A group of marchers with Ministries 4 Movement were making their way through the streets of Columbus’ South Side — as they do on the first Sunday of every month — when the gunshots rang out.
As they banged on drums and renewed their calls for an end to citywide violence on Feb. 5 while marching near Stanley and Wilson avenues, the 80 demonstrators suddenly were sent ducking and running for cover.
That’s the recollection of the Rev. Frederick V. LaMarr, pastor of Family Missionary Baptist Church, which organizes the marches. And it became only more chilling when he learned later that it was a police officer who fired his weapon multiple times, shooting a suspect in the back as he fled on foot towards the vicinity of the march.
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“That was reckless,” LaMarr said. “They should never have shot at anybody while we’re out there.”
It was the first of two incidents in which Columbus police officers fired upon a suspect in the span of less than a week. Six days later, SWAT officers with the Columbus Division of Police fatally shot an Athens man in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Grove City while attempting to serve an arrest warrant.
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Following the back-to-back police shootings, some Columbus faith leaders and community activists are renewing their calls for police reform and accountability.
“This is an epidemic of violence at the hands of Columbus police,” said Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, organizing director of the People’s Justice Project in Columbus. “We’re talking about lives lost. … We’re talking about unchecked officers who use their powers to terrorize the community.”
After the Feb. 5 shooting, LaMarr said he convened meetings with other Greater Columbus faith leaders and drafted a letter on behalf of the Baptist Ministerial Alliance of Columbus that will be sent to Mayor Andrew J. Ginther to urge for accountability in the shooting.
“We’re not going to lose our confidence in the police because of one officer,” LaMarr said. “But we’ve got to come together as a community because there’s a proliferation of guns in our community we don’t want, there’s a proliferation of violence in our community we don’t want, and there’s bad policing in our community we don’t I don’t want.”
Columbus police officer Joshua Ohlinger was identified as the officer who on the afternoon of Feb. 5 shot 66-year-old Michael L. Cleveland following a brief vehicle chase. Cleveland, who has since been charged with being a felon illegally in possession of a firearm, was taken to a nearby hospital in critical condition before being upgraded to stable condition.
During a Monday press conference, members of Cleveland’s family said he still remains hospitalized and may be permanently paralyzed.
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In the most recent shooting on Saturday, Andrews, 46, of Athens, was fatally shot after 8 pm by Columbus SWAT officers attempting to arrest him on a warrant out of Athens County on a charge of rape of a minor who was under the age of 13.
In the wake of both shootings, Ginther touted in a statement to The Dispatch the recent steps the city has made in regards to police reform, while insisting that mechanisms are in place to hold officers accountable for shootings — from grand jury reviews for potential criminal charges , to independent investigations into misconduct by the Civilian Police Review Board.
Ginther said that last week the city reached out to the US Department of Justice to request independent examinations of use-of-force policies, an audit of police technology and a review of training practices focused on community policing.
“We continue to build a culture of trust and implement the changes and reforms our community deserves. We are committed to full transparency and holding officers accountable,” Ginther said in the statement. “We look forward to continued collaboration with the DOJ.”
But Fournier-Alsaada, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to a $5.75 million settlement from the city of Columbus for 32 plaintiffs alleging police brutality during protests in the summer of 2020, said that little progress has been made during her years of activism, and it hardly seems to have led to sustained change.
Even massive city settlements in fatal police shootings, the implementation of a Civilian Police Review Board that’s faced multiple hurdlesand city-requested audits by the Department of Justice of racial bias with the division haven’t been enough, she said, to deter police from using lethal force twice in a week.
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“We don’t need another study, we don’t need another think tank — we’ve done all of that and it’s time to move to action now,” Fournier-Alsaada said. “We continue to not use what we know, to not stay focused on this problem and recognize it as the number one priority in this city.”
The Rev. Susan Smith, founder of Crazy Faith Ministriessaid the shootings of Cleveland and Andrews are emblematic of the militaristic “shoot first, ask questions later” mindset that she said seems to permeate so much of law enforcement.
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“When I look at what’s going on, to me it’s a performance of the system as it’s designed to be performed,” Smith said. “If you believe Black people and brown people are the bad guys, then that’s what you’re gonna do.”
The city has paid nearly $18 million since 2020 to settle lawsuits related to police use of force, including $10 million to the family of Andre Hill, an unarmed Black man shot dead in December 2020 by officer Adam Coy — the single largest payout in the city’s history. (Coy is awaiting trial on murder and other charges.)
Those funds are at the expense of taxpayers, Smith said, leading her to wonder if fatal police shootings would decline if funds instead came from the city’s police division.
“We the people are paying for the executions of our own people,” she said.
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Organizations such as BREAD (Building Responsibility, Equality And Dignity) have long been at the forefront of pushing city leaders and police officials to implement what they see as proactive reforms.
James Wynn, a member and former co-president of the interfaith social justice group, is part of a committee focused on police and community violence, as well as the repair of police and community relations.
Among BREAD’s biggest requests, Wynn said, is that the Columbus Division of Police implement Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) training. The program developed by Georgetown Law’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety prepares officers to intervene to prevent fellow officers from harmful behavior that violates department policy.
Leaders at BREAD have also called on Columbus police to undertake more reconciliation efforts with those in the community whose trust in the police has long been strained.
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“Unless you’re going to be proactive to do something about that gulf, that gap that exists is just going to get wider,” Wynn said. “We do want to make the working relationship better for everybody.”
Eric Lagatta is a reporter at The Columbus Dispatch covering public safety, with a focus on in-depth coverage of social justice issues and crime trends.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Community leaders lament two Columbus police shootings within one week