Issue 2: Columbus Voters Get Say On Civilian Police Review Board

Oct 8, 2020

The killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd in May sparked protests across the nation. Since his death, there’s been a stream of Columbus demonstrations demanding police reform. 

In response to those protests, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther says the city has already instituted several reforms, but one of the biggest still needs to be implemented. 

“Columbus is the only big city in America that does not have some form of a civilian oversight board,” Ginther says.

According to a nationwide report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, about 80% of America’s largest cities have some sort of police review board. This election, voters can decide whether Columbus should join them.

If the ballot initiative passes, Issue 2 would create a Civilian Review Board to carry out independent investigations of alleged police misconduct in the city. It would also appoint an inspector general for the Columbus Division of Police.

How The Board Would Work

On July 1, the same day Ginther referred 56 Columbus Police incidents to third parties for possible criminal or administrative charges, the mayor also named tasked a working group with defining how the review board would work.

The 16-person working group is comprised of lawyers, former police officers and police reform advocates.

Civilian police review boards look different across the country. In some cities, boards review already-completed investigations. In others, they launch their own probes. Columbus wants to institute the latter model.

“We believe strongly that the Civilian Review Board has to have subpoena powers, the authority to conduct independent investigations, recommend disciplinary action, and one that is fully staffed and funded,” Ginther says.

The Inspector General role would more broadly examine policies and patterns in the department, rather than individual cases.

Kyle Strickland, a senior legal analyst at Ohio State's Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, pushed for the board even before he was assigned to the working group. He says a lot of details are still under review.

“We’re gonna be recommending things like the size of this review board, also ensuring that it’s representative of the community, how do we ensure that it’s representative of the community, how are members appointed to the board?” Strickland says.

Mayor Andrew Ginther on Sept. 8, 2020. Ginther has been a proponent of creating a Civilian Review Board to oversee the police department.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

Negotiating With The Police Union

Much of the scope and powers of the board will likely be decided in high-stakes negotiations with the police union. Columbus will be renegotiating the Fraternal Order of Police’s contract when it expires at the end of the year, which may limit what the board can do.

Ginther says there’s been some contention between the union and the city on that front.

“There are some members of the FOP and the FOP leadership that want to protect the status quo and don’t want things to change,” Ginther says.

In 2017, the FOP unanimously approved a vote of "no confidence" in Ginther, Public Safety director Ned Pettus, and then-City Council president Zach Klein, who is now the city attorney. The “no confidence” vote came in response to comments Ginther made about Zachary Rosen, a Columbus oficer fired for "unreasonable force" after kicking a restrained suspect in the head. The department later reinstated Rosen after the union appealed to an arbitrator. 

WOSU reached out to the Fraternal Order of Police for comment, but the union did not respond by the story's airing.

In a July statement, the FOP criticized Ginther for pursuing the Civilian Review Board through a ballot issue.

"It is unfortunate that Mayor Ginther feels the need to waste tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars or their time on a charter amendment," the statement read. "We welcome dialogue and to use the collective bargaining process to move forward for everyone, but Mayor Ginther is not out to compromise. Mayor Ginther is out to attack collective bargaining rights, plain and simple."

In a press conference in August, union president Keith Ferrell said they have worked with other jurisdictions, like Reynoldsburg, on Civilian Review Boards.

“Reynoldsburg did a citizens review board. They came to the lodge, the lodge was receptive,” Ferrell said. “We sat down and we worked through those things. So we are willing to communicate with anyone that wants to communicate with us. Council has been receptive. We appreciate that.”

Reynoldsburg's proposed nine-member panel differs from the Columbus proposal in a few ways. It will be tasked primarily with discrimination cases, but can launch investigations into use-of-force incidents. While it has subpoena power, it’s somewhat limited – a major sticking point for reform advocates in Columbus. The board is also barred from writing discipline recommendations, even if it determines a complaint is sustained.

During the press conference, Ferrell said he would approach the city of Columbus with the same openness.

“We will continue the dialogue and assist,” Ferrell said. “Even when we don’t agree on everything, it’s important. And that’s leadership, and that’s what we need.”

Columbus Police observe demonstrations over police violence on June 2, 2020.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU

Ginther says they’ve been in touch but so far, those discussions haven’t gone anywhere.

Strickland says he is excited for the accountability a Civilian Review Board could introduce, but that more action is needed on the front end for true police reform.

“It is often reactive, and we need to make sure we are doing more to ensure that we can recognize any sort of systematic abuses of power or systematic misconduct before these issues arise,” Strickland says.

Columbus City Council tabled a vote on one such measure that would have restricted police use of control agents like tear gas.

Early voting is already underway in the state, and Election Day is November 3.

If Issue 2 passes, the working group hopes to seat a board by the end of this year. 

Below is the full Issue 2 ballot text:

Shall the Charter of the City of Columbus be amended as follows: The proposed charter amendment asks the electors to create a Civilian Police Review Board. Board members will be chosen to reflect the diversity of the City of Columbus. This board, independent of the Division of Police and led and staffed by civilians, will have the authority to receive and cause the investigation of complaints of officer misconduct. The board will have the power – with some exceptions based on state law, federal law, and labor contracts – to subpoena testimony and evidence during the course of an investigation.

The board will also have the authority to initiate complaints and recommend resolutions to complaints and investigations, including discipline. The charter amendment requires the Division of Police to provide to the board records requested by the board in the course of an investigation, with certain exceptions. Sufficient, consistent, and annual funding for the board and their operations, including personnel, is included in the charter amendment as well as a prohibition against a reduction of the board’s budget that is disproportionate in scale to other budgetary reductions. If any budget cuts are made to the board, then specific cause must be provided.

The board will develop rules that govern their work and will develop a procedure for how complaints are reviewed. The charter amendment also creates an independent Department of the Inspector General for the Division of Police. The Civilian Police Review Board will reside within this department and the inspector general will both be appointed and governed by the board?