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Columbus Police officers say morale is bad, trust in city leadership worse amid protests

Police officers say law enforcement morale is low amid racial protests in Columbus. (WSYX/WTTE){p}{/p}
Police officers say law enforcement morale is low amid racial protests in Columbus. (WSYX/WTTE)

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A trio of Columbus police officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Monday that the Columbus Division of Police suffers from unsteady leadership and mixed signals from City Hall, at a time when officers near clearer direction amid new challenges downtown.

The officers spoke after weekend protests in Columbus once again deteriorated into clashes between police and demonstrators. Mace and pepper spray were deployed to disperse crowds and subdue at least one person, less than a week after Mayor Andrew Ginther ordered that chemical agents no longer be used against "peaceful protesters."

In the days prior to Sunday's tangle with police, protesters had been spotted in the middle of High Street, blocking traffic and surrounding vehicles that attempted to pass through. Little or no police action was taken to stop such gatherings on the street, according to 911 calls and accounts from officers who spoke with ABC 6/FOX 28.

The officers said previously they had received orders from supervisors to "let the protesters have the street."

"(In one incident) we were all staged...and a cruiser had been damaged. The suspect was male, black, wearing a gray T-shirt and we could see him from where we were," an officer said. "We were told by a supervisor on radio, 'let them go, it’s only property.'"

Another officer recounted a similar situation.

"People were taking over the street, riding on cars, and the commander who was in charge said, 'just let them do it,'" the officer said. "You've got to be kidding me,.That's the job of the cops, to maintain order."

Both the mayor and the Division of Police have denied issuing a "stand-down" order regarding the protesters in the middle of High Street, though some officers question the language.

"Whether or not you use the words 'stand down,' when you tell us to let them (protesters) take over the street...that’s a stand-down order," an officer said.

Aside from responding to protests, the officers said that devoting extra officers downtown is delaying routine police calls and investigations across the city.

"On first shift, you usually take five or six runs, and I've taken 16," said one officer Monday, referring to assignments backed up since Sunday night's protests. "It's unreal the amount of calls for service that are backed up."

Other officers are worried that the current state of police-community relations across the country will affect everyday police work at home.

"My fear is that officers are going to be apprehensive to use force and are going to end up getting hurt because of it," said one Columbus police officer. "People are just taking an account of what’s occurring in Atlanta, and don’t want to be the next sacrificial lamb."

In Columbus, officers are expressing a need for more consistent leadership from the Division of Police administration, and less intrusion from the mayor's office.

"I'm not real impressed," said one. "Ginther doesn't give a s*** about us, he's only out for himself."

"(City Attorney) Zach Klein dismisses the charges (against protesters for violating curfew and failure to disperse). What’s that say to us?" said another officer. "It’s like parenting a kid; you try to reel them in and they only act worse."

On Monday, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police union, which represents city cops, echoed that clearer direction is needed.

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"If the elected officials in Columbus want to allow people to take to the streets and disrupt traffic, it needs to be communicated to our officers that that's the choice," said Keith Ferrell. "If you want to take away all our training and abilities on how to disperse, then you need to tell us how to do that."

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