ĎShots Firedí

Columbus police are stingy with records of police shootings, but reports indicate officers who pull the trigger almost always get it right

Sunday, January 14, 2007
John Futty

Columbus police officers who shoot someone are almost always justified in the eyes of their supervisors.

Most 2006 cases, including two in November in which officers killed suspects, are under review. In 112 shootings from 1996 through 2005, six officers violated division policies, according to records reviewed by The Dispatch. One was fired.

None of the 153 officers was charged with a crime. The 25 shootings that resulted in deaths were reviewed by Franklin County grand juries; nonfatal shootings are rarely reviewed independently as in some other cities.

Police brass say the dearth of unjustified shootings reflects good training and restraint by the cityís 1,870 officers. But few people, even within police ranks, know case details or how often officers are cleared because the division is so secretive. It routinely withholds all but basic details. Even officersí names are usually not disclosed until a day or two after the incident.

The division can take years to fulfill simple records requests. To conduct this study, The Dispatch filed its first request for public records more than 2Ĺ years ago.

"I donít believe they are saying enough," said Officer James Scanlon, who was involved in two shootings during the decade and a fatal shooting in 1991, all as a member of the SWAT team. "There is a void."

An analysis of the 112 officer involved shootings from the past decade found little evidence to refute that most were justified. The review identified only four cases in which officers fired at a suspect under the mistaken impression that the person was armed. All were ruled justified.

Deadly-force expert Tom Aveni said that statistic "would suggest to me that they are better than the national average. Iíd have to say theyíre doing something right."

Too often, Scanlon said, the information void is filled by misinformation and criticism from friends and relatives of those shot by police. Officers, often traumatized by the experience, face additional stress when they are second-guessed by the public without response from police officials, he said.

"The brass could be more proactive by coming out with enough to counter some of the misinformation, a few facts that would indicate the officers did what they had to do," Scanlon said. "The facts are always going to benefit us."

Lack of information is one of the biggest frustrations for relatives of those who die in police shootings, said Fred Gittes, a Columbus civil-rights lawyer.

"They are desperately trying to piece things together, but they are operating in the dark," he said. "The police donít even tell the family as much as they tell (the media)."

Officer Jim Gilbert, a 10-year veteran who was involved in a fatal shooting in 2000, was elected president of the local police union last month with a campaign pledge to be a more vocal supporter of officers.

"It is up to the union to step up and speak for the officers involved because the division has shown theyíre not going to do it," said Gilbert, who heads Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9.

Deputy Chief John Rockwell said police administrators have no choice but to limit the information released while an officer-involved shooting is under investigation.

"Itís a dilemma for us. We want to get information out as quickly as possible, to put people at ease," he said, "but there are concerns about jeopardizing the case."

In response to Dispatch questions raised during interviews for this story, the division began issuing news releases last month to report the outcome of its investigations of officer involved shootings.

Similar questions prompted Franklin County Prosecutor Ron OíBrien to say that his office, which presents all fatal officer-involved shootings to a grand jury, will issue news releases to announce grand-jury decisions.

Other communities do more. In Denver, which boasts of the most-open officer-involved shooting protocol in the country, the district attorney reviews police shootings that injure or kill someone and then issues a letter explaining the case and whether charges will be filed. After an internal investigation, the Denver public-safety manager issues a more detailed report and says whether the shooting followed policy.

"We try to make the process as transparent as possible," said Chuck Lepley, first assistant district attorney. "Itís for the protection of the officer as much as anyone."

In Columbus, police have been slow to respond to requests for information from past shooting investigations.

In August 2004, The Dispatch first asked to review the divisionís investigative files on police shootings, and it took 2Ĺ years for the division to make available all files from 2003 and 2004.

The Dispatch also filed a series of public-records requests in search of a comprehensive accounting of the decadeís shootings. Some records from the 1990s no longer exist, including many of the decision letters from the Firearms Board of Inquiry, which reviews shootings by officers.

Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council in Spofford, N.H., said most police officials distrust the news media and resist providing information about officer involved shootings.

"There is a mistaken belief that a lot of this stuff will be misconstrued, and that when it appears in the media, it will paint a negative picture of the way police use deadly force," he said.

"Just the opposite is true. Most studies show that the use of force is very judicious and very infrequent."

Deadly force appears to be a last resort for Columbus officers. In 2005, 17 officer-involved shootings occurred ó the highest annual total of the decade. That year, one in every 68,548 Columbus police incidents resulted in officers firing shots.

Officers reported using force 2,957 times that year. They fired their weapons in less than one half of 1 percent of those cases.

The most fatal shootings by officers during one year in that decade was six, in 2000. That number was matched in 2006, but those cases, along with eight nonfatal shootings, were not included in the Dispatch review because several remain under investigation.

A majority of the people shot at by police during the decade were black, which is in line with the demographics encountered by officers investigating violent crime, officials said.

"High-crime areas have a high population of blacks," said Columbus Police Chief James G. Jackson, who is black.

Of the people shot at by officers during the decade whose identities were available through public records, 64 percent were black, 32 percent white, 2 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian.

Of the 25 who died, 12 were white, 11 black and two Hispanic.

Of the 153 officers involved in shootings during the decade, 88 percent were white. The police force is 86 percent white, the safety directorís office says.

Sgt. Dana Winship, a firearms supervisor, said the division strives to provide firearms training for each officer four times a year. In addition to shooting at stationary targets and qualifying with their weapons annually, officers might be sent through a maze where they face pop-up targets that represent threats, other officers or innocent bystanders.

"Itís all about decision-making," he said. "Once you have identified a threat, what is your next step? "

Whenever an officer shoots at someone, members of the divisionís Critical Incident Response Team investigate. The team of 10 experienced homicide detectives and two sergeants was created more than a decade ago.

"It used to be that some of these investigations were done by street lieutenants with very little experience and few resources," said detective James McCoskey, one of the teamís founding members. "Some of those investigations got screwed up. We started talking about putting together our most senior investigators (to give) street officers the best investigations we can."

With oversight from the divisionís internal affairs bureau, the team interviews officers and all witnesses at the scene. Crime-scene and ballistic specialists investigate all shootings, and the coronerís office investigates deaths.

The result is an investigative packet that can number hundreds of pages and goes to the Firearms Board of Inquiry, which comprises three commanders. In fatal shootings, the packet first goes to the prosecutorís office for grand jury review.

Firearms Board members offer an opinion about whether the shooting followed policy. That opinion is reviewed by the officerís chain of command, with a deputy chief making the final decision.

Since 2000, the earliest year for which complete records are available, the average investigation has taken nearly seven months. One case from October 2005 is still being reviewed by the Firearms Board.

Itís worse elsewhere. In Cleveland, where the city law director decides whether to file criminal charges, some cases languished so long that the mayor called in a special prosecutor last year to review five shootings, one of them 2 years old.

Columbus police officials say the length of their investigations results from a thoroughness that makes a cover-up unlikely.

"There is so much oversight by so many different units within the division, plus the coronerís office and the prosecutorís office when there is a death," said Paul Denton, a former Columbus police commander who became chief of the Ohio State University Police Department in November. "Youíd have to have a large conspiracy to think that anyone could taint an investigation of that type."

Division policy permits officers to use deadly force when they "have reason to believe the response is objectively reasonable to protect themselves or others from the imminent threat of death or serious physical harm."

And case law gives officers much leeway when they shoot because of a perceived threat. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1989 Graham vs. Connor decision, ruled that police actions must be judged against how a reasonable officer would act under the same circumstances, "rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

A 1994 ruling by the 4 th Circuit Court of Appeals said the court "will not second-guess the split-second judgment of a trained police officer merely because that judgment turns out to be mistaken, particularly where inaction could result in death or serious injury to the officer or others."

Gittes, a frequent critic of police misconduct, conceded that most officer-involved shootings are justified.

"Other kinds of force are a much bigger problem," he said. "Officers are more willing to use other kinds of force because the consequences are not as serious."

He is among those who say a citizen-review commission is the only way to ensure public confidence in investigations of deadly force.

"Police policing the police doesnít work very well," he said. "And a grand jury isnít a substitute for an independent review. Itís all done in secret."

Division and FOP leaders have opposed a citizen commission, and only a minority of City Council members have expressed interest in the idea.

"I believe it can be a useful tool if done the right way," said Councilman Kevin Boyce. "So far, there hasnít been the right proposal."

Scanlon said the current system is daunting enough that it likely causes officers to hesitate before pulling the trigger.

"In this day and age, the aftermath is in the back of the officerís mind," he said. "They know what theyíll go through. You hope that officers put that out of their mind in a deadly force situation, but itís always there."

Rockwell said the restraint shown by officers who find themselves in potentially life threatening situations is difficult to measure.

"How many officers could use deadly force and donít? " he asked. "There is no statistic for that."