Three police officers in Columbus, Ohio, face criminal charges for their conduct during protests against the death of George Floyd last year, when police in cities across the United States frequently used force to break up protests.
Nationwide protests have sparked accusations of police misconduct in many US cities. But in only a few – notably New York, Philadelphia and Buffalo, NY – officers have been charged with crimes, and officers in Philadelphia and Buffalo have subsequently been exonerated. In Columbus, the city last year ordered a special prosecutor and an independent investigator to assess complaints of police misconduct during protests there.
This led to the announcement on Wednesday that three officers had been charged. The police department mentionned the officers had been assigned to administrative tasks pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
Traci Shaw, an officer, was charged with three counts each of assault, dereliction of duty and violation of civil rights in connection with a demonstration on May 30, 2020, five days after Mr. Floyd was killed in custody at sight in Minneapolis.
Constable Shaw was charged with leaving his police vehicle, approaching people on a sidewalk and spraying them with pepper. A woman told investigators that she and others who had been sprayed “did not provoke the officer at all,” according to a complaint. The woman said she told Constable Shaw they were walking home.
Holly Kanode, a sergeant, has been charged with one count of forgery and dereliction of duty. While assisting in the arrest of a woman on May 30, 2020, she was heard in body camera footage telling an officer that the woman grabbed another officer and threw him to the ground. But body camera footage and other video submitted to the city showed no such assault, according to the complaint.
Phillip Walls, an officer, has been charged with two counts of assault, dereliction of duty and violation of civil rights. On May 29, 2020, he pepper-sprayed “peaceful protesters” standing on a sidewalk, including an “unknown older black woman” who had previously been pepper-sprayed, according to a complaint. He then pepper sprayed the woman again, as well as another woman who was trying to help him leave, according to the complaint.
“We will continue to work to identify other officers who may have been at fault,” Special prosecutor Kathleen Garber said in a statement.
Mark C. Collins, a lawyer whose firm represents the three officers, said in an interview that they intended to plead not guilty and that “we will fight tooth and nail at the trial.”
He said the officers acted within the scope of their duties on the basis of their orders, that the charges were motivated in large part by the money spent on the investigation and that senior police officials were escaping their responsibility. .
“Instead of approaching it from the top down, they just made people scapegoats from the bottom,” he said.
The city of Columbus has used Sergeant Shaw as an expert to testify in federal court on the use of force, and she teaches at the police academy, Collins said.
Jeff Simpson, executive vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No.9, said in a statement that “after consultation with our Lodge attorney, we believe the officers have acted in a manner that appropriate, within the scope of their duties ”.
“Our officers are among the best trained in the country and we welcome the responsibility that comes with our work,” said Mr. Simpson. “Columbus police officers who have been charged with tortious misconduct have a constitutional right to due process and are presumed innocent until proven guilty. “
Charges against the officers were filed while the Columbus Police Department is under surveillance after four fatal police shootings against blacks from December through April. Each has led to intense protests, including one on April 12 in which protesters forced open a door at police headquarters.
Although nearly 30 percent of Columbus’ residents are black, 85 percent of the police force is white. Yet just over half of all use of force cases in 2017, the most recent year studied, were against black residents, according to an operational review.
Andrew Ginther, the mayor of Columbus, said in a statement that the department’s response to the George Floyd protests “did not meet my expectations or those of the community.”
“The point is that some Columbus police have acted outside of politics, abused their authority and may have committed crimes,” he said in the statement. “That’s why we hired independent investigators to determine whether criminal charges should be laid, and today we have the answer. Officers who break the law should expect to be held accountable. “