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Plagued by Misconduct Claims, Will Columbus’s Vice Unit Be Held Accountable?

The Columbus Police Department is under FBI investigation for multiple abuses of power.

The Columbus, Ohio, Division of Police Central Headquarters is seen on September 15, 2016. The Columbus Police Department is under FBI investigation for multiple abuses of power.

Adult film star Stormy Daniels’s July 2018 arrest in Ohio by the vice unit of the Columbus Police Department (CPD) turned out to be, according to emails a CPD whistleblower provided to the Fayette Advocate, a pre-planned political stunt by vice detectives — one of whom later bragged about it to colleagues. Daniels and two others later sued for false arrest.

Then, in August, the unit was again in the spotlight because a vice detective shot a sex worker eight times after claiming she stabbed his hand in his unmarked car. In September, another whistleblower familiar with local strip clubs informed city officials of extortion, selective enforcement and entrapment by the vice unit, bringing a large package of documents to corroborate the allegations.

In late September, the chief of the CPD asked the FBI to take over the investigation, which was announced as a “comprehensive review” of the vice unit on September 6, two weeks after the shooting, and which now includes the state attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the state auditor.

On September 27, Detective Andrew Mitchell, who led the sting on Daniels, was relieved of duty. On December 13, the CPD put a third vice detective involved in the sting on desk duty. The next day, the CPD announced that the vice unit will resume limited operations with a “select” group of officers, although the FBI probe remains ongoing. The unit will be handling liquor and nuisance complaints at after-hours clubs, instead of spending thousands on drinks and lap dances.

Narcotics and vice squads have been at the center of police misconduct allegations in Baltimore, Maryland; Los Angeles, California; Steubenville, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Such squads often operate out of uniform and away from public view, focusing on the underground world of sex, drugs and money. This aspect of policing is well-known among experts as one of the most problematic, which is why the New York Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the New Orleans Police Department routinely conduct random integrity tests on officers using money and drugs as bait. This aggressive approach is unheard of in Ohio, where police can abuse their power without fear of discipline.

Police Reform in Ohio

Ohio has hosted more federal investigations of police misconduct per capita than any other state. Only California boasts more, with nine such investigations, while New York has an equal number with seven. For an idea of scope, the Department of Justice (DOJ) only investigates less than 0.02 percent of US police departments. Ohio has had four federal consent decrees aimed at establishing federal oversight of its police, a last-resort mechanism usually reserved for the most troubled departments.

The CPD was under investigation from 1996 to 1999 and in litigation with the DOJ for the next three years over what the DOJ has called a pattern of excessive force, improper searches and seizures, as well as false arrests, false reports and false charges. Before the DOJ was given jurisdiction to investigate local Columbus police, scandals within the police department sparked lawsuits, with no established reform model to guide top police brass in improving their policies and management systems to prevent future scandals.

For example, in 1985, after an association of Black officers filed a lawsuit alleging they were subject to segregation, hazing, discrimination and retaliation if they complained, a federal judge admonished the CPD over evidence establishing what he termed “pattern of overt and frequent segregation and discrimination on the basis of race.” The judge noted that racial slurs literally covered CPD facilities, with slurs scrawled over the walls and carved into the desks.

A little more than a decade later, the Black officers’ association filed another lawsuit against the CPD, and some came forward to speak to the DOJ. CPD brass allegedly retaliated against officers who cooperated with the feds, labeling them “subversive” and using “bully tactics” to silence them. Meanwhile, CPD fought DOJ reforms harder than any department in the nation until 2001, when then-President George W. Bush reversed course on police reform, fulfilling his campaign promise to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) to stop “federal meddling” with police. Afterward, the Justice Department “gracefully backed out of the door,” according to then-Columbus FOP President Bill Capretta. That was the last time the CPD was externally reviewed.

Nevertheless, since then, there has been no shortage of indications that problems persisted inside the CPD. In 2014, the public safety director resigned as years of administrative failures came to light, including thousands of public calls missed, hundreds of complaints ignored, widespread gaming of the compensation system by officers and a sudden shortage in dashboard camera memory storage that obligated the city to spend $700,000 for new servers. In 2015, Columbus Police Chief James Jackson retired under a cloud of rumors, investigations and well over a decade of litigation arising from a case involving the chief’s failure to discipline a commander.

The CPD’s Current Scandal

It is unclear how much will be revealed to the public about interactions between the vice unit and sex workers. Many questions have been raised after veteran Vice Detective Mitchell fired at 23-year-old sex worker Donna Castleberry (sometimes named in reports as Donna Dalton) eight times in his unmarked car during a sting in August.

The basic facts paint a disturbing picture: Mitchell drove Castleberry from another location to a spot in a parking lot behind an apartment building, against the wall so that the passenger side door was blocked. The person who called 911 said she heard Castleberry scream that Mitchell was going to kidnap her. Then, after hearing gunshots, the 911 caller said she saw Mitchell pushing a body into the backseat. Officials offer no answers.

However, Castleberry’s relatives and people in the industry are suspicious of Mitchell’s story.

“Although we can’t know for sure what happened, based on typical police relations with sex workers, it’s quite likely the officer was threatening her or sexually abusing her, so she was probably reacting in self-defense,” Joyce Arthur, a spokesperson for FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work Now!, a Canadian organization that advocates for the rights of sex workers, told Truthout in an email. “Such behavior by police is very common. … The vast majority of sex workers don’t trust police.”

Matilda Bickers, founder of Sex Traders Radical Outreach & Liberation Lobby (STROLL), a Portland-based grassroots organization run for and by sex workers which pushes legislation that protects their rights, concurred: “I don’t know any sex workers who would call the cops.” She mentioned the ever-present risk of being charged with prostitution or trafficking, which is used as a weapon by cops and district attorneys to coerce sex workers and all those who have contact with them, including drivers, security guards, landlords and even sex workers’ partners.

Juliana Piccillo, a former sex worker and founding member of the Tucson chapter of Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP), found the cop’s story dubious. “An officer with decades of experience like Andrew Mitchell should have been able to take her into custody without shooting her multiple times; it defies understanding. This is a woman who got in cars with men as her job. It strikes me as unlikely she reacted the way she did without believing her life was in danger. ”

Piccillo continued, “She was fleeing him. She was frantic. The question is: Why? Facing a few weeks in jail for prostitution doesn’t explain it, but facing being raped or killed is much more logical. ”

Detective Mitchell owns several properties he rents out, and Castleberry’s sister, Bobbi McCalla, told The Daily Beast that 16 people came to her with allegations, including that “Mitchell propositioned women [tenants] for sex in lieu of paying rent.” Mitchell has been investigated by Internal Affairs seven times, and it was not the shooting, but a mysterious, undisclosed citizen complaint of a criminal nature that spurred the investigation. Nevertheless, Mitchell is still on the force, although relieved of duty as a result of what a CPD spokesperson described as “a culmination of things.”

There are reportedly complaints against other members of the vice unit, and the district attorney was obliged to drop charges against two-dozen other dancers who were arrested, like Daniels, after “touching” undercover officers ostensibly soliciting their services.

Kristen DiAngelo, the executive director of SWOP Sacramento, told Truthout she had been compelled to sleep with three different cops regularly for years. “You just have to accept it because nobody listens to you,” she said. “People think you’re not human.”

She said cops coercing sex workers is widespread — especially undercover cops. “If they don’t have a unit doing stings, then they have officers who think that [targeting sex workers] is more fun, and they get paid overtime. So, cities are spending shit-tons of money for this to occur, and there are so many people being abused in that situation.”

From DiAngelo’s perspective, one thing stood out, “The fact that the car was pulled up to a wall so she couldn’t get out. When I read that … we all get [post traumatic stress disorder], but that took me back. I thought, ‘Nah man, I know what happened.’ Everybody else can say, ‘You don’t know what happened,’ but that’s because they haven’t been in that situation. If you’ve been in that situation, you know what happened!”

Alex Andrews, co-founder of SWOP Behind Bars, which advocates for the human rights of incarcerated sex workers, wrote to Truthout in a private Facebook message, “We would like to see the entire police department help accountable for this police officer’s actions. We believe it is a culture of violence within this police department that has allowed Andrew Mitchell to think he can act with impunity and make such ridiculous claims about the circumstances surrounding Donna’s detainment and subsequent killing.”

The FBI investigation of the CPD illustrates how other agencies are attempting to fill the vacuum created by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to constrain federal police reform, but it is not clear that the investigation will result in the sort of systemic change consent decrees were designed to achieve. In fact, the CPD appears intent on continuing the status quo, without policy changes, although the vice unit’s undercover sting operations and anti-human-trafficking program are on hiatus. A CPD spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think individual accountability is absolutely essential and necessary, but it’s put off on a few ‘bad apples’ and doesn’t result in the kind of systemic change that these departments need,” said Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general of civil rights, referring to pattern-or-practice lawsuits and related consent decrees. “When you have bigger problems, you have to find a way to affect the entire department and hold the department accountable for real change.”

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