City Hall vs. the FOP

A decades-old drama boils over as Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther and the powerful union fight over the future of police reform in Columbus.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
A “thin blue line” flag at the FOP Capital City Lodge 9 office

No Columbus mayor has more experience working with the local police union than Mike Coleman. Every three years during his 16-year tenure, 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, the former mayor says he got along fairly well with FOP leadership. The negotiations were tough but respectful. But as the years went on, and FOP leadership turned over, things changed. “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,” says Coleman, who served as mayor from 2000 to the end of 2015, the longest tenure in city history. 

Former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman

For many years, Coleman says 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 says 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 says. 

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,” says 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 says. “The FOP is a different animal.” 

***

Indeed, there’s no union at City Hall quite like the FOP. It’s a political force, a fearsome negotiator and, in the view of many, an obstacle to reform. It bends politicians to its will, aggressively defends its members and challenges those it believes stand in its way—for instance, paying for a billboard in Downtown Columbus in 2017 criticizing Coleman’s successor, Andy Ginther, who’s had a contentious relationship with the union since taking office in 2016. Its defiant mindset is perhaps best captured by the “thin blue line” flag displayed at its offices in Westerville—a controversial emblem of police solidarity amid duress, which some view as a symbol of white supremacy. 

Denzel Warren, 18, attends a protest at Mayor Andy Ginther’s home in June 2020.

This unique power, the product of decades of legislative and labor victories, has drawn scrutiny since protesters took to the streets in 2020 demanding racial justice and marching against police brutality. And 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 that same month, former 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. In early February, Coy was charged with murder in connection with the killing. 

But as protesters, political leaders and others have called for reform, they’ve run into the harsh reality of the FOP. Through hard-fought negotiations with city officials, the union has secured exceptional protections for its members, particularly through limitations on discipline and internal investigations that make it difficult to fire even officers accused of egregious violence, including one who was captured in a 2017 cellphone video stomping on a handcuffed man’s head. “Around the country, FOP chapters are not simply a roadblock to any real accountability,” says Amna Akbar, an Ohio State associate law professor who studies race and inequality. “They do all that they can to advance police power and impunity to do violence.” 

On Dec. 8, the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the FOP expired, and the two sides are meeting to negotiate a new contract. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of police reform in Columbus is on the table, including the role of a voter-approved Civilian Review Board. City officials want to give more power to the new oversight panel, the most significant change in law enforcement discipline enacted in Columbus since the racial justice protests began. To achieve any substantial reforms, however, they may need to find a crack in the FOP’s blue wall, a bulwark that took nearly four decades to build. 

***
FOP VP Jeff Simpson (left) and former FOP president Dewey Stokes

Jeff Simpson doesn’t mince words. During a recent interview at the FOP’s offices in Westerville, the executive vice president of Lodge No. 9 is asked when the union’s relationship with the city really began to deteriorate. His two-word answer: “Mayor Ginther.” 

The union was supportive of Ginther when he was on City Council, but the relationship seemed to sour during his 2015 campaign for mayor, when the FOP endorsed Ginther’s rival, Zach Scott, the former Franklin County sheriff. The relationship hasn’t improved since then, hitting rock bottom in 2020 amid the country’s racial reckoning following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 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 Columbus Dispatch in June. 

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 South Linden. Rosen was cleared in the shooting, but later, in a 2017 incident, cellphone footage recorded Rosen stomping on a handcuffed man’s head. He was fired but later got his job back through an arbitrator, who makes decisions based on whether the collective bargaining agreement was followed and whether the discipline was appropriate. 

Simpson says 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 says. “The contract is a contract. That’s the law.” 

Amid sparring over the Rosen case, the FOP issued a no-confidence vote in Ginther, safety director Ned 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 says), others took notice. “I remember that billboard. That let me know right then that is truly unchecked power,” says Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, an organizer with the People’s Justice Project who also serves on the police chief’s advisory panel. 

The rehiring issue resurfaced again recently. Before Ginther demoted police chief Thomas Quinlan in late January, the FOP filed a grievance against Quinlan regarding the termination of officer Adam Coy, who was fired after fatally shooting Andre Hill in December, alleging the contract was not followed. The union also requested an extension on the arbitration timeline from 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 says. “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.” 

Mayor Andy Ginther

Chenelle Jones, an assistant dean at Franklin University who specializes in issues involving race, policing and criminal justice, says it’s feasible Coy could be rehired. “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 in January, before a grand jury indicted Coy on counts of felony murder, felonious assault and dereliction of duty. “And this is where people in the community get frustrated.”

***

Prior to 1984, “collective bargaining for law enforcement was almost a forbidden fruit,” says Dewey Stokes, a former Columbus 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.” 

Former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste

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, says 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, says 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 says. 

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 under 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,” says Mike Curtin, a former reporter, editor and associate publisher at The Dispatch who went on to serve two terms as a Democratic state representative. 

Jones 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 says. “The rules should be a little different for police officers, because police have the discretionary right to take a life.” 

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

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 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 in January. 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 because of COVID, current negotiations could take just as long, if not longer. Meanwhile, in the background, in addition to the tensions over police shootings, the police and the city are confronting a record-high homicide rate. 

Above, a billboard the FOP put up criticizing the mayor

The FOP probably won’t be shocked by the reforms Ginther is pushing during this round of negotiations. The mayor’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, an idea that took off following the racial justice protests. 

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. There’s a catch, though. Unless changes are made to the FOP contract, the panel’s recommendations would be merely advisory. Currently, CPD investigates itself through Internal Affairs, with disciplinary decisions going to the police chief, except for firing decisions, which are handled by safety director Pettus. 

City Councilman Rob Dorans, who helped author some of the language for Issue 2, says the limits on the power of the Civilian Review Board were intentional, given that a charter amendment that directly contradicts the current FOP contract would likely mire the city in a protracted legal battle. He also contends the city can implement the Civilian Review Board and the inspector general “regardless of what the FOP contract says.” 

Still, Ginther says 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 says. 

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,” says 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 Columbus Mayor Greg Lashutka

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,” says 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 Civilian Review Board, 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,” says Fournier-Alsaada. “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 claims it still has the support of the community. “I get the emails every day,” Simpson says. Others see it differently, especially in the wake of Andre Hill’s fatal shooting. “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 says. “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.” 

The FOP’s offices in Westerville

In nearly every interview for this story, current and former city leaders stressed the urgent need for leadership and clear communication. For starters, says National FOP attorney 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 5 or 10 percent is the most difficult to get to, and that’s where leadership excels,” he says. “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 in January the last meeting the mayor had with FOP leadership occurred on Oct. 28, and Simpson says 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 says. “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.” 

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. 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 says. “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.”  

A version of this story was originally published on ColumbusAlive.com.