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Council oversight of law enforcement, related to crowd control/free speech events

It’s been over five months since the killing of George Floyd and the passage of Council’s resolution stating our commitment to addressing issues of racial equity here in Worthington.  Action at the City has been neither simple nor swift.  But tonight, November 2, the day before our national election, Council will undertake the first of several concrete steps related to law enforcement that will help move us forward (future topics will likely include body cameras, use-of-force policy, and augmentation of police with social service professionals).  On our agenda tonight is an item titled “Overview and outline for a proposed resolution regarding City Council oversight of law enforcement, related to crowd control/First Amendment events by Council Member Robinson.” 

I know that’s a mouthful.  But the idea is fairly simple: if our police officers are to be engaged in operations related to crowd-control/free-speech events, whether in Worthington or in other jurisdictions (including Columbus), then your City Council members ought to be notified in a timely manner, and given the means to meet and discuss such operations if warranted.  To me, this is basic oversight, a core responsibility to the public, and is of the highest importance when related to our fundamental rights of assembly and free speech.

Surprisingly, such notification of Council is currently not required, timely or otherwise.  I discovered this last summer when I learned, by chance, weeks after the fact, that the Worthington Police Department had supported (in peripheral, traffic control functions) the Columbus Police Department during the Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Columbus.  I subsequently asked numerous residents in Worthington whether they were aware that our officers had taken part (even peripherally) in the Columbus Police operations downtown and not a single one was aware of this fact.  So in addition to addressing what I viewed as the most critical issue at hand, our use-of-force policy, I decided at that time to pursue a strengthening of oversight, by way of timely notification, and the means for Council to expeditiously meet to discuss and consider police operations if deemed necessary.  The culmination of this effort is the discussion tonight and, hopefully, the subsequent passage of a resolution establishing this oversight goal as policy. The full text of my rough notes prepared for the Council discussion are copied below.

I realize that all issues related to law enforcement, racial justice, and the fundamental rights of citizens are complicated and hard to engage publicly, productively, and doing so runs the risk of raising defenses and heightening tensions.  But I think that complacency and inaction are even bigger problems.  A healthy relationship between any police department and the public is grounded in trust.  And trust is built not only through a history of positive interactions—and often personal relationships—but also through the willingness of all parties to openly talk, to share grievances (and hopes), to examine ways of addressing the concerns of others, and to do so without retreating in to habitual mindsets and the security of conforming social groups.  This type of positive engagement certainly ought to be possible here, in Worthington, where we have a well-trained, educated, professional police force dedicated to community policing and continual self-improvement, and both a city government and public that supports them in these efforts.   

It is in this light that I see this modest proposal for strengthened oversight.  I think it should be non-controversial.  But we will see.  As I said, these discussions are difficult.  And it will clearly be just a first step.  As stated above, other actions that are likely to soon be considered by Council include the introduction of body cameras, an updated use-of-force policy (addressing the use of chokeholds, for instance), and, as urged by Council Member Kowalczyk, the idea of supplementing law enforcement with other social service professionals.  Mental health professionals, in particular, could often serve with, or, when appropriate, in place of, first responders, making a peaceable outcome more likely for all.

In closing, I recognize these issues are complicated, and that this blog post does not adequately address even the immediate issues at hand—oversight, mutual aid agreements, public safety, free speech, protection of property, etc.  But I believe the proposed resolution does move us forward in a way consistent with the general aims stated in our racial equity resolution: to self-examine and make improvements where possible toward a more just and equitable community.  I welcome questions and dialog.  Emails can be sent to: davidwrobinsonblog@gmail.com

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Overview and outline for a proposed resolution regarding City Council oversight of law enforcement, related to crowd control/free speech events; notes prepared by DR, 11.1.2020

The basic purpose of this proposed resolution is to better enable City Council to fulfill its responsibility of law enforcement oversight, particularly as it relates to crowd control/free speech events.  There are two provisions to the proposal:

1) establishing clear protocol for timely notification of City Council by the WPD when the latter is anticipating, or is already engaged in, operations related to crowd control/free speech events, whether the operations are taking place in response to mutual aid agreement requests or originate wholly within the City of Worthington, and

2) updating the procedures (reflecting current technologies and gender-neutral language), as established in City Code (currently 126.01), for the convening of “Special Meetings” of City Council in order to enable timely discussion and possible action by Council related to WPD’s anticipated or actual participation in crowd control operations.

The principle advanced here is not micro-management or intrusion in to time-sensitive field operations of law enforcement personnel, but rather the need for elected officials to have established lines of responsibility and authority for oversight of law enforcement operations that extend beyond the simple criminal and in to the civil rights/political realm, manifesting as crowd control/free speech events.  Currently, there are no established procedures requiring that City Council be notified, ever, of such operations.

Regarding #1 above, I believe it is necessary that the term “timely” be given specificity somewhere, either in the resolution itself or supporting police policy (or elsewhere?).  With current technologies, email and text particularly, notification should be swift through any chain of command, from lead officer, to Chief, to City Manager, to Council.

Regarding #2, if we retain a 24 hour provision (as is stated in the current code) for general action, I believe we should also acknowledge that it is possible in the case of a safety/security emergency, that an executive meeting could be convened more promptly. This “emergency” provision for quickly convening meetings is apparently in place in other municipalities such as UA.

Proposed outline of resolution text:

  • Statement describing cultural context, BLM protests, and law enforcement, in W, Columbus, and across nation,
  • These events have raised basic issues of civil rights and law enforcement, resulting in greater awareness of need for civilian oversight; purpose is not to hamstring legitimate law enforcement, nor to compromise safety, but to ensure forces are deployed in a manner consistent and supportive of its mission and our community values, particularly when engaged in a support role in other police jurisdictions;
  • The purpose of this resolution is not to criticize or question the basic utility of current mutual aid agreements (1977, 2004, or 2013); such agreements provide participating law enforcement agencies with greater efficiencies and capabilities; nor is the intention here to in any way criticize or demean individual WPD officers or leadership, but rather to ensure that they will not be deployed in crowd control operations without the knowledge and support of elected officials;
  • To effect these goals, the first element is timely notification (ASAP) of City Manager and Council of any anticipated, or already underway, crowd control/free speech events; both within Worthington and outside the city via mutual aid agreement requests;
  • The second element is to establish (update) capacity to quickly convene Council “Special Meeting” if City Manager, President, or 3 or more Council members request such a meeting, in order to review, discuss, and possibly issue a directive regarding crowd control/free speech operations; this can be done in normal time, or via emergency if safety/security issues exist.

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David Robinson

David Robinson lives in Worthington with his wife, Lorraine, and their three children who attend Otterbein University and Colonial Hills Elementary. David is President and co-owner of Marcy Adhesives, Inc., a local manufacturing company. David has served on Worthington City Council since January, 2018, and is deeply committed to 1) advancing resident-centered policies, 2) supporting responsible development that enhances our unique historic character, 3) endorsing environmentally sustainable practices for both residents and city operations, 4) promoting the safety and well-being of all residents, and 5) preserving the family-friendly nature of our neighborhoods.