Theodore Decker | Columbus police’s ‘jump-out boys’ left black man, son shaken in 2010

Theodore Decker
The Columbus Dispatch

No one dies in the story I am about to tell you.

This confrontation between two citizens and Columbus police left the victims shaken and disillusioned but uninjured.

It happened 10 years ago, four years before a series of killings by police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Cleveland ignited nationwide protests.

This case caused barely a ripple, even locally. As far as I recall, the two stories I wrote for The Dispatch made up the only media coverage.

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But whenever I hear news like the May 25 in-custody death of George Floyd in Minnesota, whenever people talk about strained police relations with the black community, whenever I reflect on my privileges as a middle-class white guy, I tend to think of that morning on Oak Street.

I learned about the events just hours after they occurred, from a 71-year-old woman. She had spent her morning on the phone.

"I called everywhere because I was upset,“ she told me. “What happens to them happens to me."

By “them,” she meant her 45-year-old son and 18-year-old grandson. This is what they told me:

Her grandson had been driving his red Kia Spectra east on Oak Street after picking up his dad from his job as a custodian at a Downtown office building. It was after 1 a.m.

Not far from home, they passed two unmarked vans and a Ford Crown Victoria parked on the north side of Oak.

The side doors of a van slid open as they passed, and father and son were momentarily blinded by flashlights aimed into their car.

In his rearview mirror, the son watched the vehicles flip direction and come after them. It did not cross their minds that the occupants might be police; there were no flashing lights or marked cruisers. At that time of night in their neighborhood, their thoughts instead went to a carjacking.

Do not stop until we get home, the father told his son.

When they did, eight to 10 men jumped out of the vehicles behind them and started shouting commands, saying they were Columbus police.

The men carried guns and wore black fatigues. Some had masks, and one wore a ball cap that read, “POLICE.” The father and son said they did not see any badges; police would later dispute that, among other details.

The officers searched the pair and their car for weapons, saying they were followed because the car’s high beams had been on. They said that suggested that the car had been stolen by hot-wiring it.

It was a flimsy excuse. Father and son said their high beams were never on, although using them would not have been unusual, given the hour and lack of oncoming traffic.

With no gun or drugs found and no basis on which to charge them, officers cut the pair loose. Later I would learn that the encounter was part of the division’s largely undercover Gun Violence Reduction Program.

Several months later, the Police Division’s internal affairs unit cleared the officers of wrongdoing. Only two of the 10 had faced departmental charges, and the officer statements differed markedly from those of the father and son.

One discrepancy in particular stood out, to the internal affairs investigator and to me.

One officer “stated that he removed (the father) from the passenger seat,” the investigator wrote. “All other officers indicated that (the father) exited the vehicle on his own accord and confronted the officers.”

That is a big discrepancy.

“You got one telling the truth and nine lying,” the father told me when I read him that section. “Neither one of us got aggressive with them at all. They’re flat-out lying. It’s as simple as that.”

I heard from others that such encounters were not unusual. On the streets, such officers were called “jump-out boys.”

We last mentioned the father and son in The Dispatch in 2012, when City Council had approved a $60,000 payment to them.

“Quite frankly, we erred,” George Speaks, deputy Columbus safety director, said at the time. He said the city retrained its officers and changed procedures to prevent similar errors.

Four years after that, in 2016, undercover officers in a similar detail were involved in a confrontation with an armed man in South Linden. His name was Henry Green, and his death did spark local protests.

The public pressure following Green’s death would prompt Mayor Andrew J. Ginther to discontinue a summer task force, and city officials said they had put an end to the tactics used by the jump-out boys.

After an internal investigation, police declared Green’s shooting justified.