Police oversight board fears its work will have to wait for criminal investigations

At its 14th monthly meeting since its inception, the Columbus Civilian Police Review Board seeks answers about its function and ability to investigate questionable police actions.

Members fear they may appear to be barred from starting their exams until the criminal charges against the officers are completed.

“We could be talking about years,” board chairwoman Janet Jackson said.

The Supervisory Board is able to recommend changes in policy and the discipline of officers as a result of their reviews. Board members wonder how timely their recommendations might be if they are unable to act.

Voters approved the creation of the police oversight board in a November 2020 ballot, after years of calling for the feature in Columbus, which was one of the only major cities in the country without one . The police union criticized the creation of the council as an attack on the collective bargaining rights of the police.

The council relies on the new Office of Inspector General to conduct civilian police investigations for review. Jacqueline Hendricks-Moore was only appointed to the post in February.

It now appears that guidelines are in place prohibiting the two agencies from carrying out their work until the cases go through the criminal justice system and are concluded.

It’s a bad idea to suspend administrative investigations like these, said Jayson Wechter, chairman of a police oversight board in San Francisco that provides training through NACOLE, the National Association for civilian oversight of law enforcement.

He gave the Columbus board of directors a training session at their October meeting on Tuesday. He said failing to investigate them would hamper their results.

“You don’t want to suspend the administrative investigation while the criminal investigation continues and potentially lose evidence,” Wechter said.

Jackson said she is seeking clarification from attorneys to see if their investigation and the criminal investigation could proceed concurrently, as long as there is a firewall between the two.

Wechter said it’s typical for these investigations to take place in other locations, and for criminal investigators and an inspector general to usually agree on a schedule of what can be released to them and when without interference.

Jackson said she was worried the public wouldn’t understand why it would take their board so long to act.

“I think a lot of people in the community believe, ‘Well, it happened. And the IG can do its job. And the Civil Review Board can do it, and it’s going to be over,'” she said.

Jackson said she will work with the IG and the county attorney who decides what to do, like filing charges or not, after the criminal investigation is complete, to determine what they can share with each other and when.

Jackson expressed doubts that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the state agency that investigates fatal shootings involving police officers, would share its investigation before it was completed. But, she would like to know if the investigations could take place simultaneously.

These questions arise more than a year since the council was formed and amid recent police-involved shootings, including the August death of 21-year-old Donovan Lewis, who was shot and killed in his Sullivant Avenue home by Columbus Policeman Ricky Anderson. Anderson is on paid leave, which Lewis’s family are upset about. They want to see Anderson fired.

Former Columbus police officer Adam Coy was fired less than a week after shooting Andre Hill, who was unarmed when he was shot by Coy. Coy’s criminal case is still pending in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. He has been charged, but not yet tried.

When asked why the city fired Coy so quickly, but not Anderson, the Department of Public Safety spokesman said there was nothing he could do until the criminal investigation into the Lewis shooting n was not complete, followed by the IG’s investigation and review and recommendations by the Oversight Committee.

Then it’s up to the director of the department, Robert Clark, to determine what will be done, which must also follow police union contracts. The department could not explain why Coy was treated differently.

Former board member Aaron Thomas resigned following the Lewis shooting, citing his frustration with the board’s ability to enact change. New candidates can apply through the mayor’s office to serve.

Mark M. Gagnon