New chief faces possible DOJ probe, community distrust
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The new Columbus police chief is no stranger to federal oversight. In Elaine Bryant’s last job as deputy chief of Detroit police, the department was under a consent decree for more than a dozen years — the majority of her career.
So as the first Black woman to hold the post in Ohio’s capital city awaits the Department of Justice’s decision of whether to review the force, Bryant is starting to make changes of her own.
Should the government intervene in the agency, “I’m ready for it,” Bryant told The Associated Press. “If it doesn’t come, I’m ready to push this department forward and still manage to make the changes that I believe are necessary.”
Bryant’s selection in June is part of historic changes underway at the police department in Ohio’s largest city. In April, city leaders requested a Justice Department investigation of patterns and practices in the force that may have violated Black residents’ civil rights, saying that despite some progress, the city needs additional help because of “fierce opposition” to reform within the ranks.
The first priority on Bryant’s list is addressing the unprecedented increase in crime and homicides the city is facing. Since January, the city has seen 116 homicides, on track to surpass the previous annual record of 175 in 2020.
But the current spike is not unique to Columbus or Ohio. Other major cities around the U.S. are also on track to outpace last year’s homicide rate.
What this looks like on the ground is a collision of tensions arising from the anti-police sentiment in the wake of George Floyd’s killing last summer with the urgent need for public safety while a record number of officers are leaving the field.
But Bryant doesn’t see reforming the system and “humanizing the badge,” as conflicting objectives.
It is important for the community to have “interactions with police officers that are positive, that don’t always include a police-run,” Bryant said. “It shouldn’t be an interaction that was based on just something tragic happening.”
But when those interactions are negative, the new chief will not hesitate to call out officers for wrongdoing.
“I’m going to hold them to a high standard of excellence and I’m going to support them. But when they do wrong, I’m going to hold them accountable for that as well,” she added.
She made good on the former promise on Saturday, the day after a white officer on special duty and a store clerk tried to restrain a Black customer. A witness filmed the encounter in a widely-circulated video in which a bystander could be heard saying the man was doing nothing wrong. Bryant responded quickly saying the video does not show the whole story and that the officer “did exactly the right thing.”
Bryant’s statement won praise from the head of the Columbus police union, which has had a rocky relationship with Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther in recent years.
“We need to see more of that, more support, more leadership—is what that is—for these officers,” union president Keith Ferrell said Tuesday. He added: “These officers need to know, that are doing one of the most difficult jobs in this country, that they will be supported when they’re right.”
The city council took a historic step on Monday to redefine its relationship with the police department, approving a three-year contract with the police union that empowers the city’s first civilian police review board and an independent inspector general’s office.
Officers must provide testimony and documents at the investigatory office’s request under threat of discipline up to and including firing, under the agreement. Voters approved the civilian review process in 2020.
The new contract also provides $200,000 buyouts for up to 100 officers with at least 25 years of experience, with a goal of clearing the decks of employees who might not be on board with the department’s new direction. As part of the contract, the city also plans to beef up efforts to recruit new and more diverse officers. New officers could make more than $100,000 annually after three years under the new contract.
“If you’re going to police in the city of Columbus, you have to buy into the vision and leadership of Chief Bryant around change and reform,” Ginther said Monday. He called the new contract for the agency’s 1,900 officers, which also includes a 14% pay raise over three years, the most progressive in city history.
Bryant’s predecessor, Thomas Quinlan, was forced out in January following the uproar over white officer Adam Coy’s fatal shooting of Andre Hill, a 47-year-old Black man, on Dec. 22. Coy was fired and has pleaded not guilty to murder and reckless homicide charges.
Coy’s body camera was not activated but captured the shooting —without audio—thanks to an automatic 60-second lookback feature. The new police union contract extends that lookback feature to two minutes and includes audio.
The agency faced renewed criticism after a white officer shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, on April 20 as the teen charged at a woman with a knife. The national Fraternal Order of Police called the officer’s action “an act of heroism, but one with tragic results.”
Later in April, a federal judge determined that police in Ohio’s capital city ran “amok” last year when responding to demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality by using physical violence, tear gas and pepper spray against protestors without provocation.
Bryant, 48, will earn $230,000 a year. She also brought along a Detroit police official to serve as an assistant chief outside of the normal command structure, a first for the Columbus department after a policy changed pushed by Ginther to give the new chief more leeway to enact changes.
Bryant said she sees this moment in Columbus’ history as one of opportunity.
“Taking this position, I am coming from a city like Detroit where we have a lot of the same issues, a lot of the same concerns,” she said. “But the community has been extremely supportive of the role that I’ve taken on as well as the officers.”
She added, “What they want is someone to lead them.”
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.