COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Police in Ohio’s capital city ran “amok” last year when responding to demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality by using physical violence, tear gas and pepper spray against protestors without provocation, a federal judge said Friday in a ruling ordering officers to approach such scenarios differently.
Most participants were peacefully protesting or observing when they fell victim to such nonlethal responses by officers, with “a mountain of evidence” that protesters were targeted while trying to follow police orders to leave the demonstrations, said Judge Algenon Marbley.
His 88-page opinion ordered police to stop using such tactics on nonviolent protesters who aren’t harming people or destroying property. Marbley also said police can’t inflict pain to punish or deter protesters, and must ensure body-worn and cruiser cameras are working and badge numbers are visible even when officers are wearing riot gear.
He also said individuals clearly identifying themselves as reporters, medics or legal observers must be allowed to record protests and help injured people.
“This case is the sad tale of police officers, clothed with the awesome power of the state, run amok,” Marbley wrote.
The city opposed had the lawsuit, arguing that the police department has since changed its policies to implement most of what the protesters who sued had demanded.
But elected officials have also been continuously critical of the 1,900-officer police department. Earlier this week, Mayor Andrew Ginther and City Attorney Zach Klein — both Democrats — invited the Justice Department to review the police department for “deficiencies and racial disparities” in recruitment, hiring and use of force, among other categories.
“We need to change the culture of the Columbus Division of Police,” the letter said, echoing language Ginther has used for years. More recently, the mayor has said the division’s next police chief must be a “change agent” who will come from outside the department.
“Last summer, the city was faced with extraordinary circumstances not seen in more than two decades,” Ginther said in a Friday statement. “Today’s ruling tells us we fell short in our response.” Subsequent protests that took place without confrontation illustrate the city’s commitment to the types of changes the judge ordered, he said.
Marbley’s order underscores the need for the federal review and reflects the city’s belief that, “non-violent, peaceful protesters must be respected, and unnecessary and excessive force must not be used against them,” Klein said in a statement.
In January, interim Columbus Chief Thomas Quinlan was forced out after Ginther said he’d lost confidence in the chief’s ability to make needed changes.
At issue in the federal lawsuit was the city’s response to protests that began in late May after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who last week was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Columbus protests lasted multiple days downtown, near Ohio State University, and across other parts of the city. The first night, protesters smashed windows at the Ohio Statehouse and at businesses throughout downtown.
In a separate episode, U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty was hit by pepper spray as scuffles broke out near the end of a May demonstration.
On Monday, a newly released report found that Columbus was unprepared for the size and energy of the protests and that most police officers felt abandoned by city leadership during that time. The $250,000 report, commissioned by Columbus city council, also found the city had no advance plan for handling such protests, and suffered from a lack of coordination and even regular communication among city leaders once the protests began.
Marbley’s order stems from a federal lawsuit filed in July on behalf of more than two dozen protesters seeking monetary damages for injuries sustained in clashes with police after Floyd’s death. A multi-day hearing was held before Marbley earlier this year.
The lawsuit describes peaceful demonstrators and bystanders being beaten, fired on with wooden and rubber bullets, and unlawfully arrested during protests in late May and June.
Lead plaintiff Tammy Fournier Alsaada, a community activist, was pepper-sprayed without provocation after receiving permission to walk through a line of police to discuss the arrests of some protesters, the lawsuit said.
Another plaintiff, Terry Hubby Jr., testified that he joined a May 29 protest and was struck by a nonlethal police projectile that shattered his knee, requiring surgery and the insertion of 20 pins and a plate. Video of the incident revealed that officers fired the projectiles while a police loud system issued an order to disperse.
“In other words, there was no time for protesters to react,” Marbley said.
Police also testified before Marbley about facing chaotic and threatening situations.
“People were walking up to us with bottles and opening them and throwing, like, unknown liquids on us, yelling in our face,” Officer Anthony Johnson said, according to court documents.
Overall, the evidence showed that police overreacted, Marbley found.
“The video and testimonial evidence presented by Plaintiffs suggests that police have used physical violence, tear gas, and pepper spray against peaceful protestors without provocation, and city officials have done nothing or not enough to condemn and correct these actions,” the judge said.