COLUMBUS — Ohio's capital was unprepared for the size and energy of protests last year over racial injustice and police brutality, according to a report released Monday that also found most police officers felt abandoned by city leadership during that time.
Columbus — Ohio's largest city — had no advance plan for handling such protests, and suffered from a lack of coordination and even regular communication among city leaders once the protests began, the report said.
“In fact, some community members who participated in this study reported thinking that city leaders were actively at odds over how to respond to the protests,” according to the report.
The $250,000 review was commissioned by the Columbus City Council and conducted by former U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart and Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs.
At issue was the city's response to protests that began in late May after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who last week was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Columbus protests lasted multiple days downtown, near Ohio State, and across other parts of the city. The first night, protesters smashed windows at the Ohio Statehouse and at businesses throughout downtown.
In a separate episode, U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty was hit by pepper spray as scuffles broke out near the end of a May demonstration.
A federal lawsuit filed in July on behalf of more than two dozen protesters seeks monetary damages for injuries sustained in clashes with police.
The lawsuit describes peaceful demonstrators and bystanders being beaten, fired on with wooden and rubber bullets, and unlawfully arrested during protests in late May and June.
Yet at times the city’s response worked, Monday's report concluded, with protesters feeling they could express their First Amendment rights. Police also showed “great restraint” over long days and as they were targeted with projectiles like bricks and bottles and were subject to “vicious insults," particularly aimed at Black officers, according to the report.
But “frustration and pain on all sides” overshadowed such moments, the report concluded.
"Protestors interviewed for this study felt that police overreacted, used unnecessary force on peaceful demonstrations, and treated Black protestors and protests about racism differently than other protests," the report said. “Many police interviewed for this study felt abandoned by the City’s leaders and let down by their own leadership.”
Mayor Andrew Ginther said the city was aware of “clear mistakes and the mishandling of protests early last summer” and has since made changes, including a ban on chemical agents on nonviolent protestors.
He called the report another tool to help the city "make the change the community demands.”
“I am pleased that since last summer, Columbus police have managed countless demonstrations with relatively little use of force, few arrests and where the voice of demonstrators was not in any way stifled. Still, we have a long way to go to restore trust and confidence in police,” he said.
The report recommended:
— Healing the rift between Columbus police and communities of color in the city, especially Black people: “This could include community conversations about what public safety should look like, what police training should entail, and acceptable practices for managing mass demonstrations.”
— Addressing rifts between city leadership and Columbus police, and inside the police department, between top-ranking officers and rank-and-file personnel: “Without a well-functioning team approach to public safety, the entire City loses.”
— Studying best practices for handling First Amendment protests, creating special units to make contact with demonstrators before, during and after protests, and clearly defining when chemical sprays can be used when responding to mass demonstrations.
But some protesters and police clashed outside the division’s headquarters April 13 after a few protesters tried to force their way inside. One man was arrested for striking an officer with a wooden club.
This spring, Republican state lawmakers are backing four bills aimed at criminalizing or increasing penalties associated with behavior at protests.
In December, Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a new certification standard requiring law enforcement agencies to develop policies for handling mass protests that protect public and officer safety while upholding constitutional rights of expression, assembly, and freedom of the press.