The Columbus Police made national news in late April, when Ma’Khia Bryant, 16-year-old Black girl, was fatally shot by an officer outside her home after she had called the police for help. Eight days after the shooting, Columbus city officials asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Columbus Division of Police.
For years, activists in the city have been calling for police reform, citing racist behaviors by the police. Data shows that between the years 2012 and 2016, Black people in Columbus were more likely to be arrested following a traffic stop caused by a moving violation than white people in Columbus. Out of the 40,058 Black people pulled over, 1,924 were arrested. Out of the 48,336 white people pulled over, 1,149 were arrested.
In March, the Columbus City Council was unable to get enough votes to divert $2.5 million from the police budget to create a “Reimagining Public Safety” fund.
The money would have come out of the incoming police recruit class. Councilmember Priscilla Tyson told the Associated Press that the reason she did not vote to divert the funding was because of the diversity of the incoming police class.
“Based on that diversity, to me, it was imperative that we sit this class,” Tyson said.
But some activists in the city have raised concerns that while the class might be racially diverse, it will most likely not be geographically diverse.
“Diversity just doesn’t mean about race,” DaVante Goins, founder of the UnBossed Network said. “That’s the thing we take to [diversity] and reference it, is race, but it’s more so important that a good majority of our officers live in a community that they police.”
An investigation by NBC4 in early 2021 showed that just 23 percent of Columbus police officers live in Columbus. The investigation used zip code data, acquired through public records requests to the police stations, which means the number might actually be lower than 23 percent. Multiple Columbus zip codes overlap with other municipalities.
“If you live in German Village, but you’re policing the Linden area, or the Hilltop, you don’t have that relatability to [residents],” Goins said. “So we have to understand what the concept and what the word diverse means.”
The top six zip codes where Columbus police officers live are outside the city, primarily in suburbs. Activists have raised concerns over how this will affect any implicit biases the police officers have.
“These people live in areas where they are not exposed to the multiple ethnicities that are in the city,” Kira Yakita, the founder and president of the grass-roots group Black Liberation Movement Central Ohio, said. “So when they go down there, there’s already that implicit bias and fear and ‘oh dear, these people are scary I bet, because they were scary on TV.’”
Michaux Parker, the associate dean of the Indiana University East School of Humanities and Social Sciences and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Political Science, has spent several years studying how the residency of police officers affects community relations. He is also a former police officer who used to live where he policed.
Parker said that having police live where they work helps to counter any implicit biases they might have about the community and it helps earn the trust of those they police.
“Having officers live in a specific jurisdiction where they work is beneficial to helping develop those relationships between officers and the people that they serve,” Parker said. “It also is helpful because it gives officers a better contextual understanding of different situations that are happening.”
This contextual understanding, Parker said, can make it easier for officers to understand the background of specific situations that might arise, giving them different techniques when it comes to de-escalating the situation.
“And that is received much better by the people who live there, because they feel like they know these officers,” Parker said.
In 2001, more than 100 Ohio cities had residency requirements for police officers, that made living within city limits a condition for employment. But in 2006, a state law was passed barring cities from enforcing residency requirements and in 2009 the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the law.
Police unions in Ohio celebrated the law being upheld. Across the country, unions continue to argue that residency requirements can make it difficult to recruit police officers.
“Yeah, you may have fewer people apply, but, say it out loud,” Parker said. “What you’re saying is that people who refuse to be a part of a neighborhood, who will refuse to work if you forced them to be a part of a neighborhood. And so, you know, let’s say you get 10 percent or 20 percent less applications this year, 20 percent of the people who would normally apply will only apply as long as you don’t force them to be a part of, of the neighborhood that they’re policing. See, we don’t say these things out loud because they don’t sound very nice.”
Cities are still allowed to offer incentives in order to convince police officers to live where they police. In 2020, the Columbus Safety Advisory Committee, submitted a list of 80 recommendations to the city to improve public safety. One of the recommendations was to implement an incentive program for officers to live in the neighborhood they patrol. The committee dashboard currently shows that this recommendation has been approved and requires funding and/or bargaining.
The incoming class of Columbus police officers have been touted for their racial diversity, but Parker expects that the benefits of this diversity will take many years to come to fruition.
“When you talk to people in different parts of the country, especially larger urban areas, they’ll tell you that well, officer X is not really black, he’s blue or officer Y is not Brown, he’s blue,” Parker said. “And what they’re telling you is that just because this person has the same demographic characteristics as the neighborhood, in which they patrol, they don’t identify with these people. And that takes a long period of time. It takes years sometimes for people in that community to then feel like they have a bond with the officers.”
Yakita fears that a racially diverse police force could allow for people in power to stop watching and just assume that everything will be fixed.
“I think that there could be nothing but benefit from having a more diverse police force,” Yakita said. “But we cannot become complacent and make the assumption that more diversity automatically equals fair treatment.”