Police shooting of Ma'Khia Bryant stokes calls for federal probe in Columbus

The Department of Justice has previously investigated Columbus police over use-of-force allegations.

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More protests are planned this weekend in the wake of the deadly shooting of a 16-year-old girl by police in Columbus, Ohio, another fatal police encounter roiling a city where allegations of police brutality and police shootings of Black children and men have bred public mistrust.

After the Biden administration announced this week it will open a civil rights investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department following the murder conviction against former police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, some in Ohio's capital city are pleading for similar attention.

"Now that we're here and we've had a consistent decade of patterns and practices of ineptitude and racism, our call is for the Justice Department to investigate," Jasmine Ayres, a community organizer who was part of the mayor's working group to develop a police review board, said.

The death of Ma'Khia Bryant, a Black teenager who was shot by police Tuesday afternoon outside of a residence as they responded to a 911 call for a person with a knife, occurred just minutes before the Chauvin verdict was announced. Reports of the girl's death ricocheted across Columbus and the nation — President Joe Biden was even briefed — as some were praising the outcome in Minneapolis.

Debate over whether deadly force was necessary has now galvanized residents who had hoped the Columbus Division of Police would improve relations after Chief Thomas Quinlan stepped down in January amid multiple controversies.

"There's too much blood on this city's hands," said Hana Abdur-Rahim, a community organizer and activist who is suing Columbus police, alleging excessive force after she was pepper-sprayed by an officer during a 2017 protest. Abdur-Rahim said she agrees the Department of Justice should investigate the agency.

It's happened before.

In 1999, the Justice Department under the Clinton administration filed a police misconduct lawsuit against Columbus, alleging there was a pattern or practice of excessive force, false arrests and illegal searches and seizures. It followed an investigation by the department's Civil Rights Division in 1996 and sought to improve training of officers and investigate civilian complaints.

In 2002, the Justice Department reached an agreement with the city after it made changes in its policies and procedures, including for use of force.

But community activists say relations have worsened since then — and something is needed now. Over the past few years, the Columbus Division of Police has been the subject of multiple civil rights lawsuits. Data from a city-commissioned study on the police department showed that Black residents accounted for about half of all use-of-force incidents from 2015 to 2019, while only making up 28 percent of the city's population of 900,000, The Associated Press reported.

Since 2015, there have also been more than 30 people fatally shot by law enforcement in Columbus, with more than 20 of them Black, according to NBC affiliate WCMH. In five of the cases involving the Columbus Division of Police, those killed were younger than 18, data compiled by the database Mapping Police Violence show.

In December, two shootings of Black men — Casey Goodson, 23, and Andre Hill, 47 — led to public backlash and Mayor Andrew Ginther demoting the police chief, Quinlan, who had faced criticism over how police handled protesters during last year's racial justice demonstrations in downtown Columbus. The officer in Hill's death was indicted on a murder charge in February and has pleaded not guilty.

A woman holds up her fist out of the roof of a vehicle during a vigil in Columbus, Ohio, on April 21, 2021, to remember Ma'Khia Bryant, 16, who was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer.Jeff Dean / AFP - Getty Images

When asked if the mayor's office believes another federal review of the police department is necessary as activists have suggested, Ginther, who took office in 2016, said there has been "meaningful reform," including independent investigations of police-related deaths and the creation of a civilian review board. The review board will be able to investigate police use-of-force and misconduct allegations.

"Even with the many reforms in place, there is much work left to do to change the culture of the Division of Police and align police response with community expectations," Ginther said in a statement. "There is a deficit of trust in the community, and we are committed to restoring it to keep our neighborhoods safe."

Columbus police did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether another federal review of the police department is necessary.

Ayres, however, said she's not confident the police will institute the recommendations the review board may suggest, although she said the community "will have access to city documents to build a case to the Department of Justice."

Ronal Serpas, a former police superintendent in New Orleans and police chief in Nashville, Tennessee, said that while civil rights pattern or practice investigations of police agencies dried up under the Trump administration, the Justice Department under Biden is signaling a change with its probe in Minneapolis.

"Citizens deserve constitutional policing," Serpas, now a criminology and justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said. "Police need to not be the government's first responder for mental health issues, homelessness and substance abuse."

For Bryant's family, they want to know why the only option appeared to be lethal force.

Bodycam video released by Columbus police from police Officer Nick Reardon shows him coming onto the scene of an altercation and drawing his weapon. Police have said the video shows someone trying to stab a person on the ground, as well as a second person.

A person wearing a black T-shirt, later identified as Bryant, is seen with an object in her right hand that she raises toward a second person before Reardon fires four times. Officers attempted CPR on Bryant.

Police picked up what appeared to be a knife near the girl's body, and an officer could be heard on camera saying: "She had a knife. She just went at her."

It's unclear what preceded the altercation and who made calls to 911 that brought police to the scene in the city's southeast.

Reardon, a member of the department since 2019, was placed on leave while the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation handles the case. Department officials did not respond to further requests for comment, but interim Police Chief Michael Woods said at a news conference Wednesday that department policy allows officers to shoot if they believe a life is in imminent danger.

"It's a tragedy," Woods said. "There's no other way to say it. It's a 16-year-old girl."

Bryant was living in the foster care system. Family members described her as a "beautiful" and "sweet" girl who was trying to defend herself in the situation and questioned why police couldn't de-escalate first.

"I'm seriously asking the Columbus police department: What's going on?" Don Bryant, a cousin of the girl's mother, said. "I'm a supporter of our police, but what's going on here? What's going on that we have to be so trigger-happy these days?"

Policing experts who viewed the bodycam video said the officer had to act quickly, particularly when he saw another person's life was threatened.

"The officer was confronted with a situation that was unfolding in milliseconds," Philip Stinson, a former police officer and an expert on law enforcement misconduct at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said. "There was no opportunity, none for the officer to engage in de-escalation strategies."

James Scanlon, a retired Columbus Division of Police SWAT officer, said a warning shot into the air would have been reckless, while using a Taser, designed as a nonlethal weapon, would not be the same amount of force against someone actively using a knife. In addition, police officers are trained to shoot at the "center mass" of a person until the action stops.

Just the fact that Bryant was holding a knife wouldn't be reason enough for an officer to open fire, Scanlon said, "but that she went after one lady and then went after another, he had to make a choice if he was going to save lives or not. Whether the person with the knife is the initial aggressor or not, as an officer, you can't just let someone stab someone else in your presence."

But for some community members in Columbus, the death of a 16-year-old Black girl at the hands of police is emblematic of something greater: systemic problems that require broader scrutiny.

"When you hold the mother of a dead child as they cry out for a kid they will never see again, that never leaves you," Ayres said. "We've got to fix this."