The Other Columbus: A step in the right direction is not change

Scott Woods
Former Columbus Police Chief Thomas Quinlan

When the announcement had been made that former police Chief Thomas Quinlan was stepping aside (not down or away, just to the right a little), I received a call from a reporter almost immediately. I was out shopping when it happened, so I hadn’t had an opportunity to investigate the announcement. The reporter wanted to get a comment about my thoughts on the matter, and after making clear I hadn’t read anything yet, I said, “Well, it’s a step in the right direction, but…”

...and it doesn’t really matter what else I said after that because I shouldn’t have said that much.

I derive no pleasure, nor does my ego receive a swipe of burnishment, from criticizing anyone’s perception of social change. I do not enjoy being cast as Boom Boom Storm Cloud when political moves are brought to the table and I find them wanting. But let’s be clear: “A step in the right direction” is the kind of thing someone who doesn’t understand what the stakes are says.

Police being empowered to take lives at will without repercussion is not how policing should work for anyone in any community, and yet that is the reality. And as no one is requesting that police kill more non-Black people to balance the books, it seems a good time to point out that a step in the right direction doesn’t change the statistical likelihood that the problem will happen again.

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Columbus City Council recently voted to enact Andre’s Law, named after Andre Hill, who was killed by Columbus police officer Adam Coy in December while standing in a garage with a phonethe second killing of an unarmed Black man that month in Columbus. The new law is a procedural reform that states that officers must turn on body cameras whenever they engage in “enforcement actions,” which is pretty much anytime most of us engage the police: traffic stops, arrests and other situations that could be construed as adversarial. The law also stipulates that first aid must be rendered after a use-of-force incident. If officers don’t do either of these things like they failed to do with Andre Hill they could be disciplined.

It’s what everyone is calling a step in the right direction. And while that’s technically true, it’s not enough. And everyone is saying that, too, which should be a good thing, but isn’t. And it isn’t because you can’t cut lawmakers or police any slack on affecting real change. This isn’t an issue for which gradualism is suited.

What this law demands is what most people thought was already part of the regular duties of a police officer. No one who isn’t a cop assumed that first aid was optional after a shooting. No one who isn’t a cop thought that body cams should be off whenever a gun was pulled.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that the law doesn’t fix the actual problem.

Andre’s law isn’t change, or rather, it is change the way finally scrubbing the dirty saucepan you’ve been play-soaking all week in the sink is change. By all accounts, Coy should have lost his job a dozen incident reports ago, or when he was bashing someone in the head and the last chief of police considered a stern talking-to an appropriate punishment. Andre’s Law doesn’t prevent what happened to Andre Hill. What it does is establish grounds upon which an officer who does what Coy did can be more effectively punished.

Despite cries for people’s jobs on the heels of a police killing, proponents of police reform, defunding or abolishment are not seeking a better mousetrap. It’s not my job to be happy with incrementalism in the face of the state’s freedom to kill me at will. I would much rather decrease my chances of being killed than hope someone loses their job for having ended my awesome life. 

When a “step in the right direction” doesn’t change the outcome of the actual problem if it does not stop people being killed by police then that action isn’t change.