Judge orders Columbus police to alter tactics for protests

The preliminary injunction bars officers' use of tear gas, pepper spray, wooden bullets and other less-lethal options


By Marc Kovac
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal judge in Columbus granted a preliminary injunction Friday against Columbus Police, barring officers' use of tear gas, pepper spray, wooden bullets and other so-called "non-lethal force" against nonviolent protesters.

In a decision favoring 26 protesters who alleged they were brutalized by officers during demonstrations last year, Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley wrote that "some of the members of the Columbus Police Department had no regard for the rights secured by this bedrock principle of American democracy. This case is the sad tale of police officers, clothed with the awesome power of the state, run amok."

In this May 29, 2020 file photo, police officers stand together, as people protest in downtown Columbus, Ohio, over the death of George Floyd in police custody Monday in Minneapolis.
In this May 29, 2020 file photo, police officers stand together, as people protest in downtown Columbus, Ohio, over the death of George Floyd in police custody Monday in Minneapolis. (Barbara J. Perenic/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

The protesters sued the city in U.S. District Court in Columbus, alleging they were brutalized by Columbus police during protests following the May 25, death of George Floyd last year at the hands of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, who was recently convicted of murder in the case.

Racial injustice protests over Floyd's death began in Columbus on May 28 and continued into June and July. Plaintiffs said in court filings that they were “dedicated to nonviolent protest, including civil disobedience of traffic, parade and mass-gathering regulations to generate urgent widespread public attention to the historic and continuing police violence directed overwhelmingly at communities and people of color condoned by mostly white police supervisors and administrators,” according to documents.

Much of the118-page amended complaint, filed in September, described in detail incidents of what the plaintiffs say was police brutality against nonviolent protesters. The filing included photos of bloody gashes, broken bones and large bruises caused by wooden bullets or from protesters being thrown to the ground by officers, plaintiffs alleged.

Attorneys for the officers and other defendants countered that the city supports peaceful and lawful protest and already “prohibits unjust or prejudicial treatment based on race or color as well as the use of excessive or punitive force.”

They reiterated in court filings policies and procedures in place to protect and prioritize citizens’ right to “peacefully and lawfully protest” that “prohibit police from retaliating against protesters based on their speech and from using excessive and punitive force.”

They also noted that the city has revised policies, including changes to the city code and charter, to address issues raised in the lawsuit and that “sizable protests pertaining to allegations of police brutality” have taken place in Columbus “with no uses of force at all.”

Plaintiffs asked the court to issue an injunction barring Columbus Police from using pepper spray, wooden bullets and other non-lethal weapons against nonviolent protesters, plus compensation for how they were treated by officers.

Similar lawsuits were filed elsewhere. A federal judge restricted Los Angeles police from using projectile launchers against protesters. A similar decision was issued by a federal judge in Oregon.

More than 800 complaints related to police actions during the Columbus protests were submitted to the city. A subsequent investigation by BakerHostetler, the local law firm hired by the city, resulted in 49 reports, though only eight involved sustained allegations and one resulted in discipline. That officer was given documented counseling for not filing the proper paperwork.

The city also hired a retired FBI agent to investigate any potential criminal misconduct by officers during last year’s protests. To date, no charges have been filed.

Additionally, the city commissioned a $250,000 review of police response during last year’s protests by former U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University and offer recommendations for improvement.

(c)2021 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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