The city and the FOP: A decades-old drama boils over

Mayor Ginther and the police union are bargaining over a new contract on the heels of a racial justice movement and high-profile shootings of Black men by law enforcement. What’s at stake? And how did we get here?

Joel Oliphint
Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9

No other mayor has as much experience working with the local police union as Michael Coleman, who ran Columbus from 2000 through the end of 2015, becoming the longest-serving mayor in city history.

Every three years, Coleman and his team bargained over a new labor contract with the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, which represents 28 law enforcement agencies in Central Ohio, including the Columbus Division of Police. In the early years of Coleman’s administration, the former mayor said he got along fairly well with FOP leadership. The negotiations were tough, but respectful — similar to the city’s bargaining sessions with local chapters of other public sector unions such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

But as the years went on, and FOP leadership changed hands, the relationship became more challenging. “There was a big part of my time as mayor where everything was a fight. I mean everything. … It was like a boxing match every day,” Coleman said. “If I said something was blue, they said it was red. If I said something was red, they said it was blue.”

For much of his tenure, Coleman said the FOP would only agree to something if the union was forced to cooperate. For example, in 2009, when a recession devastated city finances, Coleman enlisted the help of the unions to rally support for the first income tax increase in nearly 30 years. The firefighters and police obliged, going door to door across the city in advance of the special election. And while Coleman remains grateful for the assistance, he also said the FOP didn’t have much of a choice. “I told them, ‘If that income tax doesn’t pass, I’m laying y’all off.’ And I was serious,” he said.

Earlier in the same recession, Coleman gathered the labor unions to convey the gravity of the financial situation and ask them to make sacrifices for the good of the city. Unemployment had skyrocketed, and the city didn’t have enough revenue to cover basic services. Coleman made drastic cuts, closing recreation centers and laying off more than 100 city employees. So he asked the unions to accept pay freezes, regardless of previously negotiated raises. The unions agreed — except the FOP. “They sued me for even asking,” said Coleman, who still gets heated recounting the incident.

One particular interaction with the FOP stands out to Coleman. “I asked [FOP leadership], ‘Why are you fighting me on this stuff?’ And they said, ‘Because we're the police,’” Coleman said. “The FOP is a different animal.”

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The FOP has a different memory of the Coleman years. Jeff Simpson, executive vice president of Lodge No. 9, described the former mayor as “fair and very reasonable in his approach to policing.” Asked when the city-FOP relationship began to deteriorate, Simpson didn’t hesitate with his two-word answer: “Mayor Ginther.”

The difficult relationship between the city and the FOP has grown even more rancorous under Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, reaching a fever pitch in 2020, when protesters took to the streets demanding racial justice and marching against police brutality in the spring and summer following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. In late June, after a closed-door meeting with Lodge No. 9 president Keith Ferrell, Ginther accused the FOP of putting up barriers to progress on police reform. “The time for listening is over. The time for action is now,” he said. Ferrell fired back, accusing the mayor of sowing division. “We have not rejected one reform idea, and we are willing to roll our sleeves up and sit down and work with the community,” Ferrell told the Dispatch in June.

While large-scale protests have faded since the summer, recent high-profile shootings of Black men by local law enforcement have kept issues of race, police accountability and use of force at the fore. In December, Franklin County Sheriff’s deputy Jason Meade fatally shot 23-year-old Casey Goodson. In a separate incident, Columbus police officer Adam Coy, a 19-year veteran of the force with a documented history of complaints, shot and killed 47-year-old Andre Hill, who was unarmed in a garage on the Northwest Side.

Hill’s shooting was captured via body camera, and the video footage revealed that Coy, who was responding to a noise complaint, fired at Hill within 10 seconds of arriving on the scene. The shooting itself sparked outrage, but so did footage of the aftermath: Coy and other officers neglected to give Hill medical attention for more than 10 minutes. A woman at the home said Hill was bringing her Christmas money. Coy was later terminated.

On Dec. 8, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the city and the FOP expired, and the two sides are currently meeting to negotiate a new contract. Alive spoke with current and former Columbus mayors and FOP leaders, former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste (who signed the Public Employee Bargaining Act into existence), activists, academics and more to understand what’s at stake in the next Lodge No. 9 contract (including the role of a voter-approved Civilian Review Board), how the FOP gained its bargaining power and what needs to happen for the two sides to reach an agreement.

From begging to bargaining

Prior to 1984, “collective bargaining for law enforcement was almost a forbidden fruit,” said Dewey Stokes, a former police officer and Franklin County Commissioner who became president of FOP Lodge No. 9 in 1974 and later ran the National FOP. Public sector unions in Ohio previously operated under terms set by the Ferguson Act, a 1947 statute that gave public employees little say over pay and working conditions. Local attorney Larry James, general counsel for the National FOP and former Columbus safety director, described negotiations under the Ferguson Act as “collective begging.”

Multiple efforts to pass a collective bargaining law in Ohio failed, but in 1982, Democrats gained control of the state’s legislative and executive branches under Gov. Dick Celeste, who signed legislation in 1983 authorizing collective bargaining by public employees. Ohio’s Public Employee Bargaining Act — sometimes referred to as “4117,” the corresponding chapter number in the Ohio Revised Code — was widely regarded as one of the most liberal, labor-friendly collective bargaining laws in the country. It went into effect on April 1, 1984 — a B.C./A.D. moment for Ohio’s public unions.

Brooke Carnevale, Columbus’ deputy director of human resources, said the city did bargain with unions before the law went into effect, but 4117 provided a dispute resolution process. Celeste, who vividly recalls strained relations with unions prior to 1984, said the law has had an overall positive effect on organized labor in Ohio. “The law was written to try to provide a framework for labor and management to work out their tough issues, and to provide mechanisms when [they] reach stalemates,” Celeste said.

“The collective bargaining law, and what the FOP has done for law enforcement as a profession over the last 25 years, has been amazing,” Stokes said in an interview alongside VP Simpson at Lodge No. 9. “It gives stability to the police department.”

Over the years, though, aspects of the law have come under fire, particularly in light of FOP contracts. “All matters pertaining to wages, hours, or terms and other conditions of employment” are subject to collective bargaining in 4117, and just about anything can fit under that “terms and other conditions” umbrella, including police discipline and internal investigations. “Today you'll find a lot of scholars and a lot of think tanks, both on the left and the right, who will take the position that police discipline ought not be a subject of collective bargaining,” said Mike Curtin, who began as a reporter at the Dispatch in 1973, later becoming editor and associate publisher before serving two terms as a Democratic state representative.

Chenelle Jones, an assistant dean at Franklin University who specializes in issues involving race, policing and criminal justice, argues that the nature of police work should set the FOP apart from other unions. “Most public agencies collectively bargain things like salary and paid time off. When you get to the police contract, you start to get into things like [how] an investigation is conducted [and] when officers are allowed to see all the evidence that is stacked up against them,” Jones said. “The rules should be a little different for police officers, because police have the discretionary right to take a life. ... There should be some things that are left out of collective bargaining, especially as it pertains to disciplinary action.”

Simpson argues the FOP isn’t exceptional. “We operate on the same legal principle as any other labor organization in Ohio,” he said.

In the short term, removing discipline from the FOP contract isn’t likely. Such a change would have to go one of two routes: a bill in the state legislature or a Department of Justice consent decree, which would put the Division of Police under federal oversight (DOJ consent decrees were rarities in the Trump era, but perhaps more possible under the Biden administration).

In the meantime, the terms and conditions of the expired contract (a public document) remain in effect until a new one is agreed upon. Bargaining sessions for a new CBA began on Nov. 12, then were halted for the rest of November and December due to the mayor’s emergency coronavirus orders. In-person negotiations resumed this month, with six sessions occurring so far in January and more scheduled through the end of February. For the previous CBA, negotiations began in the fall of 2017 and took more than a year to complete; chances are, with sessions already delayed due to COVID, current negotiations could take just as long, if not longer. (See sidebar “The bargaining process, explained.”)

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther

The FOP probably won’t be shocked by the reforms Ginther is pushing during this round of negotiations. “If we come to the table and our union is surprised about what we're coming to talk to them about, I would suggest we haven't done a good job with our labor relations over the last three years,” Carnevale said.

Ginther’s bargaining team will draw heavily from recommendations detailed in the Columbus Community Safety Advisory Commission’s January 2020 report, which the committee developed based on community forums, more than 20 meetings with law enforcement experts and a 2019 operational review of the Columbus Division of Police conducted by Matrix Consulting. The commission offered dozens of policy recommendations to improve police-community relations, and near the top of the list was an independent Civilian Review Board (CRB).

Mayor Ginther made the CRB a priority, as well, and in November, three-fourths of Columbus voters approved Issue 2, a city charter amendment enabling the creation of a civilian oversight panel, along with the position of Inspector General, to investigate police use of force and allegations of misconduct. (More than 200 people recently applied to be on the review board.) There’s a catch, though. Unless changes are made to the FOP contract, the panel’s recommendations would be merely advisory, not binding. Currently, CPD investigates itself through Internal Affairs, with disciplinary decisions going to police Chief Thomas Quinlan, except for firing decisions, which are handled by Safety Director Ned Pettus.

According to City Councilman Rob Dorans, who helped author some of the language for Issue 2, the limits on the power of the CRB were intentional, given that a charter amendment that directly contradicts the current FOP contract would likely mire the city in a protracted legal battle. “The Civilian Review Board and the Inspector General itself, we believe it can be implemented, and is going to be implemented, regardless of what the FOP contract says,” Dorans said. 

Still, Ginther said getting those changes into the next bargaining agreement is a top priority. “There are reforms that need to happen within this contract to give the chief and the people of Columbus more control over the hiring and discipline and potentially the firing of officers that aren’t meeting our community’s expectations,” he said.

Simpson views the charter amendment as a thinly veiled strategy to chip away at the FOP’s collective bargaining rights. “[Issue 2] is a setup ... to destroy the collective bargaining agreement,” said Simpson, noting he negotiated a civilian review panel in Reynoldsburg and had no issues. “The mayor is doing an end around collective bargaining. He continues to attack it.”

Former Mayor Greg Lashutka, who ran Columbus from 1992 to 2000 after working as city attorney, didn’t support the Civilian Review Board, either. “I think it was unfair for the voters to vote on something that wasn't fully explained. It's still not fully explained,” said Lashutka, who also voiced his criticisms in a Dispatch editorial. “You have this Inspector General; we're not sure what that person is going to do. The authority of the Civilian Review Board has not been articulated. I understand the emotion and people voting for it, but I think it was misguided to put it to the voters without really saying how it fits. That's not good public policy.”

While supportive of the CRB, local activists aren’t celebrating the charter amendment quite yet, either. “A lot of people are sitting at home thinking, ‘OK, we've gotten to a Citizen Review Board, and this will help move us closer to accountability to solve this problem.’ But what we know is that [the FOP] is intentional in fighting any accountability that we want to see,” said Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, an organizer with the People’s Justice Project who also serves on the police chief’s advisory panel and was part of the Community Safety Advisory Commission. “It has taken years for us to get city leadership to the place where they are focused on this issue. But we have again and again faced the roadblock of the Fraternal Order of Police. … The FOP is a gang.”

Past practice vs. good practice

Since 1984, four Columbus mayors, beginning with Buck Rinehart, have negotiated the FOP contract every three years, and both Lashutka and Coleman admitted to getting frustrated with concessions made by previous administrations. According to Dan Williamson, former spokesman for Coleman, those concessions sometimes arise because of budget constraints. The city needs to keep its budget tight, and the unions want pay increases, so rather than give the full pay raise, administrations have sometimes conceded to flexibility in other areas.

"At the time those [concessions] seem harmless,” Williamson said. “But then when you're looking to make reforms, the police say, wait, we have in our contract that you can't make us do that because of something that was negotiated some time ago in lieu of a larger pay increase. … And the FOP, to their credit, they bargained that fair and square.”

The preference given to precedent and “past practice” was an ever-present thorn in Coleman’s side during attempts at reform, especially when applied to discipline. Coleman said the FOP consistently argued that if an officer was disciplined at a certain level for a certain offense in the past, then another officer shouldn’t be disciplined at a different level, regardless of what the safety director says. “But past practice is not always good practice,” Coleman said. “That’s the problem with this notion of precedent. … That’s the thing that has been the tiger of this contract.”

In recent years, tempers have flared when Columbus police officers have been fired by the safety director and then re-hired through arbitration. Officer Zachary Rosen offers the most high-profile example. In 2016, officers Rosen and Jason Bare shot and killed 23-year-old Henry Green in North Linden. Rosen was cleared in the shooting, but later, in a 2017 incident, cellphone footage recorded Rosen stomping on a handcuffed man’s head with his foot. He was fired, but later got his job back through an arbitrator, who makes decisions based on whether the CBA was followed and whether the discipline was appropriate.

Simpson said such rehirings are the exception, not the rule, and that the FOP has facilitated dozens of officer resignations in the past three to five years. He also claims the city knew Rosen was going to get his job back because it didn’t adhere to the procedures outlined in the contract. “They put that on the police because we're following the language,” he said. “The contract is a contract. That's the law. Do we violate it to expeditiously fire an officer?”

Amid sparring over the Rosen case, the FOP issued a no-confidence vote in Mayor Ginther, Safety Director Pettus and then-Council President Zach Klein (now city attorney). The union also put up a billboard criticizing the mayor. While Ginther says he brushed it off (“I don't pay much mind to billboards and political fights,” he said), others took notice. “I remember that billboard. That let me know right then that is truly unchecked power,” Fournier-Alsaada said.

“Maybe there's some blame here on the FOP's part,” Curtin said, “in terms of sticking their finger right in the eye of the mayor when he does something that most people would think was very justified, given what everybody saw on the video of a cop stomping on a guy who was face-down on the pavement.”

The rehiring issue resurfaced again recently when the FOP filed a grievance against Chief Quinlan regarding the termination of officer Adam Coy, who was fired after fatally shooting Andre Hill last month, alleging the contract was not followed. The union also requested an extension on the arbitration timeline from Safety Director Pettus.

“We filed a lodge grievance because the city just about violated every disciplinary article in the contract. How are we supposed to let that go?” Simpson said. “We have a duty to represent [Coy], and by law the FOP has to look at the merits of that case and make an informed decision. Since Officer Coy's investigation is criminal in nature, we have to wait and see what all the evidence shows before we can make that determination on whether we're going to arbitrate for his job back or not.”

Chenelle Jones said it’s feasible Coy could be re-hired. “If there were any issues found within [Coy’s] process of termination, then technically he would have means for getting his job back — and not only getting his job back, but also getting back pay,” she said. “And this is where people in the community get frustrated.”

“Frustrated” is putting it mildly. These high-profile incidents in which the FOP “defends the indefensible,” to use Ginther’s words from July, erode trust between citizens and the police, stirring up anguish and anger across Columbus, particularly from communities of color that are disproportionately affected by police misconduct. “The system is not working,” Ginther said, though the mayor is careful to blame the FOP for this state of affairs, not the Columbus Division of Police. Like Coleman before him, Ginther repeatedly emphasizes the difference between FOP leadership and rank-and-file police officers.

Curtin, too, noted that a small percentage of sworn personnel actively participate in FOP endorsement votes and other political activities. The mentality of FOP leadership is often different from the rank and file, as well. “Nobody ever got elected president of the local FOP by promising to be more conciliatory than the last guy,” Curtin said. “You got elected president of the FOP by promising to be aggressive, to hold politicians accountable and to get the best deal you can possibly get.”

Simpson finds the FOP/CPD dichotomy offensive. To him, the union is a bottom-up organization, and the nine board members of Lodge No. 9 speak for 1,900 Columbus police officers (in addition to Franklin County deputies and officers from suburban police departments), so when the mayor criticizes the FOP, he’s criticizing the entire Division of Police. “You can't say you love me and say I'm great, and then with the same hand punch me in the backside when I walk away,” he said.

This is one area where the FOP and community organizers tend to agree. “They're all the same thing to me,” Fournier-Alsaada said. “I hear that argument constantly from serving on the Safety Commission and the advisory panel.”

The concentric circles of community activists and the FOP overlap in a couple of other surprising areas, too. Both sides are fiercely critical of the mayor. Over the summer, amid ongoing protests, community members launched a movement to recall Ginther while the FOP and the mayor simultaneously engaged in a war of words in the media.

And while the FOP certainly won’t get behind cries of “defund the police” any time soon, Simpson agrees with critics who say police officers are asked to do too much in their current roles.

But the common ground ends there. To many, such as Ohio State law professor Amna Akbar, the FOP represents unchecked power. “Around the country, FOP chapters are not simply a roadblock to any real accountability,” Akbar said. “They do all that they can to advance police power and impunity to do violence.”

The way forward

As the city and Lodge No. 9 negotiate a new contract for the next year or more, what is the way forward for the police, the community, the mayor and the FOP?

The FOP claims it still has the support of the community. “I know in my heart that we still have overwhelming public support. I get the emails every day,” said Simpson, who blames the rancor and division on political gamesmanship. “When the leader of the city speaks unintelligently and without thought and without fact, it's irresponsible and it's ignorant.”

Others see it differently, especially in the wake of Andre Hill’s fatal shooting. “If you're not safe in your own neighborhood delivering someone Christmas money, where are you safe?” Dan Williamson said. “There needs to be some kind of reckoning on this. … We need to change how it's done so that we can protect everybody, and so that when police are out there, they have the trust of the people that they’re trying to protect, because right now they don't. The people they're trying to protect are scared of them.”

“There needs to be a new mentality at the FOP, that it’s not the FOP against the world. It's got to be the FOP with the world,” Coleman said. “The world has changed around the FOP, and they need to come to the understanding that in order for them to be effective, they're going to need community support.”

In nearly every interview for this story, current and former city leaders stressed the urgent need for leadership and clear communication. For starters, according to Larry James, leadership on both sides need to check their egos. “This is like an EPA cleanup. You got a 90 percent cleanup rate, and the last five or 10 percent is the most difficult to get to, and that's where leadership excels,” he said. “I grew up in the old Jim Crow South. I've seen the world in a different lens. Progress can be painful. It can be slow, and never on your timeline. But those who embrace it, they walk through the storm to get stuff done.”

Former Mayor Lashutka would like to see more conversations taking place between the mayor and FOP leadership. Ginther’s office said the last meeting the mayor had with FOP leadership occurred on Oct. 28, and Simpson said he has “every desire to get along with the mayor, but it's a closed door.” “City Hall and the FOP drew lines in the sand, and they weren't communicating,” Lashutka said. “It takes a lot of work behind the scenes. And I'm not sure maybe as much is being done in that regard as it should be.”

Former Gov. Dick Celeste said this uncomfortable reckoning will “test good will on every side.” “[Police] scrutiny is legitimate, and the public concerns are real. My hope would be that leadership in local police unions would try to figure out how to get on the constructive side of that discussion rather than to be dug in and overly defensive,” he said.

Time will tell whether Ginther can successfully implement the changes he wants to make to the new FOP contract and come away with a substantially reformed Columbus Division of Police that is concurrently dealing with a record high homicide rate. The mayor has plenty of critics who aren’t sure he has the leadership skills needed for this crucial moment. Ginther argues he’s up to the task.

“Mayors are expected to get things done. There's no excuses. There's no finger pointing,” he said. “I try to be straight with the people and have them understand the constraints and the challenges we face, but they don't hire mayors for excuses and explanations. They hire mayors to change and reform systems that are broken. And this is one that needs to be addressed.” 

The bargaining process, explained

Normally, during bargaining sessions, the two sides sit on opposite sides of one table, with the chief negotiators set up directly across from each other. But these days, due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, each side sits at their own table in a large space at Columbus’ Citywide Training and Development facility on East Broad Street.

According to Brooke Carnevale, deputy director of human resources for the city, all of those in-person restrictions are better than trying to bargain over Zoom, which she described as “awful.” Staring at a screen is a poor substitute for the in-person interactions that take place during typical bargaining sessions.

Even though Mayor Ginther often talks about sitting down at the bargaining table with the FOP, the mayor isn’t actually present for the official negotiations. Instead, Ginther enlists a team of representatives from human resources, the safety director’s office, the Division of Police, the Department of Finance and the city attorney’s office (about a dozen people total). The law firm of Baker Hostetler serves as the city’s chief negotiator. The FOP’s chief negotiator is a police sergeant, Carnevale said, and is accompanied by other union representatives and two attorneys (about eight total).

While the final collective bargaining agreement is a public document, the bargaining process is veiled by design so that both parties can work through issues without concern for what those on the outside might think. There’s no deadline for when negotiations must be completed, and the process can stretch on for more than a year. Last time, the city and the FOP went to the table in September of 2017, and City Council didn’t vote on the agreement until December of 2018. If the two parties reach an impasse, the negotiations move to “fact-finding,” a burdensome process:

  • According to Carnevale, the state Employee Relations Board is told of the impasse, and the board then sends a list of neutral parties. A coin is flipped, and the two sides begin striking parties until one person remains, and that person is then required to mediate to see if the two sides can agree on anything before moving to fact-finding.
  • Compared to bargaining, fact-finding is more formal. It feels similar to a court case, with a court reporter, testimony under oath and exhibits. Both sides present their cases, then the fact-finder writes a report.
  • The sides can accept the fact-finding proposal, but if they choose not to, it must be rejected by a three-fifths majority of FOP members or City Council, respectively. Council can also choose not to vote on it.
  • If the fact-finding proposal is rejected, the process moves to “conciliation,” during which each side presents their final best offer. In conciliation, a mediator must pick one side or the other, whereas in fact-finding the neutral party is looking for middle ground. “There's a strategy going into both fact-finding and conciliation. You've got to go into conciliation knowing that your position is a reasonable one, or the fact-finder might think their side is more reasonable,” Carnevale said.

Over the past 25 years, the FOP and the city only reached a deal without fact-finding twice (the 2005-08 and 2014-17 contracts), and the two sides resolved the negotiations using conciliation once (2002-05). All the rest were resolved via fact-finding.

“It's not unusual across the state that FOP units go to fact-finding,” Carnevale said. “There's not a lot to risk, other than the money that you pay for the attorneys, and [the FOP] is a well-funded union. … Generally speaking, their membership feels like they can always get something better.”