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Columbus Police Use Force More Often Against Black Residents

A study found that, between 2017 and 2019, 52 percent of the city’s police use-of-force cases were against Black residents who comprise less than 30 percent of the city’s population.

(TNS) — More than half of the subjects of police use of force in Columbus, Ohio, over a three-year period were Black residents, despite the fact that less than a third of the city's population is Black, a new study found.

Accountable Now, which collects data on police use-of-force cases from law enforcement agencies around the United States, analyzed 1,128 incidents between 2017 and 2019 in Columbus and found that police most often used force against Black people.

Black residents comprise 29 percent of Columbus' population of nearly 900,000, but were the subject of police use-of-force in 52 percent of cases studied, according to Accountable Now's findings. Additionally, the analysis found that police used force against white people in 31.3 percent of those incidents reported in the three-year period.

Racial Disparities in Police Use-of-Force Not Unique to Columbus

Researchers with Accountable Now — a project of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — say the disparities are illustrative of how police use-of-force disproportionally affects Black people in Columbus and other cities across the country.

"There is this disparity in who experiences use-of-force from police departments, which is indicative of the problems with the way we do policing in this country," said Bree Spencer, policing program manager at the Leadership Conference. "There are consequences to that level of over-policing and using force more readily, and it's not right."

Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant has at times spoken to the need to repair a rift that has long existed between police and many Black residents. In a statement provided Thursday to The Dispatch, Bryant acknowledged the disparities highlighted in Accountable Now's analysis and said she is working to lead the division to a more equitable future that includes a more diverse police department that reflects the communities they patrol.

Bryant also indicated she and her leadership team have communicated frequently with community leaders and that she plans to implement an early-warning system to track use-of-force cases.

"Since the beginning of my tenure I have been vocal that there is work to do ... I understand that there is disparity in the way policing has occurred in minority communities," Bryant said in the statement. "I will continue to engage in open and honest dialogue and will continue to support the men and women who are working tirelessly to keep this community safe while continuing to heal the relationship with the community that we serve."

When Bryant stepped into the police chief role in late June, she took over a division with a history of racial bias highlighted in a report released by the Matrix Consulting Group in 2019, and whose officers were behind several recent high-profile killings of Black residents — including 47-year-old Andre Hill and 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant —that drew national attention and days of protests.

It's why Accountable Now's findings were not surprising to some activists and organizers who have marched through the streets against police brutality.

"We've been saying this in droves in the streets in very dramatic ways, and it takes a researcher to come in and prove it," said Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata, executive director of the People's Justice Project in Columbus. "We're the experts of our experience in our own communities."

The police division is now the subject of an ongoing federal probe after the U.S. Department of Justice agreed in September to review its policies and procedures .

Mayor Andrew J. Ginther and City Attorney Zach Klein requested such a review in April, the same month that a federal judge sided with 26 protesters who said that police used excessive force during the 2020 racial injustice protests.

In his ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley stated that Columbus police had "run amok" in handling the unrest. He prohibited officers from using tear gas and wooden bullets to break up non-violent protesters.

Days earlier, the results of a $250,000 city-commissioned study found that the city and the police division were inadequately prepared for the scale of the 2020 protests. That report also concluded that Columbus city and police officials should actively seek reconciliation with residents — particularly communities of color — to address the "distrust, anger and fear directed towards the police."

Columbus Police Conduct During George Floyd Protests Remains Under Investigation

Three Columbus police officers have been charged with misdemeanor offenses related to allegations of criminal misconduct during the 2020 protests, including that they pepper-sprayed demonstrators with no provocation.

Columbus City Council recently voted to extend for the third time the contract with the special prosecutor hired in August to conduct probable cause evaluations and prosecute Columbus police officers for criminal wrongdoing during those protests. However, an arbitrator recently ruled in favor of Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge Local No. 9 and ruled that the city cannot contract with outsiders to investigate alleged police misconduct.

Columbus leaders have consistently touted initiatives they believe will lead to important reforms in policing, including a Civilian Police Review Board approved by voters and finalized in mid-July, as well as an alternative response 911 program that allows social workers to respond to some non-threatening calls.

Malachi-Ture Sundiata is among social justice organizers who view such steps as basic reforms that should have happened years ago that also do not address the pain felt by those who have been harmed by police actions.

Building a Database on Police Use-of-Force

Because no publicly accessible national database of police use-of-force data exists, the Leadership Conference sought to build its own when it launched the Accountable Now project in February.

The project's researchers have so far collected data for 146 law enforcement agencies in the United States. Law enforcement agencies record excessive force incidents differently, so the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has partnered to analyze and parse the data for 30 cities so far to add to an online data explorer available to the public.

Spencer said the hope is that the information helps the public understand when and why police are using force in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, and perhaps spur changes in policing.

"Our current structure allows law enforcement to not report in complete ways about the ways they're behaving in the community and that's not OK," Spencer said. "The public has a right to know how they're treating people in our communities."

©2021 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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