The past two years have been particularly challenging for Columbus Police Department.
First came an officer-involved shooting death of a man who ran from a traffic stop. An officer shortage followed — which at its peak left CPD 23 officers shy of a full roster.
Just as the police roster had rebuilt nearly to full strength, another incident threw the department in turmoil.
On Aug. 18, CPD Officer Keith Dowd, who had only been working for the department a few weeks, pulled over a black driver for speeding and harassed him, at one point saying he could “empty a magazine” from his service weapon in the vehicle. The body camera footage from the traffic stop was released to the media and Dowd resigned last week.
To Assistant Chief Fred Shelton and other CPD officers, Dowd’s behavior was an egregious example of what not to do at a traffic stop. But for some civilians, particularly black citizens, they saw it as business as usual.
“My reaction was, ‘Here we go again,'” said Mike Saddleberg, a Columbus resident of six years. “And it comes from people who think they can do that.”
Shelton said the department is committed to reversing the negative perception created by these two incidents.
That, of course, starts with rebuilding public trust through community policing, Shelton said — a task he knows won’t be quick or easy.
“It’s going to take work,” he said. “I’m not expecting an overnight change.”
Community policing is not an entirely new philosophy for CPD. The department even has a community policing officer, Rhonda Sanders, who — among other things — helps coordinate events with community partners specifically tailored to increase positive police-citizen interaction.
Sanders also helps organize neighborhood watch groups in the community, with which CPD hosts a National Night Out on Crime each year.
Just last week, more than 60 citizens attended “Coffee with a Cop” at a downtown business. Sanders partnered with Main Street Columbus to organize the breakfast event.
“It’s very important, building that rapport with the community and police officers so that civilians will be comfortable in calling and giving private information to police officers,” Sanders said.
CPD is planning to host more events like Coffee with a Cop in neighborhoods and community centers all over the city, Shelton said.
“The whole idea is to meet with people where they need us,” Shelton said.
But to reach people who might not attend such events, Chief Oscar Lewis has reinstituted foot patrols in neighborhoods.
The department has tried this tactic before, as well, with mixed results.
In the 1990s, Shelton led a small group of police ambassadors on neighborhood foot patrols. Then in 2015, in response to a March afternoon shooting at Sim Scott Park that injured multiple victims, CPD deployed a Special Operations Group to patrol high-crime neighborhoods — most often, neighborhoods where minorities live.
That experiment ended when one of the officers involved, Canyon Boykin, shot and killed Ricky Ball, a black man who ran from a traffic stop in north Columbus. Boykin was fired for several CPD policy violations, including not having his body camera activated during the incident. He was indicted for manslaughter. His trial is set for next month.
This time around, Shelton said, all the officers will be involved, rather than just a small group. Their priority will be getting to know the people in the neighborhoods they patrol — knocking on their doors, shaking their hands, giving them business cards and educating them on city ordinances like not loitering or being drunk in public.
Eugene Betts, an officer fresh out of academy training, has been on a few foot patrols since joining CPD.
“They’re really happy to see you,” he said of the residents. “They want more of it.”
Traffic stops are another area of emphasis for CPD to improve, and Shelton said he wants to use the Dowd incident as a way to train officers on de-escalation tactics.
“We have a job to do, and we’re going to do it,” Shelton said. “But we’re going to treat you with dignity and respect. … If you start off right (as police), you usually end right.”
Betts agreed, even though he knows he will be faced with people who do not like or trust police when he pulls someone over.
“A conversation will get you a long way,” he said. “Eventually, (the person) won’t feel that way if you have good communication.”
See it to believe it
Growing up in Indianapolis, Miriah Stacy sad she had bad experiences with police. One night, she and her mother had to call 911 about a domestic situation with someone they lived with at the time.
“(The police) acted like they didn’t really care,” she said. “So the police have never really been there for me when I needed it, and I feel like that’s how the African American community feels.”
Stacy, a junior at the Mississippi University for Women who has lived in Columbus for more than a year, said a more positive interaction with a CPD officer had started to change her views.
A few weeks ago, Stacy said she was downtown late at night when she learned her roommate wouldn’t be home. A recent experience involving her car windows being smashed made her nervous to go back to her apartment alone. She was sitting outside Zachary’s restaurant when an officer approached her.
“She was like, ‘Are you OK?’ So I explained the situation to her,” Stacy said. “She followed me home, inspected my apartment, made sure everything was OK.”
“That officer didn’t have to come,” Stacy added. “… But that showed she cared.”
Whether through planned events or more organic meetings, Stacy believes CPD could change others’ minds, too.
“If you shake hands with your neighbor (and then) you see that same guy pull you over, you’re not going to feel personally attacked,” she said. “(Instead you’ll say) ‘that’s the guy I met at the picnic the other day.'”
Saddleberg, on the other hand, is a little more skeptical, especially with incidents like the Ricky Ball shooting and the Dowd traffic stop happening so close together.
“I think in this case folks have to see it to believe it,” he said.
Managing Editor Zack Plair contributed to this article.
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