The battle over the consent decree -- and what’s really at stake
by Bob Fitrakis
April 1, 2000
“Yeah, they got us listed as subversive. We expect a police helicopter to follow the march,” James Moss, President of Police Officers for Equal Rights (POER) assured me as we lined up to march to the Stand Up For Justice Rally. At first I thought he was joking. What was so subversive about a bunch of black people marching for civil rights on the predominantly black Near East side from an attorney’s office to a church?
Marching from Hamilton Park toward East Broad Street with a black police helicopter hovering overhead seemed a bit odd in everyone’s all-American city, Columbus, Ohio. It did stimulate a quick flashback to my stint as an election observer and journalist in Suchitoto, El Salvador. But hell, I’d expected military and police helicopters to intimidate people in a repressive Third World sham-democracy undergoing its first real democratic elections. After we crossed Broad Street, we were treated to Soviet-era police state tactics: undercover cops in church parking lots, plainclothes officers lurking in alleys with videocameras and a massive display of squad cars on a street where crack houses usually operate openly. Clearly Moss and the POER supporters posed a much greater threat in the minds of the white Columbus Police officers than criminals that often go unchallenged in those neighborhoods.
In fliers passed out at the rally, the POER claimed that Officer Kenny Fields, a POER Executive Board member, was recently assigned to the narcotics squad and had “false charges” filed against him “stemming from a conversation that occurred almost two years ago.” Fields had provided critical information on police misconduct and abuse of citizens’ constitutional rights to the U.S. Justice Department in their investigation of the Columbus Police which found a “pattern or practice” of abuses against minorities, the poor, the young and women. Officer Charles Gordon filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the U.S. Dept. of Justice for what he alleged are continuing a pattern of civil rights violations against him due to his membership in POER, according to the organization.
“Sgt. Ronald Bosley (retired), Officer Adie Coleman (retired), Sgt. Ted Biggers, Sgt. Fred Reed, are just a few members who have been harassed and retaliated against by Columbus Police supervisors,” charged the flier. Moss has repeatedly accused the overwhelmingly white Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) of using “bully tactics” against Columbus’ elected officials to silence any support for the consent decree.
The march and rally served as a prelude to the Columbus City Council meeting the following Monday, March 20, where citizens supporting the consent decree negotiated between the City and the U.S. Dept. of Justice planned to ask Council members to sign the agreement.
POER President James Moss had arranged for out-of-state guests like Dennis McLinn, President of the Missouri chapter of the National Black Police Officers Association, as well as prominent local civil rights leaders like Fred Parker of the NAACP and Sam Gresham of the Urban League to speak at the first A.M.E. Zion Church on 18th and Bryden Rd. Moss argued that “according to the City Charter it is in the scope of City Council’s authority to sign the consent decree. City Council can vote to accept the terms of the proposed consent decree.”
The Council and the City Attorney have found themselves in the bizarre and untenable position that they’re more afraid of the U.S. Labor Department and unfair labor practice charges from the FOP than they are of police actions that kill, maim and deprive Columbus citizens of their constitutional rights. Essentially, City Attorney Janet Jackson, the first African-American to hold that office, has instructed the elected city officials to remain silent on the constitutional issues because of the pending federal lawsuit.
In short, Jackson and the Council accept the FOP’s dubious position that the Dept. of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is wrong. Jackson’s and the FOP’s legal position is that even if the Dept. of Justice is correct, it has no authority to punish police who violate civil rights in the City of Columbus. This is the state’s rights doctrine made famous by racist governor George Wallace during the 60’s civil rights movement. Jackson argues that Council can negotiate away the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Columbus residents to be free from illegal search and seizure and to be treated equally under the law.
At City Hall on March 20, the clash between consent decree supporters and City Council President Matt Habash received heightened media scrutiny. Lost in the mainstream press coverage, was the realization that what is at stake here in the City of Columbus — America’s favorite test market — is something infinitely more important than selling newspapers or TV ad time. The issue is simple and direct: Will constitutional rights be enforced equally for all people or are there some people who will remain in a “suspect profile?” Nobody on Council has yet had the courage to point out the obvious. That Columbus’ finest, armed with guns, their high school diplomas or GED and six months of Police Academy training, are using antiquated stereotypes to harass poor and minority citizens under the “color of law.”
All too many Columbus Police bring to their job the prejudices prevalent in our predominantly white middle-class society. Although they swear an oath to serve and protect and uphold the U.S. Constitution, they know that doesn’t apply to the people they profile.
The legitimacy of a government is often measured by how many police it needs to enforce its laws, what tactics the police use and how many people they lock up. The U.S., with 4% of the world’s population, have locked so many people in our correctional institutions we now have 25% of all the prisoners on the planet.
If the Columbus FOP is able to sell their absurd and un-American belief that they have negotiated the right to deprive certain citizens of their constitutional rights, the implication is that the police state has been test-marketed and its ready to be sold to the nation.
In 1992, the country witnessed one of the largest urban riots in U.S. history after an all-white suburban jury found L.A. police officers not guilty in the videotaped Rodney King beating. As a result, the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1994 giving the U.S. Justice Department authority to sue local police departments in civil cases if they had a pattern or practice of violating citizens’ constitutional rights.
In 1996, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began a three-year probe of the Columbus Division of Police (CDP). In July 1998, Bill Lan Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, wrote City Attorney Janet E. Jackson and informed her that, “We have determined that CDP officers are engaged in a pattern or practice or using excessive force, making false arrests and lodging false charges, and conducting illegal searches and seizures.” The U.S. Justice Department claimed that people had been arrested by officers for the mere perception that they had been “disrespectful.” At the time the letter was issued, the Columbus Dispatch reported that in the 1990’s City Council had paid $3,414,647 in settlements and legal fees for police misconduct.
Columbus Police Chief James Jackson placed the blame on Columbus City Council claiming that they allocated no money for police training between 1992-1994 and had cut training funds by 85% between 1992-1997. In 1998, Chief Jackson noted that the City had given the police only $75,000 for training out of a $600,000 request. While the Chief pointed to the Council, many local police pointed to Jackson’s management style. Local civil rights attorney James McNamara pointed to the pattern of untrained police who violated citizens’ rights and went unpunished by the department because they had not been properly trained.
A year after being cited by the U.S. Department of Justice, the CDP turned to a private police-run accreditation agency, The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, to bolster its image. Critics like James Moss of Police Officers for Equal Rights (POER) accuse the police of “buying” accreditation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Rosenbaum questioned why the police would be seeking accreditation during the time they were being sued for misconduct. Meanwhile, City Attorney Janet Jackson negotiated a 48-page agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice supported by then-Mayor Greg Lashutka. Both Jackson and Lashutka said the City would not sign the agreement unless Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Capital City Lodge No. 9 approved it first.
The agreement called for measures both the Mayor and City Attorney termed “best practices” for police, including computerizing data on the demographics of police stops and mandatory retraining for police with frequent citizen complaints. The agreement would also have ended the long-standing police practice of filing citizens’ complaints as “inquiries” that could be informally disposed of by the officer’s immediate superior with little or no investigation -- critics charged often in a bar over a beer after work. The U.S. Department of Justice had found numerous citizens who thought they’d filed a complaint but no record existed in the police file. A 1996 memo from Columbus Assistant Safety Director Rob Hartsell to Safety Director Thomas Rice concluded that police investigations of citizen complaints are “less than thorough” and “some are visibly slanted.”
Local civil rights activists hailed the agreement as a victory. FOP President Bill Capretta argued that it required “a lot more data and record-keeping,” thus violating their union contract which states that the City can’t change “past practices” no matter how obsolete or inappropriate. One of the CDP’s favorite past practices is excessive use of mace which they do not classify as a “use of force” and need not keep records on its all-too-frequent use in the division. The FOP had previously negotiated the “past practice” clause with the City; in exchange the City saved money with smaller-than-demanded raises, yet essentially conceded any notion of police reform to the police union.
Columbus, Ohio distinguished itself by being the first city in the nation sued under the new law. On October 2, 1999, the U.S. Justice Department sued the Columbus police citing a pattern of civil rights abuses. Previously, Steubenville, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania voluntarily negotiated a “consent decree” with the U.S. Department of Justice without admitting any wrongdoing or civil rights abuses. New Orleans, under a similar investigation, immediately took reform measures to rectify the problem including abolishing the old police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau and creating a new bureau housed outside police headquarters and less subject to internal manipulation. Former Safety Director Thomas Rice made the same recommendation to then-Mayor Greg Lashutka and City Council.
In 1999, Republican mayoral candidate Dorothy Teater called for the FOP to renegotiate its contract with the City so the City could settle with the U.S. Justice Department. She lost the election to the City’s first African-American mayor, Michael Coleman. Earlier this year, the City’s first African-American city attorney, Janet Jackson, a Democrat, outlined in a motion on behalf of the City and the FOP: that the U.S. government has no authority over the Columbus Division of Police and the law to protect citizens from police abuse of their civil rights is illegal and unconstitutional. This line of thinking, usually associated with southern Republican senators like Storm Thurmond and Jesse Helms, echoes back to arguments made by vicious racist Dixiecrats during the heighth of the civil rights movement in the deep South.
On February 29, 2000, Columbus City Council approved more than $700,000 requested by the city attorney to fight the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit and back her state’s rights position. This action and her vigorous defense of no federal involvement in local control of civil rights matters at a press conference prompted the POER to speak out at City Council in favor of the consent decree. Council members refused to disclose their position under the advice of the city attorney.
Would the police use intimidation, retaliation and coercion to silence their critics? The question was quickly answered during the march to the rally site. Moss found it ludicrous that his organization - essentially black police officers that support civil rights and civil liberties - would be listed by the Police Intelligence Unit as “subversive.” This should come as no shock to Free Press readers, since this paper was a victim of a joint CIA (MH Chaos) and FBI (COINTELPRO) harassment operation with the cooperation of the Columbus Police Dept. in the 1970’s. Local civil rights attorney James McNamara recently turned up a document listing the Free Press under “organized crime” surveillance by the Columbus Police.
Despite the tremendous power of the CIA to harass U.S. citizens under the guise of countering international terrorists and the FBI’s ongoing targeting of political dissidents, it’s really the local police intelligence units that pose the greater threat to activists. The American Friends Service Committee documented this in a three-year study in the 1980’s of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU) organization that disclosed how local police surveillance focused a lot of their resources on gathering information to blackmail elected officials and to harass constitutionally-protected political activists.