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Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan Defends Use Of Tear Gas And Pepper Spray

Protesters hit with tear gas by Columbus Police on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
Adora Namigadde
Protesters hit with tear gas by Columbus Police on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan on Tuesday defended the use of pepper spray and tear gas during recent protests, arguing that deploying chemicals to disperse a crowd is more appropriate than arrest.

"That's the idea of the agents we're using, is to get people to move," Quinlan says. "Not to have to then take people and put a criminal charge on them, have that on their record, have to go to court, have to hire an attorney. We just want them to leave and stop damaging our city."

For an hour Tuesday morning, Quinlan and Mayor Andrew Ginther took questions from reporters about the police response to this last week of protests, which were organized in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police.

Quinlan said Columbus Police made 11 arrests last night for curfew violations. Ginther on Monday extended the city's 10 p.m. curfew indefinitely.

The chief also addressed an incident in which Ohio State student reporters from The Lantern were pepper sprayed by police, despite showing their press credentials. The Lantern reports that their staffers were explicitly told to "go home" because of the curfew, even though the media is exempt.

Quinlan says the matter has been sent to Internal Affairs for investigation. But he said police have the authority to move people out of an area.

"The curfew was not the issue," Quinlan said. "The issue was when you see reporters at a crime scene they're behind scene tape, they don't go inside the crime scene. When police are creating a police line and directing people to move, reporters are able to stand there and film anywhere that the public is allowed to be."

In a tweet Tuesday, City Attorney Zach Klein said his office sent an email to police leadership "re-explaining" that media are exempt from the curfew, and said the use of mace against reporters should be investigated.

Ginther readily acknowledged, as he has in recent days, that some police conduct over the weekend was unacceptable. He insisted that he and other city leaders are working to develop a slate of "clear, tangible" reforms based in part on a sweeping, division-wide review released last year.

Ginther also promised a timeframe for additional changes, and committed to making a civilian review board the city’s top priority during contract negotiations with the police union.

In a statement, Ohio Fraternal Order of Police president Gary Wolske defended the actions of officers.

"Police stand ready to protect people who peacefully protest and arrest or subdue people who commit violence," he writes. "Just as not all protestors want to be labeled as rioters and looters, neither can all police be smeared and attacked based on the actions of a select few."

Until the city and union arrive at a contract, Quinlan has proposed an advisory panel made up of 12 people selected by City Council members and the mayor.

“Anyone in the community that the mayor or the city council select, they will be able to meet with me and discuss what is occurring in the community," Quinlan said. "I can share body camera footage with them, I can share some administrative investigation reports with them or whatever they want, and I can share some criminal information that I can share that won’t disrupt the ongoing investigation.”

The proposed panel is still in the planning phases, but Quinlan expects it would meet monthly. Ginther says he wants to get it up and running quickly.

“Hopefully in the next week or two,” Ginther says. “I would expect that the top priorities would be reviewing use of force policies and how we interact with peaceful protesters.”

Ginther and Quinlan both stressed a distinction between those demonstrating peacefully and those engaging in vandalism or violence. Ginther referred to the latter as a “criminal element,” and highlighted interactions between police and protesters on Sunday and Monday.

“Really working together to start to separate those folks that are in our community that have come from outside to destroy our community to commit violence to attack our officers,” he says.

Despite repeated requests from WOSU, the Division of Police has yet to release information about where those who have been arrested come from. In other Ohio cities like Cleveland, the detained protesters were primarily locals, contradicting police assertions.

Quinlan says the department plans to release information soon about those who have been arrested.

“Since they are charged suspects, so long as they’re adults, we will put that out so you can see the individuals that were charged," Quinlan said. "We have the race of the individual, the sex of the individual and the zip code."

Quinlan said that officers are still having frozen water bottles, rocks and bricks thrown at them during protests. 

Ginther said he believes there will be more briefings in the future. Protests are slated to continue in downtown Columbus on Tuesday.