Faces of black young people

Kareen Ali Nadir Jones, pictured with his four children, was murdered by Columbus police in 2017. His aunt Cynthia Brown is pushing for Ohio to end qualified immunity for law enforcement.

How do protesters move from our downtown streets to force real change in Columbus police?

It is a daunting challenge when you consider over the previous decades all the promises Columbus police, the Mayor(s) and City Council members have made to end police brutality.

Promises they never or couldn’t keep – since 2013 Columbus police have killed 40 people, 27 of whom were black, but only one case of police misconduct over the previous 20 years (within the now-disbanded VICE unit) has resulted in any indictments. 

Mayor Ginther, Chief Quinlan and his commanding officers have chosen to sit down three times over the previous weeks with one protest group in particular. But we refuse to name this group because there questions as to who they exactly are.

Even if the group is legitimate and not some form of orchestrated astroturfing effort on the part of the city, this unnamed group was unfortunately played (as some activists before them). Three meetings later and no true change to Columbus police or the removal of “bad apples” who have racked up in some cases over 40 citizen complaints.

But some activists are taking their demands a giant step further instead of just listening to promises from Chief Quinlan, Ginther and City Council.

They are helping draft proposed local laws and state bills, that if passed, may finally force real police accountability. Seeking to end qualified immunity, require officers carry professional liability insurance, create mandatory de-escalation and mental health crisis intervention training, along with racial bias training and non-lethal force as first option training.

A proposed local ordinance and a state bill are being drafted by two Columbus activists – Cynthia Brown and Melissa Lapatinsky. Council President Shannon Hardin has expressed interest in considering the local law but hasn’t promised to endorse it. The proposed state bill may soon be introduced by Ohio state representative Erica Crawley (D-Columbus).

As foreign and unobtainable as this may sound for Columbus and the rest of Ohio, there is precedent in other cities and states. Such as in Colorado, which just passed a police reform bill that ended qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is the immeasurably flawed legal protection doctrine for government employees which has allowed law enforcement to put to death whomever their racist-tinged beliefs warrant because it forgives the ultimate of low standards (murder), thus protecting their jobs and shielding them from civil lawsuits.

Cynthia Brown and Melissa Lapatinsky are essentially forcing lawmakers to vote on ending qualified immunity instead of having to plead police, the local police union the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and elected officials to end it out of good faith.

For Brown, her inspiration is a family member who was senselessly murdered by Columbus police.

“Absolutely the only way to change Columbus police is through policy,” says Brown, founder and president of De-Escalate Ohio Now! HeartbeatMovement, a Columbus-based nonprofit.

HeartbeatMovement is named as such to call attention to how it is in contrast to how conservatives are bloodthirsty to end abortion, but never a word or drop of sympathy for victims of police brutality.

Brown created the non-profit after her 30-year-old nephew Kareem Ali Nadir Jones in 2017 was shot in the back and killed by Columbus police. (The police body cam video of Kareem’s death can be viewed here.)

Police claimed Jones did not follow orders to get on the ground, but what led up to his shooting is so painfully typical: the police should never have demanded Jones go to the ground in the first place because he wasn’t a suspect in any criminal behavior, he was simply walking down a neighborhood alley. And why not tase him instead of using deadly force?

Predictably, Columbus Police’s Internal Affairs and the FOP found the involved officers within the division’s Use of Force Policy. 

Brown drafted her bill with state representative Crawley so to end qualified immunity.

“What is most important for police transformation is ending qualified immunity,” she says. “You can train them all you want. Because if they still say, ‘I feared for my life’ or ‘I thought he had a gun,’ what’s going to change?”

While Brown focuses on the Ohio legislature, Lapatinsky will soon be pressing City Council to pass a “police accountability act” she has written up with a draft submitted to Council President Hardin per his request. Lapatinsky’s act is also being shared with the local activist community for review.

“We need to hold police accountable by going over the FOP and Internal Affairs because usually that’s who decides their fate with all these complaints,” says the 30-something Lapatinksy, who doesn’t align herself with any protest group. “They are refusing to clean their house, but this will force them to do so.”

Lapatinsky’s law seeks to end qualified immunity but also create an entirely independent third-party run audit system for complaints with an easily accessible database that doesn’t require any formal public records requests. The audit system will be paid for by law enforcement officers themselves.

Her ultimate goal for the act is to require officers to carry professional liability insurance. If officers continue to receive complaints by abusing their power, their premiums will rise, as what happens to drivers who accrue speeding tickets.

“Tamir Rice’s killer is still on the force. He didn’t bother getting out of his vehicle and shot the boy without a second thought. Had he been required to carry insurance, not only would he be financially responsible, he would be out of a job,” she says.

Lapatinksy is working with Minneapolis activists who tried to pass a police insurance ordinance in 2016 after getting it on the ballot by collecting signatures. But the Minnesota Supreme Court shot it down.

“This act is 100 percent for Columbus police to stop abusing their power. My hopes are City Council will just pass it, but I have a feeling they won’t,” she said. “They claim they care, and I understand President Hardin was maced, but President Hardin stands behind the very riot gear that maced him.”