Columbus officials are investigating a police officer’s conduct during a traffic stop in August and whether it violated departmental policy — including whether it constituted racial profiling.
Body camera footage The Dispatch obtained via an Open Records Act request shows officer Keith Dowd, a white, recently hired 48-year-old veteran officer, unleash a series of insults and accusations at a black male, who looks to be in his early 20s.
As of right now, though, Dowd is still on active duty, completing his most recent shift on Monday.
Dowd pulled over the man for allegedly speeding just before 3 p.m. Aug. 18 near the intersection of Airline Road and Eastwood Drive in east Columbus. Footage of the nearly 13-minute traffic stop shows the officer approaching the car and claiming the man was driving twice the speed limit, though city officials confirmed Dowd’s patrol unit isn’t equipped with radar to detect speed.
From that point, Dowd in a raised voice bombarded the driver with accusations, twice saying he was “driving like an idiot,” accusing him multiple times of lying and “smoking weed,” and threatening to impound the car the man was driving.
Throughout the video, the driver never raises his voice to the officer, often replying to Dowd’s questions with “Yes sir” and “No sir.” He keeps his hands visible and tells Dowd he has never before been stopped and isn’t trying to cause trouble. At no time in the video does the driver threaten the officer.
At one point, the officer tells the driver if he doesn’t stop moving his hands, he “could empty the magazine (of his service pistol) into the car.”
Ultimately, Dowd did not ticket the driver, instead issuing him a warning.
The officer did not search the vehicle for marijuana or find any during the traffic stop — though at one point he falsely told the driver a canine unit was on the way.
Dowd did, however, coerce the driver to say he uses marijuana after the driver initially denied it. The officer said he could tell the driver smoked marijuana by the “coloration” of his tongue.
“I am a DUI, drug and addiction expert,” Dowd told the driver at one point during the stop. “I am an expert in city, county, state and federal court. Pretty much, if I tell a judge this is what I honestly and truly believe, pretty much you’re guilty. I also spent about 20 years as a New York City paramedic. … So when people lie to me like I don’t know what I’m talking about, I find it really insulting.”
City officials did not identify the driver or his age and redacted audio and video of his driver’s license, address and license plate information from the footage released to The Dispatch. The driver, in the video, said he was a graduate and former football player at East Mississippi Community College who now lives and works in Columbus.
Initially, Dowd thought the driver said he still attended EMCC and played football. Then, the officer threatened to call school officials to have him drug tested and removed from the team.
Dowd began working for CPD on July 24, according to human resources office records, and is still serving his initial post-hire probation.
The Dispatch confirmed Dowd worked for Jackson Police Department from 2002-08, and city officials said he worked for at least one other law enforcement agency in Jackson after that. A spokesperson with JPD’s personnel management office said Dowd resigned from his position there and would not comment on whether he was eligible for rehire.
A written reprimand
A source with direct knowledge of the situation, who spoke to The Dispatch on the condition of anonymity, said Police Chief Oscar Lewis issued Dowd a written reprimand after the incident, and ordered him to complete online training courses in communication practices.
But Mayor Robert Smith, who said he learned about the incident from a source within the police department and from one of the driver’s relatives, is pushing for further scrutiny.
After watching the body camera footage, Smith said he provided most of the councilmen with a copy to review.
During next week’s city council meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. Sept. 19 in the Municipal Complex, he said Police Chief Oscar Lewis would appear before the council to discuss additional discipline for Dowd.
“There are many specific actions taken by the officer that are without cause and without excuse,” Smith said. “The officer’s hostile attitude toward the citizen is without provocation and is an embarrassment to our city and our police department. We trust our law enforcement officers with the highest powers of authority and arrest. In this specific case, the officer misused his trust, misused his authority and misused his position as a Columbus police officer.”
City attorney Jeff Turnage said he is looking into concerns of racial profiling, though the driver himself had not filed a complaint with CPD as of Tuesday afternoon. He said he is also concerned about Dowd’s and other drivers’ safety if he handles traffic stops the same way in the future.
Specifically regarding Dowd’s comment on “emptying the magazine” into the driver’s car, Turnage said it was certainly “threatening,” but not necessarily an overt threat.
“It was very ill-advised,” he said.
The mayor also commended the driver’s “remarkable” behavior during the stop.
Smith said failing to address the problem is even more troubling when considering a white former CPD officer is scheduled to stand trial next month for the shooting death of Ricky Ball, a black man who ran from a traffic stop in north Columbus on Oct. 16, 2015.
Why Lewis wasn’t more proactive in bringing the Dowd incident forward also concerns Smith.
“That’s a damn good question,” Smith said. “You should ask him.”
Lewis, who has been placed on an “action plan” for job performance after a private consultant the city hired to study the police department recommended his removal as chief in July, refused to interview over the phone or face-to-face with The Dispatch. In a prepared statement, he said he would not comment on the details of the investigation because it is a personnel matter.
Three councilmen — Joseph Mickens of Ward 2, Charlie Box of Ward 3 Stephen Jones of Ward 5 — confirmed to The Dispatch they had watched the footage of the stop.
Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor said he had a copy but had not watched it, while Ward 4’s Fred Jackson said he was out of town and did not yet have a copy.
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin did not return calls and messages for comment.
While Jones wouldn’t comment on how Dowd should be disciplined, he is concerned the officer is still out on the street.
“I’ve been stopped and talked to like that by a police officer, so I have zero tolerance for this sort of thing,” Jones said. “I don’t know whether this was about race or just police power, but I thought it must have been pretty scary for the young man. … There’s no place in the Columbus Police Department for this type of behavior.”
Mickens said he didn’t believe Dowd’s conduct on the stop was racial but “just who he was.”
“It could’ve been President Trump, and I believe he would’ve been the same way,” Mickens said.
As for whether Dowd should be disciplined or terminated, Mickens said the “jury is still out.”
“He maybe shouldn’t be out on the street right now,” he said. “Maybe they should find a better place (within CPD) for him right now.”
Neither Taylor nor Box would comment on the investigation.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.