The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office has opened a new office to promote diversity and equity, following massive protests in Columbus over police violence and racism.
“We’re looking to rebuild, repair and build up trust equity,” says Napoleon Bell, director of the Sheriff's Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Bell has a nearly three-decade-long career in law enforcement service. He served 12 years as a full-time Columbus Police officer, six of which he spent as a liaison officer bridging communication gaps with residents.
Bell's most recent position was in the Sheriff's Office as a manager of community engagement. Bell says he values the time he spent speaking to citizens on a regular basis about their neighborhood needs.
“Whatever happened in the community happened to me also,” Bell says. “It was that strong of a feeling.”
Among the changes Bell wants to implement is improving training to make officers more aware of culturally diverse communities, so they better understand how to respond to them. He adds that hiring a diverse group of new officers will also help the department address certain biases.
Bell says he understands the frustrations of African Americans and other residents about the conflicts with law enforcement officers, and how officers' actions can hurt.
“Being an African American man in law enforcement is a tough place to be, especially now because of things... that are going on in the community, and you’re kind of getting it from both sides,” Bell says.
During the protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, advocates and lawmakers alike crticized Columbus officers for using non-lethal projectiles and chemical agents against mostly-nonviolent crowds. The city has since funded an independent investigation into the department's response.
Bell would not comment directly about those uses of force.
“It’s a tough area to be in as an officer, it’s a tough area to be in because you’re given the order of what to do and you have to follow those orders,” Bell says. “It’s been a real struggle the last several months for myself internally as an African American man, but also one who believes in law enforcement and the work that’s being done and the very challenging and dangerous work that’s being done.”
Some protesters have called for eliminating or severly cutting police funding. Bell says the community should instead examine how all sides can better work together.
“I understand people are very upset, and understandably so, and some want to say, 'Let’s start all over,'” Bell says. “But I think what we have to look at is, first of all, understanding the perspectives of the community, about how they feel and also of law enforcement.”