Hours after two Columbus Police Department officers returned from participating in a tribute to slain police officers in Dallas, another tragedy unfolded with the shooting deaths of three more officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Lt. Matt Harris and officer Eric Kapczynski of the Columbus department had just returned home from attending funerals for two of the Dallas officers — Sgt. Michael Smith, 55, and officer Michael Krol, 40 — when news reports of the Baton Rouge shooting began.
The three Baton Rouge officers who were killed were investigating a report of a man with an assault rifle at about 9 a.m. Sunday and were shot during a confrontation less than a mile from police headquarters. It was the fourth high-profile deadly encounter in the United States involving police during the past two weeks, encounters that have left 12 people dead, including eight police officers.
The city police department will send officers to Baton Rouge once arrangements are made to honor the officers, to express condolences and support from the city and its officers, Columbus Police Chief Jon Rohde said.
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“With the Dallas incident, the reason I made the call to send the officers was to show support for the Dallas officers, for law enforcement and for the families,” Rohde said. “I wanted to show we are taking a stance that killing those who are protecting you isn’t going to be tolerated.”
And after the killings in Baton Rouge, Rohde said the department needs to go to Louisiana. Not doing so would signal that the department is somehow accepting officers being killed in this manner, he said.
“I’m not willing to accept that,” Rohde said.
Harris described the Columbus Police Department and its officers as somber and quiet after the Dallas shootings, something that has continued in the wake of the Sunday shootings.
Communications with officers
Rohde has reached out to officers through internal communications to tell them to trust their training and to know there is support for each of them and for their families.
“They need to be taking care of themselves mentally in the process,” Rohde said, pointing out that officers don’t get a “time out” to process what happened even as the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings occurred.
“Our officers are going out on calls before, during and after these incidents and are doing the right things for the citizens of Columbus,” Harris said. Officers’ families are watching television of the officer shootings even as their loved ones are working a shift answering police calls, he said.
It brings into reality just how deadly the job of a police officer can be, Rohde said.
Local officers have been urged to take extra safety measures, to increase their vigilance and to make sure they are being safe in their interactions with the public, Harris said.
Rohde said the police department has a true partnership with the Columbus community, not an adversarial relationship, and it becomes stressful when officers feel they are being targeted.
“It’s different when you are in the shoes of the officer taking calls — and you’re thinking, is this a legitimate call or is my life on the line in the next 30 seconds when I pull up here,” Rohde said.
Interaction with public
To counteract that, Rohde and Harris pointed to the many ways Columbus police officers reach out to the community on a daily basis — from the recently created Coffee with a Cop program in which officers meet casually with the public to answer questions, to the Citizens Police Academy where the public can learn more about law enforcement. During the school year, officers work with youth for Homework with a Cop and the department conducts a family fun day to meet with community members in an informal setting.
Officers attend a variety of public events where officers mingle with residents to get to know them and to listen, advise or assist in any way they can, Harris said.
Day in and day out, police officers help people behind the scenes, acts that never make headlines, Harris said.
“Only when there is a tragic event — an officer makes a mistake — that’s when it bounces off the headlines,” Harris said. “Every week, we’re doing some sort of outreach and we’re hoping to avoid the negative rhetoric. We’ve not had a tragic event, and we’re not seeing the massive protests as in other communities, but we want to keep the dialogue open.”
Columbus police officers are keeping communication open with the local African American Pastors Alliance, having participated in a seminar with them earlier this year about the use of force and officer training.
Members of the alliance went through use-of-force training that officers are required to take and were then debriefed about what they experienced, Rohde said. In each case, when alliance members used lethal force, they told officers they did not see race or gender, but instead saw a threat and took care of it, Rohde said.
“We are trained to protect and to serve — and sometimes that includes using lethal force,” Rohde said. “But our intention is not to kill anyone. We are trying to stop people from getting hurt.”
“We’re problem solvers,” Harris said of police officers. “And so much of what has been happening is based on feelings and emotions. We’re cognizant of that, but we are focused on facts.”
“What I see, as we try to resolve tensions, there is a quick judgement happening without allowing the process to take place,” Rohde said.
In Columbus, specific procedures are followed when use of force occurs, and a civilian oversight committee examines and reviews incidents.
“We have a process in place that is proven to work,” Rohde said. “But two hours after the event, there can’t be judgment without getting all the facts. There’s not enough patience right now to let the appropriate process run its course.”
People offering thanks
There have been offers of support to the local police.
One local business wants to provide a lunch, while someone else dropped off boxes of muffins for officers after the Dallas shootings.
And in Friday’s ceremony of reflection on the steps of City Hall, the Rev. David Bosley asked the more than 100 people attending the service to thank officers in a semicircle around them for their service. “Let them know you love them,” said Bosley, pastor of Dayspring Church of God Apostolic in Columbus.
“We appreciate the outpouring of support and we’re grateful for the partnerships we have,” Rohde said. “I’m not willing to accept these types of attacks on officers are going to be routine. I’m hopeful that communities are going to rise up and stand up and see these stop,” he said.
The night after the Dallas shootings, Rohde said he stayed up late watching the coverage. It struck him that he needed to find a way to motivate officers to continue what they are doing — to continue to protect Columbus the way they have been, he said.
“Then I realized that we already have officers who are self-motivated to do that. I’ve seen them do it,” he said.
Saying the oath officers take is to protect and to serve, Rhode said those four words seem to be simple, but actually mean much more than most people realize.
“I liken it to a blank check,” Harris said. “We don’t truly know what the cost will be every day.”
Mayor Jim Lienhoop asked a crowd at Friday’s service of reflection to consider three steps to build unity and aid healing locally and nationally in the aftermath of racial and other tragic deaths:
- “You can throw both water and kerosone on a fire” he said of heated discussions. “Choose water.”
- Participate in calming dialogue about race and other relations, including between emergency personnel and citizens.
- Have faith that there can be a road to a better tomorrow.
“We have a history (in this nation) of overcoming tremendous challenges,” he said.