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Columbus Police Facing Wave Of Departures As It Pursues Reform

The newest class of police recruits running through the police academy parking lot
Nick Evans
The newest class of police recruits running through the police academy parking lot

Last week at the Columbus police academy, training officers and local officials welcomed a new batch of recruits. While that group was busy running laps in the parking lot, a different class closing in on graduation was sitting down to lunch. Mayor Andrew Ginther asked recruits at one table what brought them to the program.

“How about you? What’s your journey, your story? When did you know you wanted to do this?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t say it was like a lifelong dream of mine,” recruit Ken Craddolph admitted. “I mean, I know now, like present time, there needs to be some changes in policing in America, and I just want to be a beacon of hope.”

That’s precisely what Ginther and other local leaders are hoping to hear. As Columbus pursues police reform, officials have put significant emphasis on recruiting. The city is banking on the idea that bringing in increasingly diverse classes will help cement more direct policy changes.

But like many large police forces in the U.S., Columbus has seen a sharp increase in the number of officers choosing to leave the division. Local leaders point to pandemic fatigue and frayed community relations, after a year marked by an escalating cycle of protest and harsh police response. Those departures put an even bigger emphasis on recruiting efforts.

Columbus Public Safety director Ned Pettus said the latest class, where just over half of recruits are women or people of color, is the most diverse in recent memory.

“We have one of the most diverse recruit classes in recent history during a time like this,” Pettus said. “So our work’s cut out for us and we have much more work to do but we believe that we are realizing meaningful results.”

Mayor Andrew Ginther speaking with police recruits
Nick Evans
Mayor Andrew Ginther speaking with police recruits

But it’s a slow and steady approach that presents some notable problems.

Through a public records request, WOSU obtained figures for officer departures going back to 2015. Last year 80 officers retired. That’s almost double the average number of retirements in the previous five years.

And now, just over halfway through 2021, the division has already seen another 71 retirements. A police spokesman said many older officers have seen the division changing around them and are choosing to leave when in a different era they may have continued working for a few more years.

Even if every recruit now in training makes it through, they won’t be enough to make up for those departures. Police officials are also worried that the number of recruits backing out early is rising as well. WOSU reached out to several recent departures without response.

And operating with so little room for error can be precarious. Earlier this year city council suggested delaying the next class for a few months to complete a review of recruiting practices. The idea was to boost diversity further, but the outcry was swift. Ginther, Pettus and police officials argued the delay would be catastrophic for staffing. Council President Shannon Hardin eventually backed away from the proposal but stands by the idea.

“Certain boxes are being checked right now, but the reform piece has not been completed,” Hardin said. “We still need to have significant changes to how we engage with protesters, just how we think about policing, how we do diversity in recruitment. This is a diverse class, but we know we can do better than even this.”

Ginther said the city is working to expand its pool of candidates looking to fields like health and social work for new officers. But he insists they aren't simply trying to recruit their way to reform. He highlights co-responder teams that pair police with social workers, and an alternative response pilot at the dispatch center. But with a new police chief taking over, he does see these classes as part of an effort to turn the page in policing.

“There’s probably been more change in the last couple of years in the division of police than I can remember in being alive here and being born and raised here,” Ginther explains. “I think that’s good. I think it’s also a sign that there is more work to be done. And so for folks who have lost trust or confidence in the police, or the city I say to them, let us earn it back—don’t give it to us—trust needs to be earned.”

Still, after the past year many in the activist community remain skeptical. Local organizer Jasmine Ayres argues police departments are deeply hierarchical institutions, so new recruits have little opportunity to effect systemic change. And while she’s happy to see diversity increasing, she’s doubtful the division has really changed much in its hiring practices.

“One can be hopeful, right?” Ayres said. “We would like to think that this will be better, but again we haven’t restructured our hiring process. And so we’re just—a lot of times we’re just hiring the same type of person just 20 years younger. That’s not helpful.”

The newest batch of police recruits will graduate next January after 31 weeks of training. The class already in progress graduates next month.