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After 2 Black Men Are Killed By Police, Columbus Demands A Reckoning

NOEL KING, HOST:

Columbus, Ohio, is a diverse, vibrant and growing city. Residents are trying to square that good stuff with two separate incidents in December where white police officers shot and killed Black men. Here's Nick Evans of member station WOSU.

NICK EVANS, BYLINE: Saeed Jones moved to Columbus in 2019. The poet, writer and former BuzzFeed editor quickly became one of the city's biggest boosters.

SAEED JONES: I think it's really fascinating that it, like, really reflects the entire country (laughter). We kind of have America living here. I think there's the energy of Columbus kind of stepping into - I don't know - like, a new era in its identity.

EVANS: But the past year has strained that relationship. Following George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis, protesters gathered here, too, and some Columbus police responded brutally. They even pepper-sprayed local Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, the Democrat now heading the Congressional Black Caucus. City officials promised reform, and they took some steps, like banning no-knock warrants. But then in December, a sheriff's deputy and a police officer shot and killed Black men in separate incidents less than three weeks apart, rocking this city to its core. Saeed Jones is concerned about the way some police officers view Black residents.

JONES: I think they look at them like problems to be solved and the equation is brutal and seemingly lethal consistently.

EVANS: Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan recognizes the problem and the mistrust.

TOM QUINLAN: I'll certainly say that there is a gap to be bridged. I mean, there is no doubt that we're not where we need to be.

EVANS: That distrust has consequences. 2020 set a record for homicides here, and police repeatedly found themselves pleading for information from skeptical residents. Stephanie Hightower, who leads the Columbus Urban League, says that disconnect stems in part from officers' race and where they live.

STEPHANIE HIGHTOWER: There is going to be a disconnect when you don't live in this city and you don't know this community, you don't know the neighborhood, you don't know who the players are, you don't have relationships. Now, do we have some officers who do build those relationships? Absolutely. Don't get me wrong.

EVANS: Just under 10% of the Columbus police force is Black, while Black residents make up about 30% of the city's population. The police department doesn't track officers' residency but did provide a breakdown by zip code. At least 40% of officers live outside city limits. Rashawn Ray studies police-community relations at the Brookings Institute and says those figures are pretty typical across the country.

RASHAWN RAY: The key pattern is this - white officers are less likely to live in a city where they work; Black officers are more likely to. And I think a big wave that's starting to happen - and Columbus should consider this - is whether or not they want to implement a residency requirement.

EVANS: Ray argues any requirement should be paired with incentives, like downpayment assistance for homes. He also suggests police departments pay insurance premiums out of their budget to cover any civil settlements from police violence.

RAY: Not only will it be a level of accountability for the department, but also it will give leverage to police chiefs and mayors that talk about how they cannot get rid of bad officers.

EVANS: Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan acknowledges the importance of embedding officers in the community. But he points out the city can't impose a residency requirement because the state Supreme Court has ruled against that.

QUINLAN: We do want to find ways to incentivize it through residency credits or I've looked at maybe possibly, if we could get enough police cars, have take-home cars if you live in the city.

EVANS: Meanwhile, city leaders are flirting with more fundamental reforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVED RECORDING)

GAYLE SAUNDERS: And this question, you know, we want you to be bold. We want you to be forward-thinking. What is your vision for alternative crisis response?

EVANS: During a recent town hall, Gayle Saunders, who leads a local research firm, moderated an interactive survey on who should respond to service calls if not the police. Responses showed up like sticky notes cascading down the screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAUNDERS: Oh, here we go - wonderful. These are powerful, powerful. Children won't be afraid of police; Black people won't be needlessly murdered; provide a service that everyone feels comfortable and safe calling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.