The Franklin County commissioner weighs in on racism, aggressive police tactics and how it felt to be pepper-sprayed during this weekend's protests.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, protesters have taken to the streets nationwide to express their outrage and demands for racial justice and police reform. There’s no shortage of powerful photos depicting the unrest, but the most telling may be the one above by the Dispatch’s Kyle Robertson, which shows Columbus Council President Shannon Hardin, U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce amid a confrontation with police in which the three were hit with pepper spray during Downtown demonstrations Saturday.

The image of the city’s top black elected leaders struggling with police aggression typified a chaotic weekend, as Columbus and the country reckoned with police brutality toward people of color and the underlying systemic racism that breeds it. We reached out to Boyce to find out more about what happened, his views on use of force and what the county plans to do about racial injustice. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

First off, what prompted you to go to the protests on Saturday?
It was myself, Council President Shannon Hardin and Congresswoman Joyce Beatty. We were on a call early that morning, on a constituent issue that we were working on together that had to do with some of the unrest deeper in the community in Columbus over the weekend. And so we were on that call and trying to work through some of those challenges, and we … went down to stand with them and encourage them to continue to protest in a peaceful way, in a nonviolent way.

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The moment when you were caught in the middle of the fray has received a lot of attention. What led to that moment from your perspective?
Well, there was an incident with a police officer and a young woman, and the young woman was frustrated and voicing her frustrations and concerns to the police officer. And albeit she was yelling in his face, he responded in a physical manner, and that’s when the melee started. And as soon as he responded in a physical manner, several people fell, and just kind of chaos started, and then the police just ran over and sprayed everybody in the area.

You said you went down there to encourage peaceful protest. What was it like to be there in the middle of when that starts to break down, when those intentions get lost?
It was awful. I mean, demonstration and protest is the American way. It is very much a part of our democracy. It’s very much part of our First Amendment rights, and it’s very much a part of the way we’ve always evolved as a country. There’s a line between peaceful protests and then it turning quickly into something else, and I must say that I think that things were going smooth until, I feel like, the Columbus police department showed up, and they were very aggressive from the moment they arrived. Now, I have to tell you, I understand they’re probably under a lot of pressure, and I know that. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a police officer and have to face and deal with so much of society’s challenges on a day-to-day basis. And so they were on the edge when they got there from the last couple of days, but it was clear that they had a very, sort of, built-up tension.

We have to find a way to better train our police in de-escalation tactics. We have to find a way to better train them in cultural competency elements. We have to find a better way to allow them to be members of the community and fully engaged in the protest in a positive way, than this sort of aggressor-oppressor type of role that often becomes the line in the sand between the police and the public and community. … They have [the] right for free speech and to say what they want, and we’ve seen everyone from the activists that come for gun rights and stand-your-ground laws to the people who come for racism. And it’s just one of those things where we all have to be tolerant of everyone equally.

Did it change your perspective on police use of force or how they deal with protests like this one?
I’ve felt the need for change for use of force for a long time. Saturday did not enhance or change my feeling for a review of use of force tactics and scenarios, [which] has always remained the same. That is something that this country, within law enforcement, needs to examine, assess and change, and it’s time. It’s time. And I think that the actions of those police officers for the time that I was out there, I felt that that particular scenario was out of line and unnecessary and very aggressive, and I feel like it incited much of the angst for that moment that was happening. Other than that, people were protesting. And yes, there were some folks who were yelling at the police officers and whatnot. Now, one thing that I don’t condone is—you know, I understand that there were the people the day before throwing bottles and rocks—that’s something that I condemn and certainly don’t condone. That should never be tolerated. It should never be allowed, and folks should pursue it as aggressively as possible when it does happen. But when people are peacefully protesting, when people are saying things, chants, or even yelling or have signs, that should not be a trigger to use force.

This is being dealt with on the city side of things as I understand it right now, but do you think it’s time for a citizen review board for police actions?
I’ve always believed that we should have a form of the citizens review board. When I was on City Council, you can check the record, that’s something that I pushed for, and as a result, the FOP has never supported me. They’ve been adamantly against that, but that’s something we have been looking at from years ago. And I wish we had support then to implement it like we do today, and I think it’s just something that will be helpful to allow for the process to work better against our bad apples. I mean, the facts are that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are great people. They protect us. They are committed to their jobs as public servants, and they do a great job. But even that 1 percent that choose to not be that way is 1 percent that when they take those actions like they do, the law should be applied and justice should be served to them as well.

From the county perspective, is there something that you’re planning on doing or have in the works now to address some of these concerns that you’re hearing from the activists?
Just a few weeks ago we took the action to declare—as Ohio’s largest county—racism as a public health crisis, and the implications are embedded in the statistics that we see every day, from hypertension to obesity and diabetes. … Embedded in our declaration are 10 [actions] that we are going to take as a county, from hiring practices to contracting practices to policies of inclusion—all of those things are being embedded in everything that we do.

The second thing that we did, we spent the better part of two years as a county studying poverty, looking at the core root of poverty and most importantly looking at ways to reduce poverty as Central Ohio grows. And to the credit of my colleagues John O’Grady and Marilyn Brown, we presented this: It’s a report called the Rise Together Blueprint to Reduce Poverty—a report that that identifies key factors and things that we need to do to begin to address systemic poverty. And the No. 1 finding to all of those areas was racism.

Finally, let me say, out of that study for poverty came the creation of an innovation hub, and the innovation hub is going to allow Franklin County to vet, test and seed big ideas to reduce poverty. And so if you’ve got an idea we’re going to be able to take it, vet it, construct it and then pilot it in a way to see if it’s something that we can replicate and something that we can track data on to see if it’s moving the needle. And we’ve committed $2.5 million a year for the next 10 years, hopefully, to this work. We’re going to raise money from the private sector to be involved, so hopefully we’ll double that.

Why do you think the killing of George Floyd has resonated across the country on such a deep level in ways that other police killings haven’t?
African Americans, particularly African American males, have felt this way for a long time. What we’re seeing across America now with the use of technology is a lot of exposure on things that we’ve seen happen in our neighborhoods and in our communities for a very long time. … In the George Floyd case, when you watch the tape and you watch this man plead for his life, when you watch this man ask for [the police officer] to adjust and just let him breathe, it’s clear that that wasn’t necessary. It’s clear that he didn’t have to die for what would have [been] … a forgery charge. You know, a forgery charge is not a death sentence. And whether that man committed a crime or not, the punishment that that officer [delivered] as judge, juror and executioner was not appropriate, necessary and certainly is something that I think any normal observer would be appalled by. He was handcuffed and on the ground, and not fighting against the police officer. He was simply laying there asking if he could breathe. And so yeah, I think people are generally appalled because of the negligent nature and the deliberate efforts of that police officer to subdue that man all the way to his death.

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