COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — As Columbus emerges from what are normally its hottest months, officials in a number of offices are also working to make sense of the violence that ensued during them.
As of Monday, the city is pacing ahead of its homicide totals from five of the six prior years, and felonious assaults are also on the rise from last year, according to Columbus police data. Columbus saw back-to-back weekends of gunfire in the Short North, five fatal police shootings — including two that injured officers — and, two weeks ago, the shooting death of a 15-year-old at Easton town Center.
But aside from the city’s Division of Police and Department of Public Safety, a recently established initiative under Mayor Andrew Ginther’s office is seeking to preempt violence, too.
Ginther announced the Office of Violence Prevention’s creation in March, after Columbus City Council voted to fund the office with $4 million in the city budget.
Office of Violence Prevention is preparing for a “marathon”
Five months in, the office’s short-term work has mostly included attending community meetings and events — with Director Rena Shak likening the effort to a “marathon.”
“We’ve had over 200 meetings or events that we’ve attended, to make sure that we are talking to community members and really finding out what they want to see Columbus doing, other than what we are already doing,” Shak said
Shak, Ginther’s former assistant policy director and a former public defender, has also made full-time hires: a deputy director and three community relations coordinators, each of whom are assigned to two of the city’s six police precincts. All four started in August, she said.
“I would say that crime is always, unfortunately, going to be a part of our community,” Shak said. “But our job is just to be a portion of that fabric, a portion of that strategy that the city has, that’s all-encompassing.”
Long-term, she envisions the office using data and research to head off violent incidents.
Former police commander: ‘I find it very ineffective’
Robert Strausbaugh, a former Columbus police commander, worked for the division for nearly 30 years before taking a buyout in 2022. He’s not sold.
“What is there to dwell into? You have massive amounts of information from the people who have been there for years,” Strausbaugh said. “There are still a few people within the city and the division of police who can go backwards and give the historical perspective of what worked and what didn’t work.”
With numerous violence prevention programs already in place, he said he questioned why the city wouldn’t just put $4 million toward the police or public safety. Creating an office to do much of what he feels those existing bodies have been doing will just create confusion, he said.
“The office of violence prevention, what have they prevented?” he said. “That’s what taxpayers really need to ask themselves. What have they prevented?”
Columbus within national network
But the city isn’t the first to establish a violence prevention office — intentionally outside the purview of public safety.
Nearly 40 states, counties or cities have similar offices, according to the National Offices of Violence Prevention Network, with annual budgets that range anywhere from $270,000 to $36 million. Many are in their infancy, but Portland’s has been around since 2006.
Black leaders founded the Portland Office of Violence Prevention, and it’s grown from an office of one to eight. It also facilitates contract and grant funding for street level outreach workers, violence prevention programs, and services to assist victims and families of gun violence, according to Riamyrie Walter, the office’s community engagement specialist.
In Columbus, the city — in conjunction with the office — will hold a town hall and a gun buyback later in September, Ginther said.