by Kevin Bliss
More than 20,000 use-of-force complaints were filed by civilians against police in the Columbus Police Department between 2001 and 2017, but only 152 were sustained or found in violation of department policy. Of the civilian complaints filed, more than 97 percent were ruled to be unfounded. More than half of these complaints can be attributed to only 6.28 percent of the current police force.
In an article written by The Appeal, data were gathered from public records and interviews with four current Columbus police officers, revealing that the entire system surrounding use-of-force investigations favors the police department over the victims.
“A lot of officers actually think you’re only a good officer if you do generate complaints,” stated one of the anonymous police officers interviewed by The Appeal. The department values aggressive behavior and promotes it with policy surrounding use-of-force investigations, four officers told The Appeal.
The article claims that many complaints do not make it through because they’re not taken seriously. Individuals who report crimes are dehumanized and their complaints ignored. Meanwhile, many of the department leaders investigating the complaints have a checkered history when it comes to use-of-force themselves.
The Columbus police union’s contract undermines any accountability of the officers. Complaints deemed unfounded are not factored in any disciplinary actions. Sustained complaints do not remain on an officer’s record for more than one year unless supported by other incidents in that same year. Suspensions can only occur after three violations. These are all problems of the system of use-of-force investigations. “It doesn’t have teeth because so many of the complaints aren’t sustained,” one of the officers said.
Even when sustained, these incidents do not slow down law enforcement careers. Officer Bryan Mason shot and killed 13-year-old Tyre King while investigating a robbery in 2016. He claimed King pulled out what appeared to be a gun, so he fired his weapon multiple times to stop King.
An autopsy found King was “more likely than not” running away when shot, yet a grand jury declined to indict. That was Mason’s 47th report involving force, two of which were fatal and 25 required medical attention.
Nevertheless, Mason received departmental recognition and advancement to plainclothes since entering the force. He now has what is considered a coveted position on narcotics duty.
According to Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor, this culture of disregard is not an isolated issue in Columbus or even in Ohio. In New York, more than 300 officers were allowed to keep their jobs even after being found guilty of firable offenses. Many police union contracts nationwide allow officers to use their sick leave and vacation time in lieu of their suspensions.
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper said the solution is to re-create public confidence and credibility in the basic fairness of use-of-force investigations. Put it in the hands of independent investigators who are knowledgeable and skillful. He said it starts with addressing the conflicts of interest that currently are in the internal affairs investigations.
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