Cop spraying black man with hands in air

The Columbus Division of Police (CPD) was told last year by the Matrix Consulting Group that its directive allowing officers to use pepper spray against non-violent protesters should be “reviewed” because it allows “use of force without an aggressive act.”

“This directive and the subsequent use of force continuum, allow the use of a chemical agent on non-violent or ‘dead weight’ protestors. The use of force without an aggressive act is a low threshold for the use of chemical agents and contrary to practices in many large agencies (in Cincinnati, for example),” stated the Matrix Consulting Group in the early pages of its 300-plus page report, which was completed last summer.

The CPD directive in question states: “Sworn personnel may use their Division-issued chemical spray to disperse a non-violent congregation of violators who are not moving. Prior to deployment of the chemical spray, at least two notifications should be made to the participants in the crowd advising them that they are committing a violation of law and are to disperse, and that chemical spray will be used if they fail to comply with the order.”

Matrix Consulting Group of California was hired in 2017 to complete an operational review of CPD following several high-profiled deaths of African Americans at the hands of CPD officers.

Mayor Ginther’s Columbus Community Safety Advisory Commission subsequently used the report’s finding to make 80 recommendations to CPD, but none of these 80 recommendations called on CPD to change the directive allowing them to pepper spray peaceful demonstrators.

The Free Press has tried to speak with CPD spokesperson Sgt. James Fuqua over the previous five days but he has not responded.

Thus, the Free Press cannot confirm or deny whether the current CPD directive regarding the use of chemical weapons on non-violent crowds is still in effect.

But after what happened this weekend – with video evidence showing many peaceful demonstrators, U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, and City Council President Shannon Hardin pepper sprayed by police – the directive either has not been changed, or any new and far more logical directive is being ignored.

If the directive had been changed – as the Matrix report recommended to do – would CPD officers in riot gear have acted with more restraint?

No doubt the unprovoked use of pepper spray incited some of the protesters to violently act out damaging property and businesses.

After being pepper sprayed, Hardin told the Dispatch, “The time for commissions and studies is over. The time to institute real police reform is now.” Hardin added this on Twitter, “Columbus needs to change the use of crowd dispersal techniques, as recommended by the Matrix report.”

Matrix Consulting Group president Richard Brady, who has remained in contact with CPD Chief Thomas Quinlan since the report was finalized, told the Free Press they are not tasked to write policies, just offer recommendations.

“Columbus police need to be more specific (to its officers) about the use (of pepper spray), and to say an aggressive act needs to be associated with it of some kind,” said Brady. “We know what best practices is, we know what prevailing practices are. That was the purpose of that recommendation because it could lead to a situation in which the justification for the use of a chemical agent isn’t what it should be.”

Brady says implementing one of their reports is difficult to expedite.

“Unfortunately, these things take some time. There are multiple layers of review. Not just within the police division. There’s going to certainly be a city attorney review. The unions have to go through it. I don’t know what (CPD) has done specifically but I have remained in close touch with Chief Quinlan,” he said.

The Free Press also spoke with Pastor Jason Ridley, a member of Mayor Ginther’s Columbus Community Safety Advisory Commission, who was assigned to the commission’s CPD training subcommittee. He couldn’t recall the commission talking about needing to change the CPD directive.

Ridley said the commission was intently focused on how CPD needs to recruit better qualified officers and more officers of color, better ways to help the well-being of officers, creating an independent civilian review board to investigate police misconduct, among many other recommendations, which were also called for by the Matrix report.

But Ridley, director of Youth Ministry for Allegheny West Conference of Seventh Day Adventist and a one-time Pastor on the Hilltop, said one of the commissions greatest concerns was what they believed was the CPD’s “inability, and I would even say sometimes, unwillingness to deescalate situations.”

“They are showing up in riot gear, using pepper spray and tear gas as well as shooting peaceful protesters who are sometimes kneeling or just standing there with their hands in the air,” he said. “It’s interesting to me as I look around this nation that for the most part riots are only breaking out in cities where the police show up in riot gear. It’s like they are showing up with the mentality that they are ready to go to battle and because of this, peaceful protests are erupting into riots.”

Ridley believes blame must be shared, though.

“There are individuals and some groups who are showing up with bad motives and trying to create havoc, but CPD’s aggressive tactics are definitely not helping the situation,” he said. “What they need to do is take off the riot gear and take a lesson from some of their fellow police departments around the nation. They should come stand alongside the protesters and maybe even take a knee themselves in recognition of the systemic injustices that they are responsible for which have plagued black and brown communities.”

Once again, unheeded warnings have become the (ignored) sign of the times, the tragedy that has become 2020, a year only halfway over.