The Other Columbus: Don’t worry, the next police chief will still be a cop

The work of rebuilding public trust doesn’t lie on the shoulders of citizens, but on police

Scott Woods
Perry Tarrant, former assistant Seattle police chief, is one of nine finalists interviewing to be the new Columbus Chief of Police. Tarrant was the runner-up in the city's last search for a new chief.

The list of candidates in the search for Columbus’ next Chief of Police has been narrowed down from 34 applicants to nine who will be interviewed. Of the nine, eight are people of color. I mention this because a lot of the commentary about these candidates is focused on the racial composition of the pool, which is to say a lot of the commentary is wildly racist. Most of this incisive dialogue consists of barely veiled charges of reverse discrimination, essentially concluding that there is no way you can do a reasonable search based on merit and only come up with one white guy. That traditionally imbalanced ratio has to be intentional, these critics cry.

The way some people are acting you’d think Columbus never had a Black police chief before. I don’t recall people being too up in arms when James G. Jackson was running the department for 19 years between 1990 and 2009. I do remember residents being up in arms because the police were still violent, still power drunk, still profiling. So I don’t know what even the most racist detractors of the current pool of candidates are worried about. Whoever the next police chief is, they’ll still be a cop. 

Take it from someone who has everything to lose — my peace of mind, my freedom, my life — when I tell you that they have nothing to lose here.

That sounds defeatist, I know. But consider this analogy:

Let us say that I am a chef and I cook for you every day. You are a vegetarian. I cook for you 100 days straight and every meal has meat in it. Breakfast always has bacon or sausage. Lunch consists of a sliced ham or turkey on rye. Dinner is usually a burger or chicken breast. Now, every time I go into the kitchen, I tell you that I’m going to make something without meat. And yet, without fail, every meal consists of something that used to have a face. I have done this to you over the course of 300 meals.

Would you believe me if I told you that tomorrow’s meals would be different? Should I be offended that you don’t believe me? Should I feel put-upon because you felt disrespected? My point is that, based on history, I am under no obligation to believe or trust that a new chief will change anything about how police in Columbus operate. The first priority of a new police chief should be to repair that breach. They should wake up every morning with a vested interest in peeling away the ancient sediment of pain and death that police have caused this city. And yet nothing about how police have ever interacted with certain communities suggests I should amend my presumption. It is the presumption that has been keeping me alive.

So you must understand if I have no faith in the motivations or agenda on the part of a new chief. There is enough of a track record in this city of political impotence, unresolved injustices and contractual shenanigans to justify my position 10 times over. This isn’t a meet-halfway type of situation. This is a situation in which one party has been caught dead to rights over and over, and now has to prove that they want to be better. And if they do not, then that, too, is an answer.

The work of rebuilding that trust doesn’t lie on the shoulders of citizens, but on police. And that work order will have to be drafted by whoever emerges as the new chief. What citizens want isn’t a secret. We have mountains of speeches and websites and social media posts that lay those desires out quite clearly. What we haven’t had at the table to date is a police chief operating in good faith.