Three police officers in Columbus, Ohio, are facing criminal charges for their behavior during protests following the death of George Floyd last year, when officers in cities across the United States often used violence to break up demonstrations.
The nationwide protests led to accusations of police misconduct in many American cities. But in only a few, especially New York, Philadelphia and Buffalo, N.Y. — were officers charged with crimes, and the officers in Philadelphia and Buffalo were later acquitted. In Columbus, the city last year ordered a special prosecutor and an independent investigator to review complaints of police misconduct during the protests there.
That led to the announcement on Wednesday that three officers have been charged. the police said the officers were charged with administrative duties pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
Traci Shaw, an officer, was charged with three charges, each of assault, dereliction of duty and interference with civil rights in connection with a protest on May 30, 2020, five days after Mr. Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.
Agent Shaw was accused of leaving her police vehicle, approaching people on a sidewalk and spraying pepper spray. One woman told investigators that she and the others who were being sprayed "didn't provoke the agent at all," according to a complaint. The woman said she told Officer Shaw they were walking home.
Holly Kanode, a sergeant, was charged with forgery and dereliction of duty. While assisting in the arrest of a woman on May 30, 2020, she was heard on body camera footage telling an officer that the woman grabbed another officer and pulled him to the ground. But the body camera footage and another video submitted to the city showed no such attack, according to the indictment.
Phillip Walls, an officer, was charged with two counts of assault, dereliction of duty and interference with civil rights. On May 29, 2020, he sprayed "peaceful protesters" standing on a sidewalk, including an "unidentified elderly black woman" who had previously been sprayed with pepper spray, according to a complaint. He then again sprayed the woman with pepper spray, along with another woman who tried to help her leave, the indictment said.
"We will continue to work to identify additional officers who may have committed misconduct," special counsel Kathleen Garber said in a statement.
Mark C. Collins, a lawyer whose office represents the three officers, said in an interview that they intend to plead innocent and that "we will fight these tooth and nail in the trial."
He said the officers were acting within the scope of their duties on the basis of their orders, that the charges were largely motivated by money spent on the investigation and that top police officers escaped responsibility.
"Instead of tackling it from the top down, they just turned people into scapegoats," he said.
The City of Columbus has used Sergeant Shaw as an expert to testify in federal court about the use of force, and she teaches at the police academy, Mr. collins.
Jeff Simpson, the executive vice president of Capital City Lodge No. 9 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement that "after consultation with our Lodge Counsel, we believe the officers have acted properly, within the scope of their duties."
“Our officers are among the best trained in the country and we welcome the responsibility that comes with our job,” said Mr Simpson. “Columbus police officers charged with misconduct have the constitutional right to a fair trial and will be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
The charges against the officers were filed as the Columbus Police Department continues to investigate four deadly police shootings of black people from December to April. Each sparked intense demonstrations, including one on April 12 in which protesters broke through a door at the police station.
While nearly 30 percent of Columbus residents are black, 85 percent of the police force is white. Still, just over half of all violence use cases in 2017, the most recent year surveyed, were directed at black residents, according to an operational survey.
Andrew Ginther, the mayor of Columbus, said in a statement that the Department's response to George Floyd's protests "didn't live up to my or the community's expectations."
"The fact is that some police officers in Columbus acted outside of policy, abused their authority and may have committed crimes," he said in the statement. “That's why we engaged independent investigators to determine whether criminal charges should be filed, and today we got the answer. Officers who break the law should expect to be held accountable.”