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In Columbus, Ma'Kiah Bryant Death Puts Spotlight On Community's Distrust Of Police

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Columbus, Ohio, where 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant was killed by a police officer this week, distrust of the police department runs deep. For many there, the concept of police protection is something of an oxymoron. As Frank Morris reports, activists are ramping up demands for reform.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Hours after Ma'Khia Bryant was killed by officer Nicholas Reardon, who was responding to a 911 call for help, protests erupted in her neighborhood.

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MORRIS: Neighbors like Ira Graham III say her death fits a pattern and reinforces something he's told his 18-year-old son for years. It's just not safe to call the police.

IRA GRAHAM III: I tell him, unfortunately, never call the cops for anything because you call the cops, and things can unfortunately end up like this.

MORRIS: That sentiment isn't unique to Columbus, of course, but it is pervasive throughout the Black community here. And standing in front of Columbus City Hall, Dejuan Sharp, a 37-year-old Army vet, says it puts the community on edge.

DEJUAN SHARP: I shouldn't be scared of the police and the hood. I'm not scared of the hood, but just saying, like, I shouldn't have to live in fear when these people pull up. I shouldn't - I should be able to call 911 if my family needs it, not worried about if I 911 and my family going to be killed.

MORRIS: Activist Jasmine Ayres says that fear is rational.

JASMINE AYRES: Just numerically speaking, we have one of the most violent police departments in the United States.

MORRIS: That's especially true for African Americans. The group Mapping Police Violence tracks all types of police killings, and its data show that Columbus police are responsible for more Black deaths in the last several years than departments in some much larger cities and multiples more than comparable Ohio cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati.

And the problems go way back. In 1998, the U.S. Justice Department investigated Columbus police and found a raft of abuses - a pattern of excessive force, false arrests and false charges. Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin says unrest last summer following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to a fresh and powerful push to reign in the department.

SHANNON HARDIN: There really has been a lot of change and a lot of reform. We've done more in the last year in terms of police policy than we've done in 30 years combined.

MORRIS: Hardin says the city banned no-knock warrants. It set up a registry to screen out officers involved in hate groups. He's especially proud of new police teams, including people trained in psychology to de-escalate some crisis situations.

HARDIN: And lastly, we took to the voters a civilian review board that would have - provide oversight accountability but would also have subpoena power.

MORRIS: Columbus voters embraced that civilian review board wholeheartedly. It passed with nearly 75% of the vote. The city will take a major step toward establishing that board on Monday, when it's scheduled to finalize the first slate of board members. But Jasmine Ayers suggests an even bolder move is in order.

AYRES: We want the Department of Justice to investigate the Columbus Police Department because it's clear that after a decade of disproportionately killing Black and brown people. That they're not going to fix it themselves.

MORRIS: And since activists calling for a Justice Department probe might not carry enough weight, Ayres wants the city to officially invite federal scrutiny.

AYRES: It is much more meaningful when the government calls the government and says, we need help. And the Department of Justice just went into Minneapolis. They can come into Columbus. And we need them to make that phone call.

MORRIS: Of course, that kind of call can be difficult, even for a reformer like Shannon Hardin. He won't say where he stands on a Justice Department investigation, but he says he would welcome tougher federal guidelines governing local police departments, ones that build trust and help heal the painful rift between Columbus police and the citizens they serve. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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