City to review handling of police department complaints

City officials plan to look at how complaints lodged against the Columbus Police Department are handled after two organizations voiced concerns about the process.

Nearly 20 individuals attended a meeting Thursday at Donner Center to review proposed updates to a city oversight committee that hears appeals of complaints against the police department.

The audit and review committee, established by a city resolution in 1992 and whose members are appointed by the mayor, becomes involved once an appeal is filed by an individual if he or she doesn’t agree with the police department’s administrative findings following an internal investigation.

The city, which has spent the past 18 months examining the committee’s role, has worked in conjunction with the African American Pastors Alliance, a group of leaders from five predominantly black churches in the area. Proposed changes to the current process were presented by the city in an effort to help provide a better understanding to the public of how it works, said Aida Ramirez, director of the city’s human rights commission.

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Leaders from the Bartholomew County chapter of the NAACP and the pastors alliance were among those in attendance who questioned the current process of having police department supervisors rule on the validity of complaints made against the department.

Complaints filed against the police should go immediately to the oversight committee, said Olisa Humes, representing the local NAACP chapter’s executive committee.

“It should be outside of the police department,” Humes said. “For you to ask me to go to them to complain about them seems way out of pocket. It’s about the people they work with.”

Columbus looked at 12 cities within Indiana and 14 others across the country that have civilian oversight processes, with all of them having a structure for addressing complaints against police, said Mary Ferdon, executive director of community development and administration.

After studying what’s done elsewhere and with local input, changes being considered by Columbus include updating a complaint form to allow more room so individuals can write narratives, the creation of an online submission form and an opportunity for mediation to occur, Ramirez said.

The city also plans to create brochures and make complaint forms available at different locations in Columbus. Other than the police department, complaints can also be filed at the city’s Human Rights Commission office under another change being proposed, Ramirez said.

Police Chief Jon Rohde said the committee, which has convened once since 2012, plays an important role in resolving complaints against the police department. But the pastors alliance hopes to see something in place that works for all parties involved, said the Rev. Frank Griffin of Thy Kingdom Come Ministries in Greenwood, a member of the group.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking for a policy and procedure we can get behind,” Griffin said.

Humes reiterated the need for the audit and review committee to initially look into complaints instead of the police department.

“I really don’t believe they have the ability, and this is just me, to be objective in the process,” she said.

All of the 26 cities Columbus looked at have processes that call for complaints to first be investigated at the police department, Ferdon said.

“If you want people people to engage, if you want this to work, you’re going to have to change that,” Humes said, despite assertions from Rohde that all complaints filed against the department are taken seriously.

Her sentiment was supported by David Bosley, pastor of Dayspring Church of God Apostolic, another member of the pastors alliance. If the committee initially reviewed complaints, that would provide impartiality, he said.

Griffin asked the city to make the process fair for everyone.

“This is our one chance to get it right,” Griffin said. “Another meeting would be beneficial to regroup and talk a little more.”

The city plans to have another public meeting in February based on the feedback it received, Ferdon said. The proposed updates are subject to approval by the Columbus Board of Public Works.

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The city plans to conduct another meeting sometime in February concerning proposed updates to the city’s audit and review committee, said Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development.