Racism Within Columbus Police: Black Officers Call For Internal Reforms

Sep 8, 2020

This is part one of a two-part series about race inside the Columbus Division of Police. Read part two here.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Columbus Public Safety Director Ned Pettus, who oversees the Columbus Division of Police. He was interviewed prior to publication, but his comments were erroneously not included in the original story.

For 23 years, Eric Cornett worked his dream job: a police officer serving his hometown of Columbus, alongside his partner Karl Shaw. Residents in the community trusted Cornett and Shaw – they were some of the only Black police officers on the force.

But Cornett says his dream devolved into a nightmare in 2014 when he found out Columbus Police sergeant was threatening him and other Black officers.

"He referred to me as ape, monkey, n------, he mentioned taking myself and my supervisor out back and shooting us in the head," Cornett says. 

Columbus Police asked if Cornett wanted protection for his family, and he said yes. But Cornett says all the department did was put an empty cruiser outside his house. The division opened an internal investigation, but Cornett says he realized it wasn’t going anywhere after his first conversation with the investigator.  

"He said, 'I guess that makes you a dead man walking, doesn’t it?' And that blew my mind. That totally closed the door for me," Cornett says. "That totally put me in a mindset that I’ve got to get my family out of here, and we’ve got to do it now."

Cornett quit his job, sold his house, and within two weeks of the incident he and his family left the state.

Nothing came of the internal investigation. The sergeant, Eric Moore, was fired in 2016 for an unrelated offense, but an arbitrator re-instated him at the urging of the Fraternal Order of Police. He remains a sergeant with the department. 

Columbus Police declined an interview for this story, because both Cornett and Shaw have pending discrimination lawsuits against the division. Their lawsuits are among several internal race-related lawsuits that have been brought against the department.

"Columbus is still one of the best departments that I’ve looked at across the country, but we all, across the country, need to get better at race issues," says one Black Columbus officer . 

The recent protests over police brutality and racism have sparked conversations, and some changes, about how Columbus Police interacts with members of the community. But current and former officers say reforms are needed to address longstanding racism within the department, too. 

WOSU spoke with seven current Black officers within the Columbus Division of Police for this series, most on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from other officers or from the department. 

The most recent data from the department shows about 10% of the department is African American – compared to 28% of the Columbus population. And 87% of the force is white, even though about 60% of the city is white.

Those percentages have held steady for more than a decade, despite the fact that Columbus Police says they’ve had diverse recruiting classes. The department recently announced that about half of their new recruits at the police academy are people of color. 

Race of hired Columbus Police officers by recruiting class, 2010-2020.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU

According to one officer, the department claims Black recruits are less qualified than white recruits, as an excuse for why it continues to hire disproportionately. Since 2010, according to department records, Columbus Police has hired at most seven Black officers per police class. 

"Along the lines of recruiting, I think that African American officers are systematically being disqualified from the process before they become hired," the officer says. "And that’s obviously the case."

Once inside the force, white officers disproportionately dominate the highest-ranking positions. The chief, Tom Quinlan, is white. There are no Black deputy chiefs and one Black commander. Just 7% of lieutenants and 8% of sergeants are Black.

Ned Pettus directs the city's Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Police. He says those numbers are not good enough.

“We need more diversity and inclusiveness, not only in the membership, the makeup of the department, but also in management, in the chain of command, in supervisory and management roles," Pettus says.

Black officers say bringing in an outsider to lead Columbus Police would have helped bring about change in the department. They say it was a missed opportunity last year when Quinlan, then interim chief, was promoted to chief over Perry Tarrant, a Black former assistant chief for the Seattle Police Department.

Tarrant, who is also the former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, would have been the first external candidate to be named chief of Columbus Police.

"They had to go through the dog-and-pony show of making it look like they were going for an outside source, which that would have been their best bet, to bring someone in from the outside," one officer says. "Quinlan has been with the department for 30 years and he is part of the problem."

Black officers allege discrimination extends beyond official duties. Some sought-after special duty positions are also dominated by white officers, such as staffing events or concerts at places like Nationwide Arena. A review of Columbus Police documents shows only two Black officers are approved to work Nationwide Arena, compared to 26 white officers. 

"If you can’t make your shift, you are not to call an African American officer to fill in your shift or you’re off the list," one officer says. 

WOSU did speak with another Black officer who said he had not experienced racism personally, nor had he seen white officers be racist towards residents of color.

"In my experience, I haven't seen Black officers being treated differently by other officers at all," he says. 

In an emailed statement, Quinlan called racism within the department unacceptable.

“It is imperative when an employee or a member of the public has evidence of a racist action that it be immediately reported to Internal Affairs or the Director of Public Safety so it can be properly investigated and if proven, discipline will occur," Quinlan wrote.

Pettus echoed that response: “We just have no tolerance for any kind of discrimination or harassment within our safety forces. We want those officers to come forward and file a complaint.”

However, Black officers say that taking complaints of racism to Columbus Police, the police union, or to the Equal Employment Office will just result in them being targeted more than they already feel they are.  

Correction: Due to a reporting error, we incorrectly stated, Columbus Police had no Black commanders. One was promoted earlier this summer.