In Columbus, Ohio, where 16-year-old Ma’Kiah Bryant died in a police shot this week, there is great distrust of the police. Protesters chant a long list of local blacks killed by officers. For many, “police protection” is something of a contradiction in terms; The police themselves are a danger. This has led to a major reform push that activists want to accelerate.
Protests broke out in the area hours after Bryant was killed. Neighbors like Ira Graham III said her death was further evidence of something they have believed in for years. It is not safe to call the police.
“I have an 18-year-old who is in college and I tell him that unfortunately he never called the police about anything because you call the police and unfortunately things can end like that,” said Graham, who was in the neighborhood Demonstration.
This feeling isn’t unique to Columbus, but it’s ubiquitous here, even for the likes of Dejuan Sharp, a 37-year-old US Army veteran.
Dejuan Sharp from Columbus, Ohio: “I shouldn’t be afraid of the police.” Frank Morris / NPR hide caption
Frank Morris / NPR
Frank Morris / NPR
“I shouldn’t be afraid of the police,” says Sharp. “I shouldn’t have to live in fear when these people pull up. I should be able to call 911 when my family needs it.”
According to activist Jasmine Ayres, black people in Columbus have good reason to be afraid.
“We have one of the most violent police forces in the United States,” says Ayres.
This is especially true for African Americans. According to the Mapping Police Violence group, Columbus police have been responsible for more black deaths in recent years than departments in much larger cities like LA or Philadelphia, and much more than similar nearby cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati.
And the problems go way back. In 1998 the US Department of Justice investigated the Columbus Police Department and found a series of abuses, a pattern of excessive violence, false arrests, and false allegations.
Columbus City Council president Shannon Hardin said the riot last summer following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis had sparked a new and powerful push to contain the department.
“There have been a lot of changes and reforms. We have done more in terms of police policy in the last year than we have done in 30 years combined,” says Hardin.
According to Hardin, the city has banned arrest warrants that the police step into unannounced. A register has been set up to look for officials involved in hate groups. Hardin is especially proud of a new police force, teams that include people with psychological training to respond to and de-escalate sensitive situations.
Hardin also points to an electoral initiative to set up a civil review body that would provide oversight and accountability with subpoena powers.
Columbus voters agreed with almost 75% of the vote. The city is taking an important step towards establishing this board on Monday as the first list of board members is due to be finalized.
But Ayres says a bold move is appropriate.
“We want the Justice Department to investigate the Columbus Police Department,” says Ayres. “It’s clear that after a decade of killing black and brown people disproportionately, they’re not going to fix it.”
And since a group of activists asking for a Justice Department investigation doesn’t necessarily carry that much weight, Ayres wants the city to officially invite federal scrutiny.
“The Justice Department just went to Minneapolis. You can come to Columbus and we need [the city] to make that call, “says Ayres.
This type of phone can be difficult for a politician, even a reformer like Hardin. The council chairman would not say where he stands on an investigation by the Justice Department, although he would welcome stricter federal guidelines on guidelines and transparency from the local police force.