Columbus’ Policing Problem Goes Deeper Than The Shooting Of Andre Hill

By Aviva Shen

On Monday evening, the Columbus Department of Public Safety announced it has fired the police offi­cer who killed Andre Hill, an unarmed Black man, last week. The white Ohio offi­cer, Adam Coy, was found to have used unrea­son­able force, failed to turn on his body cam­era, and declined to admin­is­ter first aid after he shot Hill.

Coy was respond­ing to a non-emer­gency call about a man sit­ting in his car, yet he showed up with his gun drawn. Hill, 47, was vis­it­ing a friend’s house and had stopped in the garage. Coy ordered him to come out of the garage, so Hill turned around and walked toward Coy with his phone in his hand. Though Coy didn’t turn on his cam­era until after the shoot­ing, a 60-sec­ond play­back fea­ture cap­tured the shoot­ing with­out audio. That footage showed Coy shoot­ing Hill with­in 10 sec­onds of approach­ing him. The oth­er offi­cer on the scene told inves­ti­ga­tors that she did not think Hill posed a threat.

It was the city’s sec­ond police killing of a Black man in the span of a few weeks. A sheriff’s deputy who once said his job was to “hunt peo­ple” killed Casey Goodson Jr. out­side his own home on Dec. 4, trig­ger­ing nation­wide protests. While Goodson’s death wasn’t cap­tured on cam­era, the footage of Hill’s death was so trans­par­ent­ly damn­ing that with­in days, the may­or, city coun­cil mem­bers, and the police chief had all called for Coy’s fir­ing. “Officer Coy’s han­dling of this run is not a ‘rook­ie’ mis­take as a result of neg­li­gence or inad­ver­tence, but the deci­sions … and actions tak­en were reck­less and delib­er­ate,” Police Chief Tom Quinlan wrote in his rec­om­men­da­tion last week.

Coy racked up a num­ber of com­plaints alleg­ing abuse over his years on the force. But he went large­ly unpun­ished until now. In one case in 2012, cruis­er footage showed him slam­ming a man’s head repeat­ed­ly into the hood dur­ing a drunk dri­ving arrest. The city paid out $45,000 in a civ­il rights set­tle­ment for that assault, accord­ing to the Columbus Dispatch, while Coy was sus­pend­ed for 160 hours as a result.

Adam Coy left Andre Hill right

But Coy is hard­ly the only offi­cer in Columbus with a his­to­ry of vio­lence. There are many offi­cers who have net­ted dozens of exces­sive force com­plaints while keep­ing their jobs; some have been pro­mot­ed. Bureau of Justice sta­tis­tics show Columbus police offi­cers killed about three times more peo­ple than any oth­er depart­ment in Ohio between 2013 and 2019. More than two-thirds of those peo­ple were Black in a city that’s only 29 per­cent Black overall.

This sta­tus quo has per­sist­ed despite evi­dence of per­va­sive mis­con­duct and abuse with­in the city police force. Large protests erupt­ed in 2016 after Officer Bryan Mason killed Tyre King, a 13-year-old Black boy who, accord­ing to an autop­sy report request­ed by his fam­i­ly, was “more like­ly than not” run­ning away when he was shot. Mason had already been impli­cat­ed in 47 reports involv­ing exces­sive force, the Appeal report­ed. He was nev­er fired nor indict­ed for the shoot­ing; the department’s ini­tial response was to tweet a pho­to of a repli­ca of a BB gun King was alleged­ly car­ry­ing at the time. More recent­ly, one Columbus offi­cer on the vice squad was indict­ed for forc­ing women to have sex with him under threat of arrest (he is sep­a­rate­ly fac­ing charges for shoot­ing and killing a woman while on the job). Several Black police offi­cers have also blown the whis­tle on the agency’s cul­ture of racism, retal­i­a­tion, and bullying.It’s a cul­ture that has deep roots. Back in 1999, the Department of Justice found the depart­ment had a pat­tern and prac­tice of racial pro­fil­ing, wrong­ful arrests, lying about civ­il rights vio­la­tions, and exces­sive force. “The offi­cers involved in mis­con­duct many times have a his­to­ry of com­plaints against them, and fail to report accu­rate­ly to their supe­ri­ors what tran­spired in the inci­dent (chang­ing the facts to por­tray the vic­tim as respon­si­ble for the arrest, the use of force, and/​or the search),” the DOJ report not­ed. The city respond­ed to the DOJ law­suit in 2002 by giv­ing police offi­cers more train­ing on racial pro­fil­ing and expand­ing the inter­nal affairs bureau’s abil­i­ty to inves­ti­gate mis­con­duct. But the nature of the com­plaints — alle­ga­tions of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and false arrests — have remained remark­ably similar.

Part of the prob­lem is that the police union has his­tor­i­cal­ly stood in the way of even mod­est reforms; under the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, the city can’t even sus­pend an offi­cer unless they clear a high bar. But the city is now try­ing again. Over the protests of the police union, Columbus vot­ers over­whelm­ing­ly approved a mea­sure in November to cre­ate a civil­ian review board and inspec­tor gen­er­al to inves­ti­gate the police. The inde­pen­dent watch­dog agency is mod­eled after sim­i­lar boards in cities like Baltimore and New York, which have had mixed results. Mayor Andrew Ginther shut the police union out of the work­ing group that struc­tured the civil­ian review board, but the city will like­ly still need to nego­ti­ate the scope of the board’s pow­er with the union.

I think law enforcement’s per­spec­tive is very impor­tant, but the FOP is not run­ning this process,” Ginther said in July. “They’re not in charge; they’re not call­ing the shots any­more about how we police.”

The may­or has also pro­posed cut­ting fund­ing for the police, which makes up one-third of the city’s entire bud­get, and allo­cat­ing funds to hire men­tal health and social work­ers instead.

But even just keep­ing Coy off the force might prove dif­fi­cult in the long run. He has the right to appeal the deci­sion through union arbi­tra­tion, and no crim­i­nal charges have been filed against him yet. According to an inves­ti­ga­tion by WOSU, the Columbus pub­lic radio sta­tion, sev­er­al oth­er Columbus police offi­cers have been re-hired in recent years after appeal­ing their fir­ing. It’s a prob­lem that’s plagued police depart­mentsacross the country.

We’re like­ly to see more high-pro­file fir­ings as politi­cians respond to this year’s sus­tained Black Lives Matter protests. President-elect Joe Biden has called for mod­est polic­ing reforms tar­get­ing the “bad apples” in depart­ments. Purging offi­cers like Coy from the force is a com­mon­sense first step. But it won’t fix American polic­ing. Even when local lead­ers and police chiefs call for reform, they face entrenched road­blocks, if not open revolt. Columbus is among the many American cities that have been tin­ker­ing around the edges of their police forces for decades with lit­tle to show for their efforts. Real change can’t hap­pen until we move from sim­ply pun­ish­ing offi­cers like Coy for shoot­ing an unarmed Black man, to keep­ing them from being there in the first place.