anti-Racist Action, Ordinary Peoples Movement and Police for Equal Rights. Coalition spokesperson Barry Edney told the Ohio State University student paper, The Lantern, at a rally in 1999, "The main thing we hope to accomplish is to bring about evidence that police brutality is still happening...The pattern of silence must be broken."

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WHAT ARE the results? Were Coleman and the FOP right? Did the CPD solve its racial profiling and excessive force problems?

In 26 years, not one CPD officer has been convicted by an inside, internal review, as police admitted at a June 13, 2016, community forum a week after the murder of Henry Green.

This is no coincidence. Across the country, police departments have become even more highly militarized and confident than before, and instances of brutality haven't decreased.

Between 1995 and 2014, 65,000 military grade items were sold to Ohio agencies, worth $66 million worth, under U.S. Department of Defense Program 1033. Since 2006, city and university police in Ohio received 4,900 assault rifles , 743 rifles, 683 pistols and 36 mine-resistant vehicles.

Columbus received 350 assault rifles--and regular shooting incidents across the country, like the December 2015 San Bernardino shooting, became occasions to justify the excessive presence of force. The emergence of new forms of racial profiling after 9/11 have added Islamophobia to the mix, with "terrorism" as a new justification for surveillance and militarization.

Between 2004 and 2015, there were 204 Columbus police-related shooting incidents (an average of 17 per year), including 57 fatalities (almost five per year). Over that same period, there has been one police fatality.

This is a very high rate of shootings and fatalities per population. In 2012, for instance, the NYPD shot at 16 fleeing people, killing six. The NYC population is 8.4 million. That same year, CPD shot at 14 fleeing people, killed eight.

The Columbus population is 823,000. Columbus police killed as many fleeing suspects in 2012 as the combined states of Delaware, Vermont, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Connecticut and Idaho.

The families of friends of Patrick Jones (2014), Julie Caudill (2013), Obie Shepard (2011), William King (2007), Trae Dawson (2006), and so many more victims of the CPD, deserve real answers as to why police shoot first and ask questions later--especially when Black people are concerned.

We need to drastically change the racist perception of Black people and people of color as threats in this city. We need to change the way that police shootings and misconduct are investigated internally and--as the People's Justice Project states--we need a "reinvestment of public resources from overly aggressive police tactics to proactive strategies–like restorative justice and trauma recovery–proven to work in partnership with our communities to make them safer for all."

But winning these changes will take mass and direct struggle. As International Socialist Organization-Columbus said in our statement after Tyre's murder: "The fact that they have dedicated one-third of the city budget to police, while nearly 18 percent of Columbus residents live below the poverty line, makes their actual priorities clear."

These priorities will only change--to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--when we the people, through nonviolent, mass, direct action, "create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."