Harvey J Graff

The mayor’s, city council’s, and Columbus Police Department’s chiefs’ uninformed, misleading commentaries and mismanagement of public safety would be comic if they were not often deadly.

Much is captured in two current events: the legally irrelevant and self-promotional devotion to what I renamed Colemanville (formerly downtown Columbus) in city council’s passing on Feb. 6, 2023 a resolution that has neither merit nor authority, setting a speed limit of 25 mph in the small, ragged downtown area. (See Graff, “Columbus searches for its Downtown with historical, urbanist, and developers’ blinders,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 22, 2021; “Still searching for Downtown: ‘Ideas considered for Downtown plan,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 14, 2022)

But Columbus is unsafe at any speed. It stands out among US cities in almost all measures: from unregulated traffic and accidents, to levels of violence and fatal shootings, police killings of unarmed young Black men, officers who are not familiar with the law or the city, many officers who are unwilling to enforce the law if they are actually aware of it, a nationally high percentage of officers who live outside the boundaries of the city they are sworn and paid to serve. (See Graff, “Columbus isn’t Cowtown or Silicon Valley Heartland; It’s the lawless wild-wild  Midwest,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, April 20, 2022; “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 21, 2022; “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part Two, Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 24, 2022; “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part Three,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 27, 2022; “The Columbus Way versus the rights of residents, Part Four,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, June 30, 2022; “My ongoing struggles for responsibility from the City of Columbus,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, July 12, 2022; “Abandoned by my elected and unelected officials (unless I pay to play): The Columbus Way, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 30, 2022; “Abandoned by my elected and unelected officials (unless I pay to play): The Columbus Way, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 2, 2022; “The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The Columbus Way, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 13, 2022; “The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The Columbus Way, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 16. 2022; “Columbus, Ohio: Rude and Crude: The little big city that refuses to represent. serve, or respect its publics, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 15, 2023; “Columbus, Ohio: Rude and Crude: The little big city that refuses to represent. serve, or respect its publics, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 19, 2023; “A city versus its neighborhoods: Columbus, Ohio,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 25, 2023)

CPD has one of the US’ most self-protective contracts and bargaining agreements through its Fraternal Order of Police chapter. This which radically reduces any chance of reform or successful prosecution of officers. The words “revision of ‘qualified immunity’” are seldom heard in the hall of the City of Columbus and never in the State House from the legislature to the Attorney General or Governor. The police paid by our taxpayers to serve the public, protect all in Columbus, and enforce the laws are themselves without controls. Their own command structures are notoriously weak.

The contradictions of the “unsafe at any speed” city are multiple. First, city council does not have authority over speed limits on city streets. They must be passed by the State of Ohio. Do council and councilor Barossa de Padilla, or Michael Coleman, not know this?

Second, CPD does not enforce any kind of traffic issue anywhere in Columbus with the partial and limited exceptions of The Arnold Steroid Spewing “competition” at the Convention Center, and more or less during OSU football games. There is no reason to think they will enforce downtown speed limits.

Third, without physical rebuilding many of downtown’s streets and sidewalks, changing the speed limit alone is insufficient to promote, let alone, ensure safety and security. (See Graff essays cited above on downtown)

Fourth, whether by ignorance or malice, councilor Barossa de Padillo falsely presented citywide—not downtown—mortality figures to promote her public relations campaign. This is unacceptable and dishonest, and yet another example of the City’s inability to do simple arithmetic. (See for example Bill Bush, “Columbus City Council votes for 25 mph speed limit on all Downtown streets,” Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 7, 2023)

Fifth and perhaps most damningly in the face of council’s irresponsibility, unresponsiveness, and ignorance is the stark fact that a number of other, more dangerous areas of Columbus have asked for traffic speed limits for years. The unrepresentative, undemocratic council and city divisions do not hear the taxpaying, voting publics. (See essays referenced above)

At the same time, the US Department of Justice’s tardy and incomplete review of CPD misconduct; personnel shortages; and failures in leadership, chain of command, organization, and communication—but inexplicitly ignoring the central reason that the review was requested—use of force by the police—is minimized by the City. Mayor, City Attorney, and police chief.

At the moment, they awkwardly criticize the DOJ, not themselves, as they attempt unsuccessfully to incorporate the bare 14 page “report” that somehow required more than 18 months into their thin and counter-factual narratives of progress. (See for example Bethany Bruner, “Department of Justice review of Columbus police released without use-of-force audit,” Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 8, 2023)

The major reasons for the review, after all, are Columbus’ long history of police killings of unarmed young Black men, CPD’s riot against almost completely peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, and the fatal shooting of Black teenager Makia Bryant, Casey Goodson, Jr., and far too many others. CPD officers never see justice in county or state courts. (See for example Sean Walton, Jr., “Two years after ‘egregious’ slaughter, public left prey to future ‘Jason Meades,’” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 4, 2023; Bethany Bruner, “Prosecutor: No more criminal charges against Columbus police officers in protect probe,” Columbus Dispatch, May 28, 2022; Micah Walker, “Two years after George Floyd’s death, Columbus’ Black leaders say more change needed in city,” Columbus Dispatch, May 27, 2022; Jordan Laird, “Prosecutors dismiss case against Columbus police officer over summer 2020 protest,” Columbus Dispatch  July 20, 2022; Bill Bush, “Hardin: Columbus council to examine Sinzae Reed advocates’ demands for victim aid funds,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 10, 2023, and “Columbus pays $225,000 settlement to man beaten, tun-gunned by police during 2017 arrest,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 30, 2023; among many cases.)

Ginther and City Attorney Zach Klein have the temerity to criticize the DOJ when they requested its review so tardily and have done nothing with their own offices and resources to investigate, seek answers, and especially begin the years overdue renegotiations the unacceptable and possibly illegal FOP contract, one of the most obstructionist in the nation.

Ginther and city council trivialize all safety issues with their unacceptably small budgets and self-promotional “amendments” for CPD and public safety. They leave the force extremely short-handed and community ill-served. But the courthouse will be refurbished with public safety dollars. I await an explanation of some kind.

Community spokespersons immediately and loudly disagree with both the DOJ’s mild scolding and the City’s usual “we’re doing all we can, we’re making progress, but we are far from finished.” In typical empty rhetoric in May 2022, Ginther blurted out: Columbus will “spend whatever it takes” to make city safe from crime.” (Bethany Bruner, “Mayor Andrew Ginther: Columbus will ‘spend whatever it takes’ to make city safe from crime,” Columbus Dispatch, May 26, 2022; Cole Behrens, “’Our top priority’: Feds partnering with Columbus in plan to combat regional gun violence,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 26, 2023. Note it is not Columbus partnering with the federal government.)

He has not spent “whatever it takes.” But he spent millions of tax dollars actually weakening CPD by his unregulated, uncontrolled, illogical early retirement buyout of hundreds of officers and four assistant chiefs. Buyout ranged from $200,000 to 500,000. Why, especially when funding for CPD is already insufficient?

Seldom have I seen such an ill-conceived plan that without admission or acknowledgement reduced an already short-handed, disorganized, and poorly led police force immeasurably more. Once again, a failure in simple arithmetic.  The Columbus Dispatch’s crime reporter can only ask in frustration at the turn of 2023: “What will Columbus police staffing look like in 2023?” Of course, nobody knows. That’s the Columbus Way. (Bethany Bruner, Jan. 4, 2023; see above, and also Bruner, ‘Columbus City Council clears way for more police buyout—without knowing details,” Columbus Dispatch, Aug. 3, 2022, and “Columbus police staffing crisis: ‘It is may be challenging summer,’” May 2, 2022; and Bill Bush, “Columbus Police chief cites buyout as reason to boost summer OT pay for park patrols,” May 24, 2022)

Almost nothing the mayor, city council or CPD say publicly is accurate or complete. As in all matters Columbus, there is never a developed plan with budget, timetable, or measures of accountability. Never.

But there are slogans, poorly phrased, empty rhetoric, with unaccountably inadequate funding. That is the Columbus Way.

They range from the empty to the tone deaf to the offensive. Empty is the norm for the mayor and the chief of police. “I’ll spend whatever it takes.” “No cost is too great.” But we are never told for what. We never see the dollars. We hear fleetingly about some lamp posts , a handful of police on overtime in public parks, all but invisible and inactive block watchers and joint CPD-OSU patrols, or an exorbitant cost for subscribing to a federal database (with no reason given about why the city was not already part of that network).Or the sale at great financial loss of a never-needed CPD helicopter that harassed residents.

And much about teenage sports leagues which do not and will not reach the most at-risk populations as all reports on juvenile crime and violence—gangs and others--confirm. These are slogans, not action or policy.

Former Columbus Dispatch opinion writer Theodore Decker (now in marketing at Dennison College) captured this in a Nov. 15, 2022 column, “Ginther to start Office or Violence Prevention. Better late than never.” Promised in 2020, 2021, and again in summer 2022, the city awaits any specific content. (See Cole Behrens, “Columbus plans to roll out Group Violence Intervention program this summer,” Columbus Dispatch, May 25, 2022

While Ginther waves and sways in a moderate breeze, one Texas human resource management and organizational consultant presented a 256-page report to the Columbus Civil Service Commission in Nov. 2021. The author recommended without qualification: “Take all Columbus police hiring processes away from mayor” (Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 21, 2022) That is how well-managed non-partisan, democratic polities function. But that is not the Columbus Way.

Similarly, a retired Columbus Police commander argued compellingly against the Nov 2022 general election City Charter amendment that, incredibly, weakened—not increased—Civil Service provisions against partisan favoritism and weakening standards. (Robert N. Strausbaugh, “Retired police commander: Civil service charter changes ‘lunacy’ that would drop standards,” Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 2, 2022)

The Charter amendment overwhelmingly passed despite the fact that it reduces public safety. It passed for several interrelated reasons. First, it was drafted so densely and confusingly that it was all but impossible to understand by most readers. (As a retired professor and author with the Ph.D., I struggled to understand it.) A number of voters reported to the media that they thought that they voted for the opposite of the text. It was not at all accidental.

City councilors promoted it less than honestly. And the Franklin County Democratic Party’s “guide” to voters endorsed it without explanation or qualification. Neither council nor major media or the Columbus Metropolitan Club made any effort to explain or allow debate. There is no “public arena” in this city.

So too is news-grabbing “gun-safety” pissing contest between the mayor and City Attorney, and the Constitutionally ignorant AG Yo Yost. Purposefully nor not, almost all major gun control—not gun safety (words do matter)—issues are neglected. What is left—until the next court ruling—is largely unenforceable. It’s all politics, but poor politics. (See Bill Bush, “Columbus rushes to pass gun control measures after favorable court ruling,” Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 9, 2022, “Columbus’ rush to pass gun-control measures thwarted by court,” Nov. 10, 2022, “Columbus council approves new gun-control law amid questions over its legality,” Dec. 6, 2022, and “State files for new judge in Fairfield County in effort to halt new Columbus gun codes,” Dec. 14, 2022; Monroe Trombly, “Columbus says gun-control measures can proceed despite court order, but state disagrees,” Nov. 11, 2022; Editorial Board, “‘Everyone has a gun’: Statehouse stymying Columbus’ fight against gun violence,” Nov. 22, 2022; Cole Behrens, “Columbus council pushing ‘common sense’ gun control proposals forward amid legal dispute,” Nov. 23, 2022; Theodore Decker, “Few show for city’s gun law hearing; still worth a listen,” Nov. 27, 2022)

No responsible gun buy-back programs, one of the most successful programs across the US. Little more than empty slogans without action, about reorganizing the police to emphasize community policing and meeting the diverse needs of the city’s multiple publics.

In the wake of national attention and overflowing outrage at police killings of suspects and unnecessary violence, the people of Columbus get pablum not action. They also get A “Jump Out Boys” gang unit is being reestablished exactly at the time that cities like Memphis loudly close theirs after major police homicides. After so many police murders of innocent, primarily Black and Brown persons. In what universe does CPD live? Not in the US since 1990 and especially 2020. (Bethany Bruner, “Could ‘Jump Out Boys’ be returning to Columbus? Police proposing new specialized gang unit,” Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 2, 2023)

The condition of CPD contradicts the Assistant Chief’s false reassurances about training and community. CPD is one of the worst trained and poorly organized larger city forces in the US. Officers readily confirm that as does the City Attorney’s office—off the record, of course. Communications are terribly; far too many officers do not know the city or the law.

Moreover, unlike their predecessors who welcomed my knowledgeable input and exchange of views, the current Zone 4 commander and “community liaison” officer actually refuse to speak to me, a 73-year-old, homeowner, taxpayer, voter, and retired professor. They “see no need.” Who expects any “community relationships, cooperation, or coordination,” let alone respect, beyond slogans in 21st century Columbus?

No one—from CPD to City Council to CPD Inspectors and Internal Affairs cares. Officers stand at my front and when not telling law-breakers softly but not forcefully to “quiet down” tell me to my face (while hiding their badge and ID), “breaking the law is reasonable behavior on a game day.” Why should I have confidence in CPD? They deny my civil rights.

Several city councilors know this. But in unrepresentative undemocratic Columbus, that simply does not matter. I have no representation. That’s not the Columbus Way.

With national and local protests raging over the outrageous and illegal murder of a young Black man in Memphis, not only does Columbus bring back its notorious “Jump Out Boys” gang unit but with an astonishing degree of combined tone deafness and offense to the community, paints a cruiser for Black History Month, calling unnecessary attention to critical issues. (See Bethany Bruner, “Columbus police’s Black History Month cruiser drawing criticism,” Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 3, 2023)

The insult, ignorance, and incompetence do not stop there. CPD paints a false quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. on the side of the “history month car.” Only in Columbus would the public, taxpayer-supported police department, headed by Black women, present “History 1,” a squad car to “celebrate the achievements of African Americans & recognize their roles in our history.” (“False quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. appears on Ohio police car,” NBC4i News)

 It is 2023, not 1960. Community outrage erupted. CPD and the mayor remain silent about the vehicle itself and the fabricated quotation. This is completely intolerable especially in a city with a minority majority city council and several Black chiefs of police. But what could they say, after all?

Unsafety surges in the city on all measures, regardless of a arithmetically insignificant one-year decline in gun-related fatalities in 2022. That is not a trend. Youth involvement homicides increased. Some months in 2020 set records. Six weeks into 2023, Columbus is already on a record-setting pace. (Cole Behrens, “As 2022 Columbus homicide rate falls from record highs, youth involvement rises,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 5, 2023)

But they will hide that from the public. CPD has changed how it tallies homicides, supposedly but seemingly suddenly to “better align with the FBI’s standards.” Publicized in Jan. 2023, in late 2022, “Columbus police changed from counting all homicide investigations in a single category to three.” Not only does this make accurate comparison almost impossible, but it will also lead to the appearance of fewer murders. Why now? CPD’s stated response was typically muddled. (Bethany Bruner, “Columbus police have changed how they count homicides,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 27, 2023)

The mayor himself crippled an already weakened police by squandering millions of dollars on 100s of outrageously excessive early retirement buy-outs, or pay-offs, with absolutely no checks, balances, or measures of accountability. Many experienced officers accepted that option because of their great dissatisfaction with how poorly CPD is organized, operated, and lacks leadership. In that, CPD mirrors the City as a whole.

Nothing sums up the “Unsafe City’s” failures as much its much touted, slogan-based but powerless and leaderless Civilian Police Review Board. It has no defined scope, review or policy parameters, or clear public input or output. Its “review” authority remains unspecified. (See for example Edie Milligan Driskill, “Inspector General delivers first investigations to a frustrated Civilian Police Review Board,” Columbus Free Press, Nov 5, 2022)

One member of the group dared to express his view of police openly and honestly. With his First Amendment rights and as a legitimate member of the Civilian Board, Gambit Aragon criticized the Columbus police’s unethical and blatantly offensive response to the local extreme right wing Proud Boys’ “protest” at an annual event with readings of LGBTQ children’s books at The First Unitarian Universalist Church in Clintonville’s The Red Oak Community School.

The quick result: he was removed from the Board, in flagrant contradiction to its mission and his rights. (Bethany Bruner, “Civilian Police Review Board member calling Columbus officers ‘oppressors’ raise questions,” Columbus Free Press, Dec. 7, 2022)

If that were not enough, they quickly violated the State’s Public Meeting Act. (Cole Behrens, “Civilian Police Review Board to comply after admittedly violating Ohio Public Meetings Act,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 23, 2023).

CPD’s combined response and nonresponse to the Proud Boys’ display of public harassment, intimidation, and hate speech—which are not protected by the First Amendment--also summarize and symbolize the state of unsafety in the undemocratic city without responsible policing or civic leadership.

Of course, the mayor and police chief offer typical slogan-based reassurances and self-justifications. Unfortunately for them, they have no corroborating evidence. What is indisputable is that  CPD fumbled efforts by the church and school sponsors of an annual of diverse readings about LGBTQ and in-drag characters for children.

Unsurprisingly, the local chapter of right-wing extremist Proud Boys announced its intention to protest publicly. The legality of that activity is itself questionable. But rather than prevent or limit the blatant intimidation attempts that limited participation and support for fear of violence, at least one CPD officer standing outside the church literally high-fived the Proud Boys.

No matter how the mayor and chief attempt failingly  to either dismiss that action or fabricate a completely illogical and unconvincing narrative that this was some sort of peace-offering or peace-making, this is unacceptable. The officer violated ethics and common sense, and should be disciplined not tolerated. The Proud Boys are extremists and convicted terrorists. (Jennifer Smola Shaffer, “Drag storytime organizers, police offer different explanations amid Proud Boys protest,” Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 3, 2022; and all in Columbus Dispatch: Andrew Ginther, “Proud Boys threats to drag storytime, school were taken seriously from start,” Dec. 5, 2022; Cole Behrens, “Chief Elaine Bryant says Columbus police created safety plan with drag show organizers,” Dec. 6, 2022; David R. Hoffman, “Threats to drag story time symptom of our march to fascism. 5 ways to stop it,” Dec. 6, 2022; Matthew Valasik, “Boisterous armed white supremacist street gang out maneuvered Columbus police,” Dec. 7, 2022; Theodore Decker, “Might I suggest that Columbus police no longer high-five extremists,” Dec. 8, 2022)

Public safety in Columbus is dismissed with the wave of a hand. Is that now the Columbus Way?

Mayor, council, CPD: prove that it is not.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.