Columbus police trail only Chicago in fatal shootings of juveniles since 2013
The death of 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant on April 20 put the Columbus Division of Police in an unsettling position among the nation's law-enforcement agencies.
Ma'Khia was the fifth juvenile to be fatally shot by Columbus police since September 2016, when an officer shot 13-year-old Tyre King.
Only the Chicago Police Department has killed more juveniles — 12 — since the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence began tracking fatal uses of force by law-enforcement agencies back to 2013.
Columbus police are tied for second place with the New York City Police Department, whose officers also fatally shot five juveniles during the study period.
Get the details: The list of 5 juveniles killed by Columbus police since 2016
In fact, more juveniles have been killed by Columbus police since 2013 than have died at the hands of law enforcement in 40 states, according to the data. (Columbus police didn't kill any juveniles from 2013-2015.)
Peter Scharf, co-author of "The Badge and the Bullet: Police Use of Deadly Force," said factors beyond raw numbers are needed to properly compare fatal shootings of juveniles by different law-enforcement agencies.
"The first thing to think about is controlling for population. Columbus is roughly a third the size of Chicago," said Scharf, a criminologist and professor in the Louisiana State University School of Medical who has become one of the nation's leading authorities on fatal shootings by police officers.
On its face, Scharf said, it's troubling to see Columbus police statistics in this category equaling or exceeding those of law-enforcement agencies in cities with much larger populations.
Yet the findings perhaps aren't surprising given that Franklin County has one of the highest overall rates of fatal police shootings in Ohio and is among the highest in the nation, according to a study conducted by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health and Ohio University.
In Ohio, only two other law-enforcement agencies have had fatal shootings of juveniles since 2013. A Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, and a Franklin County Sheriff's deputy killed 16-year-old Joseph Haynes during a scuffle outside a courtroom in the Juvenile Court building in 2018.
Thus, six of Ohio's seven fatal law-enforcement shootings of juveniles since data tracking began in 2013 occurred in Columbus.
Are Columbus police learning from shootings?
Scharf said one of the biggest questions he has about the statistic for Columbus police is, "Have there been missed opportunities to learn from these incidents?"
For instance, Cleveland police haven't killed a juvenile since the Rice shooting in 2014. New York City police killed four juveniles in 2013, but one since then, in 2017, according to the Mapping Police Violence data.
"The question to ask Columbus police is, are their officers being trained in the realities of dealing with youthful offenders?" he said. "Did they adjust their training to the high incidence of fatal encounters with juveniles?
"There's a whole field of study on the adolescent brain and how impulsive and erratic young people can be. Encountering adolescents is different than encountering adults in these situations. It requires specialized training to handle these kids."
Programs for police include Crisis Intervention Team training that deals specifically with handling adolescents experiencing a behavioral-health crisis, which is provided through the National Center for Youth Opportunity and Justice, he said.
"If I were a chief, I'd invest every training dollar I could in developing skill sets and knowledge that could avoid these kinds of situations," Scharf said.
With the Ma'Khia Bryant case still under investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations, Columbus police and Mayor Andrew J. Ginther's office are declining to answer questions directly related to fatal juvenile shootings by the city's officers.
A police spokesman would confirm only that the Mapping Police Violence data for the city is accurate.
Of the five juvenile deaths since 2016, Franklin County grand juries declined to indict officers in the first three. Ma'Khia Bryant's death and the shooting of 17-year-old Joseph Jewell by three SWAT officers in February 2020 remain under investigation.
Role of overall juvenile violence in shootings
In each of the five cases, the juveniles were armed. Ma'Khia Bryant, a Black female, was swinging a knife at a young Black woman when Bryant was shot by a white officer, police body camera shows.
The other four, all Black males, had guns, although the one carried by Tyre King turned out to be a BB gun. In two of the other cases, police said the juveniles were committing armed robberies when they were shot. In the fourth, Jewell allegedly fired at officers who tried to arrest him on a warrant for delinquency murder.
The violent behavior that officers encountered in each situation led Scharf to suggest that analyzing such shootings from one city to the next should include a look into the level of juvenile violence in a community and how frequently its officers have high-risk interactions with juveniles.
"For whatever reason, do police in Columbus have more high-risk encounters with juveniles than in other places?" he said.
The police division's annual use-of-force reports don't help in that regard, because they don't break out the incidents involving juveniles.
But statistics show that juvenile violence is a significant issue in Columbus.
Of the record 174 homicide victims in the city in 2020, 23, or just over 13%, were juveniles, according to police statistics. Of the 102 suspects identified by police in the cases,14 or nearly 14% were juveniles.
Franklin County teenagers often accessing guns too easily
Guns also are increasingly being found in the hands of youths in Franklin County.
In 2020, the 82 delinquency charges of carrying a concealed weapon and the 66 delinquency charges of mishandling a firearm in a motor vehicle filed against juveniles were the highest total in each category in the past decade, according to statistics obtained from Franklin County Juvenile Court.
"The more access juveniles have to guns, the more danger there is for them and everyone around them," said Christopher Clark, chief counsel for the juvenile division of the Franklin County prosecutor's office.
In 2020, four juveniles were charged with reckless homicide for accidentally killing someone with a gun, he said. One such delinquency charge was filed in 2019 and none in the previous three years.
"All of them were kids playing with guns," said Clark, who thinks the rise in those tragedies is directly related to the statistics showing an increase in juvenile possession of guns.
Cmdr. Robert Strausbaugh, who runs the Columbus Division of Police major crimes bureau, which includes dealing with gun crimes, said the statistic that alarmed him the most was the rise in cases of juveniles charged with improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle.
The 66 delinquency charges for that offense were far above the previous high for the decade of 41 in 2018.
Strausbaugh wasn't as surprised by the record number of delinquency concealed-carry charges in 2020, given that it occurred during a record year for homicides in the city.
"I just know that those 82 guns that were taken from juveniles are guns that won't be used in a felonious assault or a homicide," he said.
Dispatch researcher Julie Fulton contributed to this story.