A rift is emerging between Columbus City Council and Mayor Andrew Ginther after police officers deployed pepper spray against protesters over the weekend, less than a week after the city banned the use of chemical agents against non-violent crowds.
Police with riot gear and bikes arrived in force downtown to clear demonstrators from streets near the Ohio Statehouse on Sunday.
Mayor Andrew Ginther defended the police's actions on Twitter, saying that officers were “met with violence.” In an interview with WOSU on Monday, Ginther said that the use of pepper spray did not violate his order.
“Based on what I know now, and what was shared with me with the Division of Police, I believe that officers were within the policy change," Ginther said.
Multiple Columbus City Council members have come out more forcefully against the police’s actions, saying they clearly violated the reforms.
On Monday, Columbus Council president Shannon Hardin issued a statement saying he believed "videos of the Division of Police using pepper spray on protesters are out of line with the directives issued last week." Council member Rob Dorans agreed, saying that “much of what I saw yesterday violated the Mayor's Directive to not use chemical agents on peaceful protester."
Council member Shayla Favor called the actions of police "complete unacceptable," demanding to have a "conversation about reallocating the budget." And City Council president pro tem Elizabeth Brown released a statement calling for the demilitarization of the city’s police force.
“We cannot build a paramilitary operation and expect officers employed by it to keep the peace,” Brown writes. “The presence of police should never look and feel to residents like we are at war.”
Brown also wrote a letter to Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan about the way officers handled Sunday's protests.
“Frankly,” Brown told WOSU, “safeguarding First Amendment rights is so basic that this shouldn’t be so hard to figure out.”
Brown says she was frustrated and disturbed by what she saw Sunday.
“The word 'peaceful' has a definition when you look it up in the dictionary, but what we’ve found out is that it’s subjective,” Brown said. “So we need a clear understanding of what the orders are within the Division of Police, which is why this morning I sent a letter to our Chief of Police outlining some questions I have, just about yesterday.”
Her letter asked Quinlan if police officers received guidance and training on Ginther's ban of chemical agents, and requested clarification about what situations qualified for their use under department policy.
"Under the revised policy, do the actions of a single individual allow for the use of chemical agents against all protesters in the area?" Brown writes. "Under the revised policy, who in the chain of command determines whether a protest is no longer peaceful and/or that the use of chemical agents is justified? What are the established parameters for the use of chemical agents once it has been determined that their use is justified?"
Columbus Police said their actions Sunday were intended to restore regular traffic in downtown, and said the use of pepper spray came in response to protesters throwing water bottles. One protester was arrested for throwing a scooter at police.
Ginther said he believes officers used pepper spray specifically against people who became violent, but that his office wants to hear from protesters about their experiences.
“If officers were using pepper spray indiscriminately, just spraying it into large crowds without targeting folks that had engaged in combative and violent behavior, that would not be within the policy and the changes that were made last week," Ginther said.
Ginther also said he was looking into accusations that police used mace and removed the prosthetic legs of a protester. "We are taking the matter very seriously and working diligently to find video, photos and additional information," Ginther wrote.
Officer body camera footage released by police later Monday appeared to contradict claims that police took the man's legs. The video presented at a press conference shows the man in question throwing a sign at officers and other protesters pulling him away as officers tried to take him into custody.
Last week, Quinlan insisted that he “gets it” when it comes to the public’s frustration over pepper spray. When the city announced its new policy, Quinlan said the division had plans for dealing with a few demonstrators throwing projectiles from a mostly peaceful crowd, but refused to offer details.
Brown told Quinlan that department policy should not allow officers to indiscriminately use chemical agents in cases of "individual acts of isolated violence."
“Given the moment that we’re in,” Brown says, “there needed to be very clear immediate action because protests are ongoing.”
She added that Columbus has seen several nights of peaceful protest over the last week, with little-to-no police presence. “What prompted your order for officers to arrive on Sunday in large numbers?” Brown wrote.
On the scene Sunday night, Sgt. D. Wilkinson, who refused to share his first name, suggested a low traffic day may have been the best option for cracking down on demonstrators obstructing traffic.
“So maybe that’s the best day to start, so we don’t have anybody hurt," Wilkinson said. "Maybe we do start on a Sunday because there is low traffic, and maybe we try to establish the lines. Maybe we have this rough patch here today, but maybe tomorrow it’s better.”
Brown says respecting peaceful protest should be easy for the police, and that these frequent violent clashes distract from the city’s ability reform policing.
Ginther acknowledged that making meaningful changes in the middle of a crisis is challenging.
"I feel very strongly that mistakes are going to be made, and we need to own up and acknowledge when mistakes are made, and we need to own the remedy and corrective action to make sure we don't repeat the same mistakes," Ginther said.
Brown promising that Columbus Council would hold hearings on the police department's purchasing practices before July 4.