COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Silence from Columbus police officers is costing the city tens of thousands of dollars.
That’s according to special prosecutor Kathleen Garber, hired last year to investigate officer conduct during the summer protests.
Garber was initially hired on a contract not to exceed $15,000. That amount was raised to $30,000 in January. The city council voted Monday for another increase to $80,000.
Garber, who said she was unaware of the increase until she saw media reports the next day, said the investigation is taking longer than expected.
“Due to lack of cooperation, we haven’t been able to get the information we need to conclude these investigations,” Garber said. “I don’t think anyone envisioned that the investigation aspect of this would take so long.”
Based on videos reviewed by Garber and retired FBI Agent Rick Wozniak, another outside hire by the Columbus City Attorney’s office, she believes some officers committed misdemeanors during clashes with protesters.
So far, Garber said, she’s been unable to identify the officers because their colleagues are refusing to participate in interviews as witnesses. She said the lack of participation is the direct cause of the city’s mounting legal bill.
According to the Department of Public Safety, 55 out of 60 officers approached for interviews declined. None of those officers were the focus of a criminal investigation.
“Originally, everyone said no,” Garber said. “Rick was able to interview a handful of them, after I gave them, in writing, assurances that we would not file any charges against them if they were willing to answer.”
Garber said she obtained permission from the Columbus Police Department to offer immunity from departmental discipline to those who participated, and created an internal website for police officers to submit information anonymously. Officers still aren’t talking.
“It does not matter that the criminal entity or the investigator — what they’re telling you,” said Brian Steel, vice-president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge 9. “It’s what the citizen believes and at this time, these officers are citizens. They’re protected under the U.S. Constitution like anybody else, and they’re electing not to participate in a criminal interview.”
Steel said the union is only advising officers to seek guidance from an attorney. The attorneys, according to Steel, are paid for by the FOP’s legal defense fund.
“The elephant in the room is everybody knows there was no crimes committed,” Steel said. “This is a, this is a politically motivated investigation.”
When asked if he feels the investigation is necessary, Steel replied, “Absolutely not. It’s not necessary. If there’s misconduct, there’s a tried and true practice and we have an Internal Affairs Division, we have a special standards division, or professional integrity division.”
“The department, that has officers potentially being charged, shouldn’t be tasked with investigating their own people,” Garber said. “That needs to be done independently in order for it to be a fair and transparent investigation.”
Wozniak last month issued orders compelling six officers to be interviewed as witnesses. The outcome of those orders is still pending, Garber said, because five of the officers sued to prevent the investigators from interviewing them.
To maintain her independence, Garber said she has not spoken with Mayor Andrew Ginther or members of the Columbus City Council. She did, however, say officers who she’s worked with in the past have reached out to her in apparent attempts to influence the investigation.
“I don’t want to go too much into that,” Garber said. “We’ve been told multiple times that, you know, we’re being used by the city and that they would like us to figure out a way to handle these complaints without filing charges.”
Garber said no one has tried to coerce or bribe her.
“There’s a lot of talk that — we’re being told we don’t have the whole story, and that we’re just getting the city’s side,” Garber said. “But each time that we try to question officers to get that information, you know, we’re hitting a wall.”
A spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office said in an email that the office supports Garber’s continued efforts to seek answers.