Racial profiling complaints rejected in audit process

Three of five complaints made against Columbus Police Department officers through June 30 were for racial profiling, although all three were determined to be unfounded by the city’s audit and review committee.

Established voluntarily by city ordinance in 1992, the committee is designed to review complaints made against officers and, if necessary, vote on appeals made in response to the findings of those complaints.

The committee is comprised of 11 local residents representing organizations such as the city police department, Columbus Human Rights Commission, the local NAACP chapter and the African American Pastors Alliance, as well as other city leaders, local residents and leaders of the Columbus faith community.

Whenever a complaint is made against a Columbus officer, the case is assigned to a captain who investigates the claim and reviews related evidence, such as footage taken off an officer’s body-worn or dashboard cameras, Columbus Police Capt. Brian Wilder said.

Each of the five complaints filed against the local police department were for officer contact between April and June, Wilder said at the Thursday meeting.

Recap of profiling accusations

Wilder’s report showed that in an incident on April 11, a black male accused an officer of pulling him over only because he was black. However, the officer claimed that the vehicle the driver was in matched the description of an earlier “shots fired” call, and that the driver failed to use a turn signal, which led to the traffic stop.

A review of the officer’s in-car video found that the driver did fail to use a turn signal when making a turn, so the traffic stop was warranted and the complaint was unfounded.

The two remaining racial-profiling complaints on Wilder’s report were filed by the same person — a black male who had interactions with Columbus police on April 13 and May 16.

In April, the man said an officer threatened to arrest him for no reason, then later chose to withdraw his complaint after saying that he was taking out his personal issues on the officer.

Then in May, an officer said he saw the same man pointing his hands at him as if he were holding a gun, so the officer exited his car and approached him.

Although the man claimed the officer tried to intimidate him during their conversation, the body-worn camera showed that the officer engaged the man in a consensual encounter, spoke in a polite manner and never took enforcement action.

Each of those racial-profiling complaints were determined to be unfounded, but the man’s encounter with the officer in May did raise questions about the use of police in-car cameras.

Dan Mitchell, lead pastor of The Sanctuary Church in Columbus and a voting member of the audit and review committee, asked if the in-car camera had shown evidence of the man pointing his hands at the officer as if he were holding a gun. Wilder said he was not sure if the in-car video had been reviewed along with the body-worn video.

Seeing the in-car video could help determine the officer’s motives for the interaction with the man, information that is particularly important to have when dealing with a racial-profiling complaint, Mitchell said. Wilder said he would look further into the complaint to determine what evidence was reviewed.

Questioning complaint review

Brittany King, the leader of the local Black Lives Matter organization, and Tiffany Bosley, a Black Lives Matter board member, attended last week’s committee meeting.

Both Bosley and King of the Black Lives Matter group said they were uncomfortable with how that complaint investigation was handled, especially considering the lack of evidence on the officer’s motives.

Although the committee is designed to vote on appeals, it has not had to review an appeal since 2012, committee member Rick King said.

Rick King attributed that fact partly to the introduction of in-car and body-worn police cameras over the years.

When residents learn that their interactions with police officers were caught on camera, they are less likely to continue pursuing the complaint, Rick King said.

But Bosley said she thinks part of the reason so few complaints are filed is because people are not aware of the complaint process. Before she attended the meeting, Bosley said she didn’t know the audit and review committee existed for the purpose of reviewing appeals, so she thinks it is possible that other residents are unaware of their next steps when they file a complaint against the police.

Use of cameras by police

Rick King also said officers are reluctant to go out on patrol if their cameras are not functioning properly, because they know the cameras can help protect them against unwarranted complaints. Wilder concurred with that statement.

The use of police cameras and other recording devices at officer-involved shooting scenes has been a major point of contention for the Black Lives Matter movement nationally in recent months.

When a Minnesota police officer fatally shot Philando Castile, a black man, in July, Castile’s girlfriend used Facebook’s live-streaming application to record the aftermath of the shooting.

Even when such videos are available, Brittany King said she thinks the footage tends to be used to prove the innocence of the police. Although she said that she does not think the Columbus Police Department would misuse its footage, King said on a national scale, in-camera or body-worn videos are not necessarily helpful to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Improper conduct cited

The single complaint that was substantiated in the audit process so far this year resulted in disciplinary action of improper conduct against the officer, who turned on his lights but did not interact with a white female.

Even though that complaint was found to be legitimate by the review, King said she thinks many local residents could be uncomfortable with the fact that the police department is allowed to review its own complaints. To that end, King said she thinks others should be involved in the complaint-review process.

Similarly, Bosley said she thinks there needs to be more transparency in the process of selecting the committee members.

While some members are created by ordinance, others are at the appointment of the mayor. In those situations, Bosley said she thinks only people who are well-connected in the city will be selected, not other residents who are less involved but still care about city issues.

King said she plans to continue attending the quarterly committee meetings so that she can stay informed on the process of handling police complaints.

2016 complaints

Complaint: Racial profiling

Date: April 11

Details: A black male alleged he was pulled over because of his race. The officer said the driver failed to use a turn signal, and the vehicle matched the description of an earlier “shots fired” call. The in-car video supported the claim that the driver did not use a turn signal.

Conclusion: Unfounded

Complaint: Racial discrimination, threats

Date: April 13

Details: A black man said an officer threatened to arrest him for no reason and that the officer was being racially discriminatory. The officer took no enforcement action during the interaction. The man later withdrew his complaint, saying he was taking out his personal issues on the officer.

Conclusion: Unfounded

Complaint: Unlawful arrest

Date: April 21

Details: A woman arrested for battery and disorderly conduct claimed she was unlawfully arrested. She could not be contacted after she filed the complaint. There was no evidence of an unlawful arrest.

Conclusion: Unfounded

Complaint: Racial profiling and intimidation

Date: May 16

Details: A black man said he was listening to music and moving his arms around when an officer approached him only because he was black. The man said the officer intimidated him during the encounter. The officer said it looked as if the man was holding his hands as if he were pointing a gun at him. The body-worn camera showed the the officer engaged the man in a consensual interaction and spoke to him politely. The man walked away and the officer took no enforcement action.

Conclusion: Unfounded

Complaint: Inappropriate traffic stop

Date: June 9

Details: A white female said she pulled over after an officer turned on his lights, but the officer then drove away without interacting with her. The allegations were true and the officer was found to have violated department directives. He received disciplinary action.

Conclusion: Improper conduct

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.