COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – As thousands of residents lined the streets during protests in the summer of 2020, some Columbus police officers used duct tape and marker for a makeshift nametag over their riot gear.
Some, however, displayed no identification.
The protests, which followed the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, marked one of the largest deployments of Columbus police officers in the city’s history, City Councilmember Rob Dorans said.
“Hopefully, there won’t be a need for that type of deployment ever again, but if there is, we’re going to make sure that those officers can be identified, again, to protect the members of the public but also those officers themselves,” Dorans said.
That’s why Dorans said he introduced an ordinance before City Council, set to have its first reading Monday, that would require uniforms of Columbus police officers to have the officer’s name and badge number – a move he said is intended to increase the department’s transparency to the public.
Under the proposal, officers working undercover would be exempt.
“It makes it seem and feel that there is nothing to hide, that this individual is, you know, just another member of the Columbus community and they should be approached in that way,” said Dorans, who sponsored the ordinance.
Columbus residents aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the increased visibility, Dorans said. Proper identification can also serve to protect police officers wrongly accused of misbehavior – and help individual officers root out misconduct within their own ranks.
Some investigations into police misconduct cast a wide net, as prosecutors often could not discern who did what, he said.
“I think one of the positive outcomes for police officers themselves is that they will be put into a position where they’re asked to identify who they’re around,” Dorans said. “And frankly, they may not have known who was around them because it’s difficult for them to know when they’re covered in that type of protective equipment who they’re working with.”
Kathleen Garber, a special prosecutor with the Columbus City Attorney’s Office, was hired in August 2020 alongside retired FBI agent Richard Wozniak to investigate claims of police misconduct.
“Being unable to identify the officers has been the biggest obstacle to holding officers accountable in the vast majority of the investigations,” Garber said in an email.
The investigation has resulted in the filing of misdemeanor charges against three officers, including the current trial of Sgt. Holly Kanode, but Garber and Wozniak’s investigation remains open.
Pushback from the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing Columbus police officers, and the decision of individual officers to not comply with Garber’s requests for interviews – despite the promise of criminal immunity – has delayed the nearly two-year investigation, she said.
“Not only has this delayed and in some cases, obstructed prosecution, but it has contributed to the distrust that the community has in our officers and the legal system,” Garber said.
While some officers makeshift nametags, Garber said her investigation revealed that a majority failed to identify themselves, citing the riot gear as an impediment.
An identification requirement, Garber said, would “greatly assist” her ability to investigate accusations of misconduct – assuming that a failure to comply with the ordinance results in criminal action.
“I can see it making a real difference in both holding officers accountable and in creating more trust in the community that those hired to protect and serve are doing just that,” Garber said. “Officers who might not fear administrative discipline for not identifying themselves, might not be willing to risk a criminal charge.”
On its own, the ordinance does not criminalize officers who violate the identification requirement, Dorans said. Officers in violation can, however, be subject to disciplinary action by the Division of Police, Department of Public Safety or relevant collective bargaining agreement.
Sgt. Joe Albert, executive officer to Police Chief Elaine Bryant, said the department will comply with any city ordinance enacted into law. He said the identification requirement will “absolutely” improve trust between police and Columbus residents – all while preventing officers from being misidentified.
“If there’s a cellphone video recording an officer that did something wrong we should be able to see that badge number versus misidentification of another officer,” Albert said.
An official with the FOP lodge representing city police officers said he was unfamiliar with the ordinance and did not have an immediate response.
While some say it’s a step in the right direction toward improving police-community relations, Jon Beard, co-chair of the Columbus Police Accountability Project, described the ordinance as “window dressing” that fails to address underlying problems within the department’s culture.
The issue at hand, Beard said, is not whether an officer is clearly identified; it’s whether law enforcement will be held accountable for bad behavior.
“You got the thin blue line – you got officers right next to ‘em that won’t say anything, that won’t do anything,” Beard said. “Until we have officers who are ready to step up and call out wrongdoing in the division, nothing else seems to matter.”
Dorans said he’s hopeful that City Council may vote on the ordinance as early as June 6. If enacted, the ordinance will go into effect in January 2023.
“I think it’s really important to make sure something as important as this isn’t left up to policy no matter who’s the chief of police — that this has the weight of city code behind it to make sure whoever is in that chief’s chair down the line can’t reverse that for any reason,” Dorans said.