Columbus police say policy prevented them from breaking up Chitt Fest sooner

NBC4 Investigates

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Calls to 911 were made to Columbus Police dispatchers for more than four hours before officers broke up a large, destructive block party on Chittenden Avenue, NBC4 Investigates has learned.

NBC4 Investigates requested 911 recordings from CPD stemming from the party known as Chitt Fest, which began the evening of April 17.

The earliest time-stamped recording was from 10:13 p.m. The last time stamp was 2:17 a.m.

The calls placed during this four-hour, four-minute window tell the story of escalating fear and pandemonium.

“The entire street is chaos,” one caller told a dispatcher at 10:38 p.m.

“It’s just getting out of hand. It’s getting crazy,” another caller said six minutes later.

“I feel really threatened and really nervous,” said a young woman at 10:52 p.m., at an address that was the source of multiple 911 calls during the party about a large amount of people gathering on the balcony.

“They’re flipping cars. It’s turning into a straight-out riot,” another caller said, using profanity to urge the dispatcher to, “Get this under control.”

Several people called multiple times for help. Dispatchers told callers officers were “in the area monitoring.” In some calls with later time stamps, dispatchers told callers that officers were on the way.

Closer to midnight, callers began to wonder why they hadn’t seen any police officers.

“Peoples’ cars are getting flipped out and nobody’s doing anything about it. I’m just wondering why,” one caller said, mentioning that he had called earlier.

“I have not seen a police officer within the last two hours,” said another.

At 2:02 a.m., one dispatcher told a caller, “There’s not a whole lot we’re able to do about it.”

“I felt helpless,” said an Ohio State University student who lives on Chittenden Avenue. “It didn’t feel good to call authority and (for) them tell you there’s nothing they could do about it, as people were flipping cars. It’s ridiculous.”

The student asked to not be identified, in fear of disciplinary action from the university, despite saying they and their roommates stayed in their home.

“We were scared for ourselves and our own safety,” the student said.

CPD Patrol Commander Dennis Jeffrey said officers moved in around 2:40 a.m. to disperse the crowd, more than four hours and 20 minutes after the first call.

Asked why it took so long to engage the crowd, Jeffrey said, “Mainly because we have new rules of engagement for large gatherings.”

According to Jeffrey, the new rules of engagement were put in place after protests in Columbus last summer, which led to use of force investigations into several officers.

CPD provided NBC4 Investigates with the policy revisions regarding use of force in crowd control.

The changes state that chemical irritants, including tear gas, cannot be used to disperse crowds. Officers are also no longer allowed to use chemical spray to break up a group of people, unless that group is behaving aggressively towards officers or other people.

The revised CPD policy states explicitly that, “Failure to leave a street or to move, by itself, shall not justify the use of chemical spray against a non-aggressive, non-violent crowd.”

Officers are permitted, however, to use chemical irritants to prevent crowds from blocking a controlled-access highway, according to the new policy.

“If that didn’t happen, we’d go in and try to remove those people from the street in the past,” Jeffrey said.

According to Jeffrey and dispatchers’ accounts, plain-clothes officers were dispatched into the crowd to monitor the situation and report back to nearby officers. A CPD helicopter also monitored and gave warnings from above.

Jeffrey said property damage was not reason enough to disperse the crowd, under the new rules.

He said officers finally moved in to respond to a report of an assault after 2:00 a.m., but they were quickly overwhelmed by the rowdy crowd and could not find the victim. That’s when, according to Jeffrey, officers took action to break up the party.

By then, the crowd had died down.

“I don’t think we could have done it successfully when it was at its peak,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey said no officers were injured and no force was used.

“I think if we would have gone in and used force, we’d be having a different conversation today,” Jeffrey said. “It would have been, ‘You went in and used too much force.’”

CPD last week released images of 18 persons of interest connected to Chitt Fest. None have been arrested, but Jeffrey said investigators have matched names to 10 of the faces. He expects as many as six to be charged in the coming days.

OSU confirms it is pursuing sanctions against students involved in Chitt Fest for Code of Student Conduct violations. A spokesman for the university could not confirm the number of students facing possible disciplinary action, but said actions could range from a formal reprimand to dismissal from OSU.

Columbus Division of Police Acting Chief Tim Becker issued a statement after this story ran saying:

On April 18, 2021, a party referred to as “Chittfest” occurred in the off-campus area of Chittenden Avenue near Indianola Avenue.  The Columbus Division of Police learned of this unofficial festival a few days before the event, and on April 17, 2021, police personnel went door to door on Chittenden Avenue, encouraging residents to control parties and warning of possible legal repercussions.  Mutual aid from the Ohio State University was requested.

Any statements that Division policy prevented police from responding are not accurate. The Division regrets any confusion caused by inaccurate or incomplete statements. Several factors impacted the response, including available staffing and the size of the crowd.  Division personnel were spread across thecity handling many calls for service. Personnel at the “Chittfest” scene were vastly outnumbered by the crowd by a ratio of approximately 40 to 1,000.

Division policy allows personnel to use Division-issued chemical spray to disperse a congregation of individuals if the congregation is engaging in aggressive or violent actions towards officers or others, as some were in this event.  While the property damage by participants was not acceptable, police were able to end the situation without using force.

Ultimately decisions on when to engage the crowd were made based on available staffing, the level of aggressiveness by the participants and public sentiments towards police crowd control tactics in previous events. 

As with all incidents of civil unrest, the Division is evaluating actions to improve outcomes should a similar situation occur in the future.  The senseless destruction of property was criminal, and the Division is taking actions to identify those responsible and hold them accountable.

The full interview with Commander Jeffrey can be viewed below:

The Columbus Division of Police sent the following policy change to NBC4 Monday afternoon. Bold sections represent recent revisions to the policy:

II. Policy Statements

A. Chemical Irritants

1. Sworn personnel shall carry only those chemical irritants that have been authorized by the Chief of Police. CS Gas, commonly referred to as Tear Gas, is prohibited for use to disperse crowds. CS gas may be deployed by SWAT personnel during barricade situations.

a. A SWAT lieutenant may designate a lower-ranking SWAT officer to give such an order, except in crowd control situations.

b. A sergeant acting as a zone lieutenant should not give such approval.

5. Sworn personnel shall not use their Division-issued chemical spray to disperse a congregation of individuals unless the congregation is engaging in aggressive or violent actions towards officers or others. Prior to deployment of the chemical spray on or against an aggressive or violent crowd, at least three notifications should be made when possible to the participants in the crowd advising them that they are committing a violation of law and are to disperse, and that chemical spray will be used if they fail to comply with the order. Failure to leave a street or to move, by itself, shall not justify the use of chemical spray against a non-aggressive, non-violent crowd.

c. Sworn personnel may use chemical irritants to clear a congregation of people from a controlled-access highway or to prevent a congregation of people from entering a controlled-access highway.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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