Column: Proposal for civilian reform board are sketchy, based on exaggerated view of police misconduct

Staff Writer
The Columbus Dispatch
Greg Lashutka, Guest columnist

As a former Columbus city attorney and mayor and proud citizen of Columbus, I continue to care about and love our city. After listening to others share their concerns, I decided to publicly step forward in support of my retired police colleagues, our Columbus Division of Police and, most importantly, the vast majority of our citizens, who have been largely voiceless in Columbus City Hall. This is the first time I have done so since leaving the mayor’s office.

Our city faces the unique challenges of COVID-19, the tugs and pulls of our country searching for its soul and the economic consequences stemming from both. The Dispatch recently reported that in 2019 our city saw 104 homicides. Our citizens deserve to feel safe and secure. The tragedy of George Floyd’s death has focused attention on police departments across America, including Columbus. The narrative of police abuse in our community, I believe, rests more on urban legend than reality. This does a great disservice to all of us, especially the men and women who comprise our Columbus Division of Police.

Division records reveal Columbus police have 600,000 to 800,000 encounters with individuals annually. In 2016, seven Black suspects were fatally shot by officers. In 2017, that number was four; in 2018, five; and last year, one Black fatal shooting occurred. All suspects were armed and threatening. Each case was investigated and presented to the Franklin County grand jury — a panel of citizens unaffiliated with city government. In each case, the grand jury cleared the officers involved based on the evidence.

I believe some of what is being promoted by Columbus City Hall fails to move our city in a positive direction. First is the proposed civilian police review board. Columbus City Hall has placed on the November ballot a charter amendment to create this new police oversight group. The concept might have merit, but how do we know? The initiative isn’t spelled out; it doesn’t say how it will be implemented. We are told the details — including cost of operation, membership, interaction with existing police reviewing bodies, training of board members, how the mayoral-appointed public safety director and proposed inspector general function, and more — will come later.

I, for one, find that lack of transparency inadequate. A permanent change to city governance should be well understood by any citizen before voting for the proposal. Therefore, I will not vote for it. The neighboring city of Reynoldsburg is collaborating with the Fraternal Order of Police to create a police citizen review board. It reflects enlightened servant leadership, which we desperately need in these times. We should expect nothing less from the FOP and our Columbus City Hall elected officials.

Second, Columbus City Council soon will consider legislation to defund and limit some police capabilities. Of special concern is a reduction of police helicopters. Our helicopters greatly expand the support of our on-the-ground officers and neighborhoods. Columbus has roughly 900,000 residents over 225 square miles. By contrast, Cincinnati has about 300,000 over 80 square miles. Our helicopters also support neighboring central Ohio communities through mutual aid pacts. Downsizing our helicopter capability is misguided.

One of the leaders of our faith community, Catholic Bishop Robert Brennan, recently wrote: “Every human being and every human institution is always in need of self-examination, reflection and reform ... So, too, we see this need in our police departments ... any reform, however, should never place first responders and the communities they serve under greater risk for harm ... Our combined energies to address, reduce and end all hatred and violence ... should be a high priority for all people ... Equally important ... is a genuine and sincere commitment to listen to one another ... It is through this listening and empathy — with gratitude, respect and encouragement — that we can begin to embrace Christ’s healing power and not give in to the impulse to tear apart all that is good and right.”

I agree with the bishop. We are a society deeply troubled by eroding trust in many of our institutions and leaders. Trust must be earned by each of us, and this is especially true for those in leadership. I believe it is most important that our Columbus elected officials, the Division of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police make every effort to become better aligned.

Greg Lashutka was mayor of Columbus from 1992 to 2000. He resides in Columbus.