Before he began his formal training as a police officer in 1970, James Moss said he witnessed racial discrimination in the Columbus Division of Police.
Initially, Moss was assigned to go undercover and monitor a Black militant group to determine if the organization was a threat to the community. In the course of a few months, Moss found no cause for alarm. Yet three weeks after he left that assignment, officers raided the group, a move Moss suspected was driven by race.
From then on, Moss couldn’t and wouldn’t keep quiet about allegations of racism within the department.
He joined Police Officers for Equal Rights (POER) and later became its president. He sued for access to police records and won. He testified in a successful class-action discrimination lawsuit against the division. He publicly labeled specific officers as racist. He went to Downtown bus stops and gathered hundreds of citizen accounts of police misconduct. He trekked to Washington, D.C., multiple times to make his case before the U.S. Department of Justice. He received death threats and slept with a loaded firearm next to his bed.
Moss cried tears of relief when the DOJ eventually opened a civil rights investigation into Columbus in the late 1990s. But by the time the Justice Department left town in 2002, he felt wholly unsatisfied, and still does today.
“All those interviews, all those trips I took to Washington, all the videotapes. ... Those citizens were denied their due process in court,” said Moss, who's now 72 and lives in Fayetteville, Georgia, outside of Atlanta. “The things that the police department is charged with now are the same things they were charged with back in 1999. Nothing changed.”
Nearly 19 years after local and federal officials left Moss and others disappointed, the Justice Department is coming back to Columbus.
The DOJ returns to the city amid high-profile incidents of police shootings, community unrest, protests against police and a record-high homicide rate. Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther publicly called out “a culture of racism and discrimination” within the city’s police division.
This time, the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, will work with Columbus police in a process that officials described as voluntary, collaborative and transparent.
Ginther said the DOJ's COPS arm provides resources to reduce crime and build trust between law enforcement and communities. "This is not about one particular officer, policy, or incident," Ginther said in September as he announced the new partnership between the city and the Justice Department. "Rather, this is about reforming the entire institution of policing in Columbus."
But some who remember what happened at the turn of the century are already skeptical about whether the DOJ’s return will lead to meaningful change within the city’s police force.
In the fall of 1999, the DOJ filed suit against the city, and in 2002, under Mayor Michael B. Coleman, the city negotiated a dismissal of the lawsuit instead of entering into a consent decree, an enforceable, court-approved agreement the Justice Department uses as a vehicle for police reform. The move remains controversial.
Moss, POER, and the similar-minded Columbus Police Accountability Project (CPAP) point to the lack of a consent decree as a failure with lingering repercussions. Coleman and former City Attorney Janet Jackson, on the other hand, say the suit’s dismissal was a diplomatic victory that effected change while keeping the city out of court. When the DOJ left Columbus in 2002, city leaders called it a “great end to a historic piece of litigation” and said “the cloud has been lifted.”
Today, local leaders insist the city has made progress in police reform, but Ginther and City Attorney Zach Klein said those efforts have been met with “fierce opposition” from within the police division.
In April, Ginther and Klein invited the DOJ back to review operations within the police division, spelling out their plea in a letter to federal officials. To Moss, it is a familiar one: “We need to change the culture of the Columbus Division of Police.”
When the Department of Justice first came to town
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 gave the Justice Department authority to compel police reform by investigating and suing departments over alleged patterns of civil rights violations. Columbus was the third city to land in the DOJ’s crosshairs, preceded by Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio. While both of those cities reached consent decrees, Columbus hit a roadblock with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 9 (FOP), the local police union.
In the course of the DOJ’s Moss-prompted civil rights investigation, the federal government determined that Columbus police officers were “engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, making false arrests and lodging false charges, and conducting improper searches and seizures,” wrote Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee in July of 1998.
The letter threatened a civil suit but said the DOJ would be willing to defer court action if the city wanted to negotiate a consent decree. So from the summer of 1998 to the fall of 1999, Mayor Greg Lashutka’s administration, including Safety Director Tom Rice and City Attorney Jackson, negotiated with the FOP and DOJ. “I was interested in pursuing discussions that might lead to a consent decree,” said Lashutka.
At a press conference in August of 1999, Lashutka and Janet Jackson presented a 48-page draft of an agreement that could have prevented a lawsuit, but the proposal called for an independent monitor to oversee the division and two auditors to evaluate staffing and training, which required changes to the FOP contract that the union was unwilling to make.
So on Oct. 21, 1999, the Justice Department brought a lawsuit against Columbus, reiterating the allegations laid out in the 1998 letter (and, in June of 2000, adding a racial profiling complaint). The court filing said the city “has tolerated this conduct through its failure to adequately train, supervise and monitor police officers, and its failure to adequately accept citizen complaints of misconduct, investigate alleged misconduct, and discipline officers who are guilty of misconduct.”
Less than a week later, FOP Lodge No. 9, represented by attorney James Phillips, signed on as a co-defendant with the city. “Their main thing was not to have a consent decree,” said Janet Jackson, who is now the chair of the city’s new Civilian Review Board, which will investigate allegations of police misconduct. “It was very challenging.”
"Phillips was of the somewhat correct view, from a union perspective, of, ‘Look, the DOJ and the executive of the city can't just negotiate an agreement, because the union is the one that has to carry it out,’” said Robert Driscoll, a deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division from 2001 to 2003.
Local politics complicated matters further. A few months after the DOJ filed the lawsuit, Lashutka, a Republican, passed the mayoral baton to Coleman, a Democrat and former City Council president, who took a different approach. “Greg wanted the case resolved through a settlement, and maybe through a consent decree,” Jackson said. “Michael definitely did not want a consent decree.”
“Frankly, I had hoped that by the time I took over as mayor that it would have been settled,” said Coleman, noting that the FOP’s involvement “changed the game totally.” “Since they were part of the case, the option of a consent decree was just not available by the time I became mayor. I wanted to address the issues that the DOJ raised and the community raised by any means necessary, and that was taken off the table.”
Coleman and Jackson found themselves in a strange position. On many issues, they were aligned with the entity suing them (the DOJ) and at odds with their own co-defendant (the FOP). “I asked myself, ‘How many times do you have to be against the wall before you figure out that the best thing to do is to go around the wall to get a good result?” Coleman said.
To get the desired outcome — meaningful changes to the police department without a years-long court battle and FOP interference — Coleman said he asked his new safety director, Mitchell Brown, to implement a slate of police reforms.
“We set out what I called the ‘Mitch memo,’ which identified all the issues the DOJ was raising and the community was raising. We listed them point by point by point and gave it to Mitch,” Coleman said. (Brown, who will retire from City Council at the end of the year, declined to comment for this story.)
“We worked with Mitch behind the scenes to accomplish (the changes), and frankly, I used the DOJ issues as leverage to get things done within the department,” Coleman said.
Coleman also quietly began flying back and forth from Columbus to Washington, D.C. “It was heavy lifting over a long period of time, having conversations with the DOJ out of court,” Coleman said.
National politics were at play, as well. While the turn of the century saw Columbus move from Republican to Democratic leadership, the White House transitioned from a Democrat, Bill Clinton, to a Republican, George W. Bush, whose attorney general, John Ashcroft, wasn’t keen on consent decrees.
“I remember we wanted to get rid of Columbus,” Driscoll said. “Because of the Clinton administration before us, among the police and police unions, the term ‘consent decree’ was like poison. … We were in an era where Ashcroft wanted us to try to do memorandums of understanding more than straight-up consent decrees.”
For police, it was not just a dismissal; it was a victory and an exoneration. “We have won because … the allegations are not true,” then-police chief James Jackson told The Dispatch in September 2001. “We knew we had done nothing wrong. The Columbus Division of Police has been vindicated.”
In his letter to the DOJ, Coleman touted reforms such as making racial profiling a criminal offense; installing video and audio recorders in police cruisers; revising use of force procedures; and reworking the way the department handles citizen complaints, including plans to move the Internal Affairs Bureau into a separate facility. (The ensuing agreement also allowed the DOJ to review police procedures through the end of 2003.)
“Those things at the time were very progressive,” Coleman said. “And we didn't have to have the FOP sign anything because it was out of court.”
James Moss, though, was left with a list of unfulfilled police reforms. He and POER attorney John Waddy had met with the Justice Department and listed what they wanted in a consent decree, Moss said, including cameras on marked and unmarked cars, a civilian review board with subpoena power and other reforms that never materialized.
Two decades later, the Justice Department returns
On April 27, following the fatal police shootings of Ma’Khia Bryant and Andre Hill, Mayor Ginther and City Attorney Klein invited DOJ officials to review Columbus police operations, asking that they identify “any and all racial biases in policing efforts” and offer findings and solutions for reform. On Sept. 9, Columbus officials announced the DOJ had accepted the invitation to review the city’s police department.
But federal involvement will look different this time around.
Columbus officials have noted that they invited the DOJ proactively. “It's important to remember that City Attorney Klein and I asked for the DOJ’s involvement, whether that be a past practice investigation or potential technical assistance through the COPS office, and the response they gave to us is this engagement with the COPS office,” Ginther said. “At any point, the attorney general and the Department of Justice could make a different decision, but that ultimately is up to them.”
Unlike 20 years ago, when the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division opened inquiries into the patterns and practices of police, the city and its police force are not under federal investigation.
Instead, Columbus is working with the COPS office on what local and federal officials call “collaborative reform.” But exactly what that work will look like, and whether it can drive meaningful change, remains to be seen.
Driscoll, the former DOJ official, described the COPS office approach as a milder federal review. “It's a way to do, essentially, a soft pattern and practice (investigation),” he said. “It's providing technical assistance and money and not necessarily finding civil rights violations or the negative consequences of having a pattern and practice (investigation).”
In her role as executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute, Christine Cole worked closely with the COPS office from 2014 to early 2017 under President Barack Obama’s administration. At that time, Cole said, the COPS office worked with agencies that were actively seeking support, or, in some cases, were on the radar of the Civil Rights Division.
During the Obama administration, Cole said the Civil Rights Division “would sometimes encourage police departments to go to the COPS office, either because of the nature of the issue or because the Civil Rights Division was not in a position to take on more cases.”
Since its inception in 1994 to support police hiring and training, the work of the COPS office has evolved with different administrations. Under President Donald Trump, the Department of Justice took a hands-off approach to police reform, abandoning most civil rights investigations as well as the COPS office’s collaborative reform approach.
Columbus will be the first jurisdiction to undergo this type of collaborative review in recent years, according to a COPS official who declined to be named.
The work will not be an investigatory review of any single case or series of cases involving Columbus police, the official said. Instead, it’s a broader assessment of the Columbus police organization, focusing on certain areas identified by new Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant.
The COPS office, with the help of independent subject matter experts, will analyze and assess areas identified by Bryant for improvement, including: use of force training, de-escalation, recruiting, diversity, bias-based policing, early intervention systems for officers, use of technology, staffing and community relations.
The COPS office will communicate with departments within the police division, civilian and sworn law enforcement employees, and community stakeholders. Their work could include reviewing previous cases, police policies and training, as well as analyzing police data, including staffing and technology data.
But federal and local officials have offered few specifics about the scope of that work or the expected outcomes.
Under the Obama administration, the COPS office conducted collaborative reform work with several city police departments. Those reviews often resulted in 100-page reports with specific recommendations for change. Some of those recommendations included prohibiting the carotid restraint, or chokehold, as a use of force option; auditing arrest and use of force data monthly to ensure proper recording; and implementing stricter rules for shooting at vehicles.
Because the Obama-era collaborative reform reviews ended abruptly under the Trump administration, there aren’t any recent blueprints for how the relationship between the COPS office and Columbus might play out. But collaborative reform efforts went a variety of ways for cities that participated in the COPS process between 2012 and 2017.
Following collaborative reform between the COPS office and Las Vegas from 2012 to 2014, the city's police made notable progress in reducing its number of officer-involved shootings, and improved de-escalation, according to a report by the Crime and Justice Institute and co-authored by Cole.
Local leaders in Milwaukee clashed with federal officials over details of a draft report from its COPS review that found the city's police failed the community and its own officers by not communicating clearly, making too many traffic stops and applying inconsistent standards when disciplining officers, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. That review process was halted in 2017 when the DOJ shifted its federal programs.
According to one COPS office source, federal officials under Biden don’t plan to replicate those types of reports, and they won’t say for sure what final form their review and recommendations will take or how progress will be measured.
Unlike in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the FOP doesn’t expect to play a prominent role in the DOJ’s work. In fact, local police officers aren’t sure what to expect this time around, said FOP Capital City Lodge No. 9 President Keith Ferrell, noting that he didn’t know much about the COPS process beyond what he heard during the September press conference when local officials announced the collaboration.
“I think there’s just a lot of unknowns on our end on what that means and what the city wants out of that,” he said.
Better for reform: consent decree or Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office?
Some community members, advocates, and faith leaders have criticized the current DOJ involvement via the COPS office, saying it won’t lead to real change and lacks the teeth of Civil Rights Division investigations that often lead to consent decrees.
More than 100 local faith leaders signed a petition in September asking the DOJ for a pattern and practice investigation. The Columbus Police Accountability Project has called for the same, with attorney and CPAP co-founder Sean Walton calling the planned COPS office review an “egregious misstep and missed opportunity.”
CPAP’s Jon Beard said the group is currently taking testimony from community members in much the same way James Moss did back in the ’90s. CPAP will submit the complaints to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in hopes of kickstarting a new investigation and consent decree with court oversight.
Tyrone Thomas, a local member of Police Officers for Equal Rights, is similarly unconvinced by the idea of a COPS review. “It might tell the department how to look good, but that won't make them good,” he said.
But some local leaders and others within law enforcement and criminal justice circles say the collaborative reform approach is worth a try. For one, Cole of the Crime and Justice Institute said consent decrees are often onerous and expensive, explaining that litigation and negotiations can pull police and city employees from their regular work, and cities under a consent decree must hire a federal monitor, often with a monitoring team, which can cost millions.
“You want to start with the least invasive, least expensive (option) first,” Cole said. “If that doesn’t work, then make more noise. If you can get the same result or a comparable result with less pain and less money to the people who pay taxes, why not try that?”
It’s rare that a COPS office review leads to a civil rights investigation or consent decree, but not impossible. Baltimore's police department was in the initial stages of the collaborative reform process with the COPS office in April 2015 when Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, died after he sustained neck and spinal injuries in police custody.
Following community unrest and requests from local leaders and federal lawmakers, the DOJ's Civil Rights Division opened an investigation into Baltimore police. The city and Justice Department later entered into a consent decree in 2017.
In announcing the partnership with COPS in November, Ginther said he didn’t expect the current DOJ involvement to lead to a consent decree.
Even if a consent decree were to occur in Columbus, the accompanying oversight can sometimes create more conflict. In Seattle, for example, a federal monitor who arrived in 2012 angered city officials, police leaders and activists and ended up stepping down last fall.
Unlike a consent decree, the collaborative reform model with the COPS office might lead to more buy-in from law enforcement and local leaders, said San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, who has led that department as it worked to implement 270 recommendations following a COPS office review in 2016.
“You don’t engage in these agreements if you’re not willing to acknowledge that you need to improve,” he said.
Even in a DOJ civil rights investigation, Scott said the results can depend on the police department’s attitude. “Do you really embrace the fact that you need to change?” he said. “Or are you going to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, saying, ‘We’re being forced to do this, but we don’t need it?’ That makes all the difference in the world.”