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Columbus Activists Call For Federal Probe Of Police After Ma'Khia Bryant Shooting

Activist Jasmine Ayres: "The Department of Justice just went into Minneapolis. They can come into Columbus and we need [the city] to make that phone call."
Frank Morris
Activist Jasmine Ayres: "The Department of Justice just went into Minneapolis. They can come into Columbus and we need [the city] to make that phone call."

In Columbus, Ohio, where 16-year-old Ma'Kiah Bryant died in a police shooting this week, distrust of the police department runs deep. Protesters chant a long list of local Black people killed by officers. For many, "police protection" is something of an oxymoron; police themselves are a danger. That's led to a major reform push that activists want to accelerate.

Hours after Bryant was killed, protests erupted in the area, with neighbors like Ira Graham III saying her death was further proof of something they've believed for years. It is not safe to call the police.

"I have an 18-year-old who happens to be at college now and I tell him, unfortunately, [I] never called the cops for anything, because you call the cops and things can unfortunately end up like this," said Graham at the neighborhood demonstration.

That sentiment isn't unique to Columbus, but it is pervasive here, even for people like Dejuan Sharp, a 37-year-old U.S. Army veteran.

"I shouldn't be scared of the police," says Sharp. "I shouldn't have to live in fear when these people pull up. I should be able to call 911 if my family needs it."

Black people in Columbus have good reason to fear, according to activist Jasmine Ayres.

"We have one of the most violent police departments in the United States," says Ayres.

That's especially true for African Americans. According to the group Mapping Police Violence, Columbus police are responsible for more Black deaths in the last several years then departments in much larger cities like Los Angeles or Philadelphia, and many more than in comparable nearby cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati.

And the problems go way back. In 1998, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the Columbus police and found a raft of abuses, a pattern of excessive force, false arrests and false charges.

Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin says unrest last summer after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to a fresh and powerful push to rein in the department.

"There really has been a lot of change and a lot of reform. We've done more in the last year in terms of police policy than we've done in 30 years, combined," says Hardin.

Hardin says the city banned no-knock warrants, where police enter unannounced. It set up a registry to screen for officers involved in hate groups. Hardin's especially proud of a new police unit composed of teams that include people with psychological training to respond to and de-escalate delicate situations.

Hardin also points to a ballot initiative to create a civilian review board that would provide oversight and accountability, with subpoena power.

Columbus voters approved it with almost 75% of the vote. The city takes a major step toward establishing that board Monday when it is scheduled to finalize the first slate of board members.

But Ayres says a bolder move is in order.

"We want the Department of Justice to investigate the Columbus police department," says Ayres. "It's clear that after a decade of disproportionately killing Black and brown people, that they're not going to fix it."

And since a bunch of activists asking for a Justice Department probe doesn't necessarily carry all that much weight, Ayres wants the city to officially invite the federal scrutiny.

"The Department of Justice just went into Minneapolis. They can come into Columbus and we need [the city] to make that phone call," says Ayres.

That kind of phone call can be a hard one for a politician to make, even a reformer like Hardin. The council president wouldn't say where he stands on a Justice Department investigation, though he said he'd welcome tougher federal guidelines on local police department policies and transparency.

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Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.