New Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant on Leading in a Time of Turmoil
Elaine Bryant became the city’s top cop with a clear mandate: Repair the division and restore trust.
No one has ever come into the Columbus Division of Police with the political and public expectations facing Elaine Bryant. The new chief arrives as the city rolls out the Civilian Police Review Board amid departmental strife and community unrest due to recent high-profile killings by officers, investigations into police brutality during the 2020 protests and a public rift between Mayor Andy Ginther and the local Fraternal Order of Police.
Ginther has long promised his next chief would be a “change agent,” and as the first outsider, Bryant inherits that title and directive from day one. Uniting a community divided on policing and safety is a monumental task, one that takes a lot of listening and empathy, she says.
She relocated following 21 years in the Detroit Police Department, rising from patrol officer to deputy chief, and is the first Black woman to lead Columbus’ division. “Being a double minority, a female and African American, it has significantly influenced the way that I police,” says Bryant, who is also a mother of two sons, ages 19 and 21. “I treat everyone like I want to be treated. And I treat everyone like I want them to treat my sons, brothers, uncles and my mother.”
Her family was front and center from the outset, as her mom and aunt attended the June 2 press conference where she spoke as the city’s top cop for the first time.
Why was it important for your mother to be with you when you were introduced to the community?
My mom is not only my mom, she’s my best friend, my rock. She’s been extremely supportive throughout my entire career. Not only her, but my father, who passed away in 2010. My parents are very instrumental in making me the person that I am—grounded, humble, hardworking and making sure that I take care of myself to take care of others as well. I wanted her to see what her labor of love did, and that my accomplishments are her accomplishments.
What kind of relationship do you hope to have with fellow officers, and are you concerned about the FOP and garnering their trust?
I’ve been in these officers’ shoes many times. In my 21-year career, I’ve had nine police chiefs. What I want is for them to understand who I am and trust that I have their best interest at heart. I’m going to support my officers, but I’m also going to hold them to that high standard of excellence that I know that they have, and that they’re capable of. As long as they’re doing the right things for the right reasons, I will always have their back.
Why should people of color and women consider joining the police right now?
This is a great opportunity to be part of a change. When I was on the front line with the protesters last year, I had a lot of people yelling at me. I told them, come join me. If you feel that it’s unjust and changes need to be made, you can’t stand on that side and complain about them. Be part of the change. The police department should reflect the community in which it polices. It’d be awesome to get more minorities and women who reflect the community to have an opportunity to police the community in which they grew up.
Columbus, and the country as a whole, is dealing with an increase in violent crime. What do you see as the cause?
I speak a lot about this—our youth—because a lot of crime is being [perpetrated] by young people. So we have to get ahold of them at an early age, and … we have to make sure we have these afterschool programs in place. We used to have a lot, and they fell off. A lot of single mothers don’t have time: They’re not with their children; they’re at work. So it’s up to us as a community to wrap our arms around [kids] and make sure that we’re giving them something productive to do. Youth engagement is going to be critical.
We have to look at our recidivism rate—are we offering programs that are allowing people to come back out [of prison] and get jobs? Are we helping them with that? So it’s a holistic approach. It’s not just one thing that you do.
What are your thoughts on effective police reform for Columbus?
I understand and can empathize with what people are feeling right now regarding some of the things that are occurring across the nation. I don’t believe in defunding the police, but I believe there’s opportunity and room to make sure we are looking at policing from all aspects. You can’t arrest your way out of crime. It’s important to look at that socioeconomic standpoint and [take] a holistic approach.
Columbus officers have shot and killed several young people and Black men in the past few years. What do you want to say to mothers who are worried for their families given the current state of policing?
Being a mother of two young Black men, I completely understand. I sympathize and empathize because I worry about my children every day. I’m so concerned about crime and our young people. I want them to know that I’m going to do everything to make sure that our children are safe.
One thing that concerns me—a lot of young people have a distrust of the police. That concerns me because there are going to be times when they need them. And if they won’t call them, then that could put them in bad situations, too. We have to get back to that respect, where our young people have trust with the police. The police should talk to our young people—not at them, but to them. And we can have that dialogue and mend those relationships.
This story is from the August 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.