The Other Columbus: Police reform is on the ballot, for what it's worth

Scott Woods
Columbus police officers approach a group of protesters blocking Broad and High streets on Monday night, June 15, 2020.

As a likely target for police abuse anywhere in this country, I can admit that a police citizen oversight committee isn’t the worst idea in the world. On the scale of genuine progress one can expect from official channels on the issue, it’s wedged somewhere between actual reform (which will never happen) and civil scolding (which is what has been happening).

Issue 2 is an item on the ballot that would change the city charter to allow for the formation of a Columbus police civilian review board. The proposal wants to make it a permanent fixture of the political landscape, complete with funding, as well as the creation of an Inspector General for the Columbus Division of Police to, according to the campaign’s website, “conduct independent investigations into police misconduct.”

The concept of a citizen oversight committee is sound, which is not to suggest that this single step can generate the needed change at the expense of all other ideas. I, of all people, get that it is not nearly enough in the face of dead bodies, brutal police tactics at otherwise peaceful protests and a nigh-invincible police union. Any oversight body should only be part of a platform of changes.

But it is a step in the right direction in a journey requiring a thousand steps, and one that begs us to manage expectations and recognize where we live. Most boards like this affect absolutely no change, many of them arguably by design. Either the wrong people are installed, or it has no teeth, or it dies on the vine from a lack of support. It is a decent idea often ripe for the wrong kind of political picking when a city wants to quell dissent.

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If it sounds like I’m dumping on the idea of a citizen review board, I am, but only as it applies to what kind of board I believe Columbus is capable of providing. The main ingredient in the success of a board like this is trust, and you don’t have to be an afro-pessimist to note Columbus’ trust well is pretty dry. After all of the backroom deals, tax abatements and low-budget hacks at doing the right thing, it is no wonder that civic trust is a hard thing to come by.

Columbus is really good at talking about what it needs to do. The city is also very good at coming up with just enough money to say it is committed to addressing an issue to technically qualify for a high school debate asking, “What is political action?” (An amount of money that usually comes in at a fraction of what is really needed, meaning Columbus is also really good at justice thrifting.)

Activists have been lobbying for such a board for many years to no avail, so we should all be wary of a city-led initiative to do the work some of us have long been demanding. Officials have even used the language and patina of protest to sell it: The same Bishop Clarkewho chastised protesters to the applause of attendees at the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast is one of the faces of this campaign. I know the pandemic has stretched the space-time continuum a bit, but that travesty of political knee-bending happened only nine months ago. You might want to mix up your representation game if you’re looking for enough good will to pass it (if that is even the intent).

Here’s the thing: If it doesn’t pass, it is an excuse to do more nothing, or to place the blame at the feet of the public. If it passes, the city at least has to be accountable for what it does and does not do with public will. I know, I know: City Hall and the mayor regularly act like they’re listening only to pivot and go another way. And lord knows I have zero faith in police reform from within. But the installation of a board is the seeding of a checks and balances system for not just the police, but the Ginther administration, as well. Sure, they’ll abuse it (at worst) or mess it up (at best), especially out the gate, but we need a gate. And a track and a couple of horses. And something aimed in the direction of justice.