Judge Gary Tyack defeated Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien in last week's election
Although Adrienne Hood voted for former Judge Gary Tyack to defeat Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien in Tuesday’s election, she wasn’t sure the incumbent would actually be unseated.
“It is something that I wanted since my son was killed,” said Hood, of Forest Park, whose 23-year-old African-American son, Henry Green, was fatally shot by Columbus police officers in 2016 in North Linden. Ultimately, a Franklin County grand jury determined that the officers' actions weren't criminal.
To Hood, it seemed O’Brien, a Republican, had more campaign funding and advertising than his opponent. She said she met the news of Democrat Tyack’s eventual win with surprise and excitement.
“It’s really about having someone in there who at least will entertain the (practice) of holding police officers accountable,” she said. “I just think Tyack speaks more of that language. … Black, brown and poor communities suffer enough, and we just have to have a different look at prosecuting.”
But if Tyack follows a recent change in the handling of officer-involved fatal shootings — adopted by O'Brien and endorsed by everyone from Democratic Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine — he won't be prosecuting those cases.
To address perceptions that his office is too deferential to local law enforcement, O'Brien has started turning over all fatal officer-involved shootings in Franklin County to outside prosecutors, either from other counties or the Ohio attorney general's office.
DeWine and Attorney General Dave Yost announced in June, amid protests in Columbus and nationwide about the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, that all such cases should result in independent investigations and be referred to independent prosecutors. They want state legislators to mandate it.
Tyack, who will take office in January, hasn't decided how his office will address fatal officer-involved shootings, but isn't inclined to turn all of them over to outside prosecutors, he told The Dispatch this week.
"That's going to be on a case-by-case basis," he said. "I don't want to automatically shovel police shootings to another prosecutor."
For cases involving Columbus officers, Tyack said he will await recommendations from a civilian review board, the creation of which was approved by the city's voters in Tuesday's election.
O'Brien has long pushed back against accusations that he is somehow protective of abusive officers, a charge that Tyack made during the campaign. But he declined to comment on the suggestion that activists in the Black community are celebrating his defeat.
He also didn't want to predict what kind of changes that might occur after Tyack takes the job.
He stressed that grand jurors who hear cases of fatal officer-involved shootings are guided by standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court, regardless of who is acting as prosecutor.
"The law is the law," he said. "The Supreme Court has set standards for the lawful use of deadly force by police officers. That standard is the same, whether Ron O'Brien is the prosecutor or Gary Tyack is the prosecutor."
The law is very deferential to police officers who use deadly force, protecting them from being second-guessed for split-second decisions in defending themselves and others, even in cases where they were mistaken about whether a suspect was armed.
Although the loss by O'Brien, the longest-serving prosecutor in Franklin County history, was driven primarily by a blue wave that picked off every Republican on the countywide ballot, Black Lives Matter and other progressive groups have actively worked to defeat prosecutors across the country who aren't seen as aggressively pursuing cases of police abuse.
Activists in Columbus are optimistic about the change at the prosecutor’s office, said attorney Sean Walton, who represents Hood and other families of people killed by Columbus police officers, as well as protesters, in pending civil cases against the police division.
“Honestly, (the families) have been overjoyed and that isn’t an exaggeration,” Walton said. “I think that it’s telling, just the impact that the office can have on the entire community, and the fact that there’s, from my perspective, an overwhelming feeling that justice can now truly be served.”
It’s not that cut and dry, according to activists such as Dkeama Alexis, of the Black, Queer & Intersectional Collective. The organization, along with the Columbus Freedom Coalition, made calls to “abolish Columbus police,” laying out 12 demands, which include the resignation of Ginther and the defunding of the police division.
“It’s a complicated celebration,” Alexis said of O’Brien’s loss. “It’s within our objectives to eventually remove not just the institution of policing, but also all of the things that support it. … Removing power from the police would require going after the FOP and the power that they maintain throughout the police department, and the relationships that they have with the mayor and the prosecutor.”
While Alexis doesn’t intend to work with Tyack, the activist views him in a more positive light than O’Brien.
“There are opportunities to pressure (him) into making the change that the people of Columbus want to see,” Alexis added. “It’s definitely more promising than anything Ron O’Brien has ever offered our people.”
Nana Watson, president of the Columbus chapter of the NAACP, was reluctant to critique O'Brien's 24-year tenure as prosecutor. She was comfortable only in saying, "Every elected official can do better in interacting with the Black community."
She was equally reserved about the notion that the new prosecutor will be more effective in responding to concerns from the Black community.
"I really don't have a frame of reference as it relates to Judge Tyack," she said. "I really can't evaluate him. The proof is in the pudding. We shall see."