COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Police officers in Columbus feel unsupported by city government as they work to handle a homicide rate that’s nearly doubled this year, say people with deep ties to law enforcement.
At the same time, new programs such as the Safe Communities initiative and restorative justice/restorative practice have yet to take full effect. This is a transitional time, as the city works to put in place measures it created when it re-imagined policing.
NBC4 talked with Betty Schwab to gauge the feelings of some officers at CPD (officers are unable to speak directly with journalists). Schwab’s years of experience with the Columbus Division of Police and her friendships with currently serving officers lend credibility to her insights.
Schwab started as a dispatcher in 1981. She became a patrol officer in 1997, then went into research and development. After 18 months in media relations, Schwab moved to the academy to teach advanced training and recruits. Although Schwab retired in 2013 after 35 years of service, she maintains friendships with officers on active duty at CPD.
Officers “frustrated” and “disappointed” feeling a lack of support
Q: What is the feeling among officers that you know as we go into this summer when we typically see that bump up in crime?
A: “They are expecting it, but they are apprehensive. They’re frustrated and most importantly they are disappointed that they feel they are being put out there knowing violence is going to rise, because it typically does in the summer, but there is no one to have their backs. They feel like they are put out there, they’re told to do their job, but they are strapped as to what they can do. Just very frustrated, sad even, that they can’t do the job that they really like to do. But I think the main thing is that they are disappointed because they don’t feel like they have support.”
Q: What is going on in the courts right now in terms of handling the cases?
A: “They’ve been directed that if they arrest someone that is not of a high felony that they are getting a slap on the wrist and turned back onto the street. If they arrest someone for loitering or suspicious person, maybe trespassing, aside from actually murdering someone, those crimes are not being punished the way they should be. So we’ve got these criminals committing crimes and being let out and maybe the officer will see them the next day. It’s very frustrating for them.”
Hiring from outside the division creates uncertainty
Q: What happens when the police chiefs come and go frequently? How does that affect officers?
A: “They are hiring from outside the division, so we have no idea what type of person the new chief is. Before they would promote the deputy chief to the position, so they knew them. They knew their style. This is totally different. They are hiring from outside the division. So I think their opinion is that it’s going to be what the mayor and city council want. Right now that probably isn’t a good thing, the officers are thinking, because they are not getting support from mayor and city council. So they are just thinking it’s going to be another chief that’s of the same opinion and mindset as city hall.”
Q: You can see the arc of history of policing in Columbus. What moment are we at?
A: “The officers want to do their job, and that’s been kind of steady, it’s been the same throughout history. But it’s how they are allowed to do their job, and the tools they are given to do their job. In my father’s day it was Billy clubs and long flashlights, then we moved to PR24. Now it’s a smaller baton and mace and taser, and those nonlethal weapons are being cramped and shut down.
‘How are we supposed to do [our] jobs?’
“I don’t know how, when we have a large gathering and it becomes unsettling and even a riot, I don’t know how those officers are going to control those people. I think they are wondering how they will control those people as well. It’s one thing to dictate … another thing to do it and see what it takes to control an angry mob. The city hall and the mayor and the lawmakers put it out there you can’t do this … they have limited their use of … pepper spray. How are we supposed to control this? How are we supposed to do [our] jobs?
The ones that are going to get hurt are the community.
“It has changed dramatically. I don’t think it’s changed for the better. They’ve taken so much of the officer’s ability to do their job away from them, that they are just sitting around thinking, how am I going to do my job? It’s really sad. The ones that are going to get hurt are the community.
“To build that confidence back up again the mayor is going to have to say: ‘I believe in you, I have all the confidence in the world in you, I think you’re a great department. This is what I don’t want to see. See how you can work that into your training.’ But he wants to dictate everything that they want to do, and that’s not a good thing.”
After the interview with Schwab, NBC4 asked Mayor Andrew Ginther’s office whether he supports Columbus Division of Police. A spokesperson said: “Mayor Ginther does support police officers. He also supports reforms. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Mayor Ginther: supporting officers and reform “not mutually exclusive”
“The Mayor has funded body-worn cameras, ShotSpotter technology and a state-of-the-art new police substation in the Far North. He knows the enormous amount of stress officers are constantly under, so he has funded a new early-warning system to help supervisors identify officers who may be struggling. He is also building a health and wellness system for police and fire.
“He also supports reform – including limiting the use of pepper spray to disperse peaceful protests and having an outside agency investigate police-involved shootings. He also seated a Civilian Police Review Board because Columbus was the only major metropolitan area with no civilian oversight of police.
“It is not just the Mayor who supports these reforms. Matrix Consulting, who oversaw a review of CPD, found disparities in how officers of color and residents of color were treated. The Columbus Community Safety Advisory Commission came up with 80 recommendations to improve policing – including the Civilian Review Board. [Ohio State University’s] Carter Stewart did an after-action report of the city’s response to protests last summer and found evidence of excessive force from officers – as did Judge Marbley in a federal lawsuit filed by protesters.”