'I can't be a part of this anymore': Why recent protests led one Columbus probation officer to walk away
Micah Mitchell accepted a job as a probation officer with the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas nearly two years ago, having first entered the field of criminal justice believing he could work to change the system from the inside.
But, already disillusioned by aspects of the work, Mitchell reached a breaking point with the profession during the first weekend of Columbus protests sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police but more deeply rooted in a local history of police violence.
“I was down there the first Saturday night [in late May] when things really were getting out of hand. The police were spraying people with Mace and shooting wooden bullets, and you can’t really go through something like that and not question what you are doing working with law enforcement,” Mitchell said recently by phone. “That was an extremely eye opening experience for me, being surrounded by people telling their stories and still being oppressed by the police, and being tear gassed for nothing, for protesting, which is a right. … Seeing all of that, it was definitely a final push for me where I was like, ‘I can’t be a part of this anymore.’ How could I say I had a moral, fulfilling life if I’m working, in part, in law enforcement, and watching the way law enforcement is treating our communities?”
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Less than a week later, on Thursday, June 4, Mitchell tendered his resignation, eventually following this week with a letter addressed to his supervisors in which he detailed his reasons for leaving the job. The letter cites the Franklin County Court’s silence regarding the subject of the current Black Lives Matter movement, the continued criminalization of addiction and lingering issues surrounding an internal fight over the “thin blue line” American flag displayed in the sixth floor staff-only common area of the courthouse, a flag supporters have called a show of solidarity with police but which also has a fraught, divisive political past. In response to an email inquiry from Alive, Deputy Court Director Susan Bedsole said the flag has since been removed. "The Court has always been, and continues to be, committed to training and discussions regarding all facets of diversity and inclusion with respect to not only staff, but also to those we serve," Bedsole wrote.
“This is a human rights issue for which the Court holds responsibility,” Mitchell wrote in his resignation letter about the current protests in support of Black Lives Matter. “George Floyd was lynched on the street by law enforcement, something that happens so regularly that our Court somehow has the capability to turn a blind eye, to remain silent. Do not forget that this problem plagues our own community. Henry Green, fatally shot seven times by Columbus police department: no indictment returned. Julius Tate, fatally shot five times by Columbus police department; yet, his girlfriend was charged with his murder. Ty're King, fatally shot by Columbus police department: no indictment returned. He was 13 years old.”
"With everything going on with the Black Lives Matter movement, and everything that happened with George Floyd, I expected, at the very least, for the probation department or the judges to release a statement, to say that they they denounce racism, that they denounce police brutality, that we're doing everything that we can do to uphold diversity and inclusion," said Mitchell, who also shared a staff-wide email written by Administrative Judge Stephen McIntosh in response to current events and dated Friday, June 5. "The court is part of the judicial system. This limits our ability to take an institutional public position on current issues," wrote McIntosh, who confirmed the validity of the email via phone.
Mitchell said he started drafting the resignation letter more than a week ago, and it’s already been through nine or 10 iterations. “A day or two after I resigned, I had a conversation with my supervisor … and I left it kind of empty because I wasn’t able to get out what I wanted to say,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t want to ruffle feathers at that point, but leaving the conversation I realized I had a responsibility, being in this position of power of leaving the court, and I had to say something.”
Mitchell received bachelor’s and master's degrees in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati. Prior to landing with the Franklin County courts, Mitchell worked with children’s services for two years, in addition to a stint as a private investigator, accepting the job in Columbus due in part to what he viewed as the local court’s more progressive approach to criminal justice.
“The reason I was interested in Franklin County adult probation, specifically, was because they have kind of marketed that they’re moving toward more social-service oriented, cognitive behavioral interventions rather than just locking people up, and that intrigued me, because that’s more evidence-based,” Mitchell said.
This early optimism faded amid the daily demands of the job, particularly after Mitchell became a risk-reduction officer about eight months ago, working a caseload of chemically dependent parolees, a position that required no specialized training. With a system increasingly strained by addiction, Mitchell said he was handling somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 cases. “We can't even devote the time necessary to the high caseloads that we already have, to meet with people appropriately and do the interventions necessary and speak with treatment providers. It's just not all plausible,” said Mitchell, who also noted the continued failings of the court to address addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
Regardless, Mitchell struggled with the decision to willfully leave a job in the midst of a pandemic-driven economic slowdown, particularly as he weighs gender-affirming surgery that would have been covered by his employer-based health insurance (Mitchell came out as transgender in January, describing the Franklin County court response as "fully accommodating"). At the same time, Mitchell doesn’t view his choice as a heroic act, but rather a necessary one.
“I cannot in good conscience continue to work for a system that oppresses people and refuses to admit or acknowledge that it oppresses people,” Mitchell said. “This is the least that I could do for our Black community, to step back from this and realize, ‘Wow, I'm guilty. My hands are dirty because I participated in this for the last two years.’ … Up until now, I don’t think I fully realized that you can’t change the system from the inside, because, at the end of the day, you’re still complicit with laws that inherently discriminate. … All I can do now is step away from this job and try to make it right.”
It’s a point that Mitchell reiterated in a follow-up email sent the morning after our initial phone conversation, in which he reiterated that his decision to speak up now shouldn’t be lauded, but could hopefully inspire reflection, conversation and, ultimately, action.
“The point is to have others hear my story and question the laws we have in place, question the validity of the criminal justice system as a whole and question their own role in systemic oppression, especially those that currently work in the system,” he wrote. “The only way to truly dismantle white supremacy is to acknowledge and address the role that we play in it.”