This past weekend’s protests over the fatal shooting of Casey Goodson Jr. by a Franklin County Sheriff’s deputy comes at a critical junction for reforms to local policing.
Marching through downtown Columbus on Friday and Saturday, protesters chanted things like, “What’s his name? Casey Goodson!” On High Street in front of the Statehouse, they painted the words "#JusticeForCasey" in the center lane.
The 23-year-old Goodson was killed by Deputy Jason Meade, who claims Goodson drew a gun on him before Meade fired. Goodson’s family disputes that account, saying he was holding his keys and a bag of sandwiches when he was shot in the back.
Goodson was killed by a deputy, not a Columbus Police officer, but the protests that filled downtown came as the city grapples with a number of police reforms. In November, Columbus voters overwhelmingly approved a new Civilian Review Board, to independently investigate police misconduct.
At the same time, voters around Franklin County elected Democrat Gary Tyack to replace Republican county prosecutor Ron O’Brien, who has long been criticized for failing to secure indictments of officers who fatally shot Black civilians.
The city is also preparing to draft a new budget and negotiate a contract with the Fraternal Order of Police. City leaders have committed to “re-imagine public safety” with an eye toward eliminating these lethal interactions with law enforcement, and are discussing the changes in ongoing public hearings.
Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin acknowledged Goodson’s death early in a meeting last Tuesday.
“I want the Goodson family to know that this council, this city, this community has them in their prayers this evening,” Hardin said.
Among the current efforts at reshaping public safety is the Civilian Review Board, which will bring Columbus in line with most large American cities in having independent oversight of police. A working group recently finished meeting and laid out a series of recommendations that include having a majority of board members be Columbus residents.
Working group members also recommended not having any automatic inclusions on the board, meaning no guaranteed seats for law enforcement and no prohibition of serving for ex-offenders. The city plans to seat the review board members by March, and they’re aiming to tap an inspector general by June.
However, the Civilian Review Board still would not be involved in a case like Goodson's, because it doesn't have jurisdiction over the Franklin County Sheriff's Office.
Meanwhile, “re-imagining public safety” is essentially Columbus City Council's answer to the “defund the police” demands pushed in several major cities following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. For instance, many have asked why police are responding when people are in mental health crisis or suffering from a drug overdose. They argue social workers are better trained for those cases, and police often escalate the situation.
During a recent meeting, public safety officials emphasized their efforts in that regard—bragging about the city's specialized response teams like the RREACT and the mobile crisis response units. The former is a grant funded overdose response team, and the latter pairs a social worker with a police officer to respond to calls.
Police Chief Tom Quinlan talked up officers with crisis intervention training, or CIT, and how they can ease tensions during investigations.
"There's 35,000, 36,000 calls per year involving someone in mental health crisis, and about 20,594 we're able to dispatch a person with CIT training," Quinlan told city officials.
But those figures sidestep the concern many on council and in the repeated demonstrations downtown have been raising: It's still police officers responding. Leah Bevis emphasized that point during the public comment portion of the meeting.
"Health workers with years of training and experience will be better equipped to handle health crises than police with 40 hours of CIT training," Bevis said. "This is not a diss on police in any way, it is merely an acknowledgement that people do well what they are trained to do."
Some members of the public, particularly from neighborhood watch groups, argue the city needs to have more police presence. The police union has also been critical of Mayor Andrew Ginther’s focus on curbing police violence, and targeted Ginther’s move to put the Civilian Review Board issue before voters.
The Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Still, most city officials seem pleased with how well their specialized teams likes RREACT and mobile crisis response units have performed.
“It just demonstrates that the city knows how to use more than just one tool in the toolbox," Council member Shayla Favor said.
But Favor also noted the problem is that those teams are still relatively rare. While there are hundreds of police officers with crisis intervention training, there are a total of six officers involved in the mobile crisis repsonse unit.
Public Safety finance official Dan Giangardella was quick to mention they've budgeted for 20 additional social workers who will take on a similar role, but they'll fall under the umbrella of Columbus Public Health.