Columbus mayor vows next police chief will come from outside


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As Columbus confronts a years-in-the-making reckoning over claims of police brutality and racism, its next police chief will be able to hire their own leadership team, a first for the department in Ohio’s capital and largest city.

The assistant chief positions, which could be officers or civilians, will help the new chief change the culture of the police department, Mayor Andrew Ginther said in an interview this week.

Ginther, a Democrat, has vowed to select the new chief from outside the agency, breaking with past practice that has never seen an outside leader. Community activists have also demanded an outside candidate.

A lesson learned from the city’s 2019 search for a new chief was external candidates’ reluctance to tackle the job without their own people, the mayor said.

Without having a management team committed to change, a new chief, “for all intents and purposes, they would have to change this culture and lead this change all by themselves,” Ginther said.

Columbus is modeling its assistant chief efforts after those in Tempe, Arizona, according to city documents. Tempe has had the positions for several years, a spokesperson said. Police departments in Baltimore, Nashville and New Orleans are among other cities that have implemented the positions.

“It’s not always about an organization being in some kind of persistent failure or crisis,” said Joseph Schafer, professor of criminology and criminal justice at St. Louis University. “It can simply be about trying to bring in people that have experiences and skill sets doing something that we’ve not traditionally seen in this organization or in this community.”

This is the second national search for a new chief in just over two years for the Columbus Division of Police, which has had its share of recent turmoil.

It’s currently defending itself in a lawsuit alleging officers roughly handled protesters during rallies last year after the May 2020 death of George Floyd. The state, meanwhile, is prosecuting fired Officer Adam Coy, who is charged with murder in the fatal December shooting of Andre Hill as he walked out of a garage holding a cell phone. Hill, 47, was Black, and Coy is white.

The agency has also been criticized for several other shootings of Black residents by white officers, including the 2016 shooting of 13-year-old Tyre King during a robbery investigation.

Records show that Black residents, about 28% of the Columbus population, accounted for about half of all use-of-force incidents from 2015 through 2019. In response, city voters in November approved the city’s first-ever police review board.

The agency — like many big-city departments — is juggling calls for internal change even as it battles street violence. Columbus saw a record 174 homicides in 2020 and has recorded 47 so far this year, a figure not reached until June 7 of last year.

The 2019 police chief search came down to Perry Tarrant, a former assistant police chief in Seattle, who is Black, and Thomas Quinlan, a white Columbus deputy chief who ultimately received the job. Ginther, who selected Quinlan, then demoted him in January this year after the Hill shooting.

One former Columbus police chief said Ginther’s insistence on selecting an outsider, no matter what, is sending a negative message to city police officers, and could also hamper a new person’s ability to gain the community trust needed to make the changes that Ginther wants.

Ginther’s approach is “just basically telling people that we don’t think we can find that type of leadership here in Columbus and we have to look outside,” said Kim Jacobs, the only woman to have held the position. She added: “Calling the Division of Police something that is terrible and racist and all that kind of stuff does not build trust.”

Faster progress could come by selecting someone within the department who understands how the city works and knows the community leaders, Jacobs said. The same goes for tapping the experience of current subordinates instead of bringing in outsiders as assistant chiefs, she said.

For all the flexibility that assistant chiefs provide a new chief, the bigger issue is changing the culture of an agency from the bottom up, said Ronal Serpas, former superintendent in New Orleans, police chief in Nashville and chief of the Washington State Patrol.

“You really have to look at how you are hiring and promoting the people that you have now for change,” said Serpas, now a criminology professor at Loyola University New Orleans and a member of the Council on Criminal Justice. “Chiefs come and go — three or four years, they’re gone.”