Months after Ma’Khia Bryant’s killing, Columbus police more emboldened than ever | Ohio

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On 20 April, millions held their breath as they waited for a judge to read the verdict that the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had been found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. About 20 minutes before the verdict, Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old foster child, was fatally shot by a police officer a few hundred miles away in Columbus, Ohio.

According to early reports, the altercation that prompted a call to police involved Bryant and two women in their early 20s, and had escalated outside the foster home of Angela Moore, where Ma’Khia and her younger sister, Ja’Niah, were placed. Body-cam footage would reveal that Bryant was clutching a knife, making her the only person visibly armed until Nicholas Reardon, a 23-year-old officer who only joined the force just a year and a half earlier, arrived at the scene and within seconds fired four shots in quick succession – all of which found their target, Bryant.

“She’s just a fucking kid, man!” exclaimed a man, later established as Ma’Khia’s biological father who had gathered with other bystanders including Jeanene Hammonds, the girls’ grandmother, in the driveway. Ma’Khia was taken to Mt Carmel East hospital in critical condition and pronounced dead soon after.

While Ma’Khia’s case received national attention, she’s actually one of several children who have died at the hands of police in Ohio’s capital city between 2016 and 2021 alone. In that period, five other juveniles have been killed in similar altercations with police use of deadly force: 13-year-old Tyre King in 2016; 16-year-olds Julius Ervin Tate Jr and Joseph Edward Haynes in 2018; and 15-year-old Abdirahman Salad and 17-year-old Joseph C Jewell III in 2020. Haynes, who was white, was the only non-Black victim. Data from the research collaborative Mapping Police Violence indicates that since 2013, among all police departments across the US, officers in Columbus have killed their city’s youth at a higher rate than most other police forces in the country.

A mourner holds up a funeral program during services for Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, on 30 April.
A mourner holds up a funeral program during services for Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, on 30 April. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

But months after the city erupted in protests for George Floyd, some combination of apathy, unease and frustration has led the same local lawmakers who publicly decried Minneapolis police to forget the vast number of victims of police killings in their own backyards. That has left the Columbus police department devoid of any real accountability, and in fact more emboldened than ever as the city’s largest expense.

A rogue police force

Columbus police released the body-cam footage in the immediate hours following Ma’Khia’s shooting via livestreamed press conference, calling it an effort in “transparency”. But the Bryant family was less than comforted. “I know what happened the night before. I know what happened the night of the evening of this incident, and that’s what I was going to discuss with them before a videotape got out, making my granddaughter looking like she is a monster,” Hammonds then said.

The women involved in the altercation are now known as the former foster children of Moore, who were often left alone with the Bryant sisters unsupervised while she was at work. Michelle Martin, the Bryant family’s attorney, says the women – both in their 20s – bullied and berated the sisters and mocked Ma’Khia’s speech impediment. The environment had become so contentious that Ja’Niah Bryant called police one month before the fatal shooting.

Following an investigation conducted by the bureau of criminal investigations, the Ohio attorney general, David Yost, ultimately decided to send the case to special prosecutors for a grand jury review. Martin and Hammonds are now providing weekly testimony to prosecutors to give history of the threats and attacks from the former foster children of Angela Moore that preceded the shooting.

Meanwhile, Ja’Niah, Martin said, has noted that the protests and demonstrations in support of her elder sister have paled in comparison with those of George Floyd last summer. “I think what people do is dumb down the situation to those 10 seconds before Ma’Khia was killed and I think that that’s not fair to her,” she said. “People always need one bad actor, but if they can’t see how the entire system worked collectively to back her into a corner, then we are not going to get the support that we need.”

The family has also considered holding a march or action in remembrance of Ma’Khia with local organizers, but have not made any plans for fear of backlash and counter-protests. The organizing landscape has drastically changed in the capital city since the summer of 2020, when protests surged in solidarity with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others despite an escalating pandemic. Dozens of protesters accumulated stories that detail how they were terrorized by police.

A woman writes Ma’Khia Bryant’s name in chalk in Columbus in April.
A woman writes Ma’Khia Bryant’s name in chalk in Columbus in April. Photograph: Eli Hiller/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

“The Columbus police unleashed a literal war in our city for weeks,” Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, former mayor-appointed community safety advisory commissioner and co-founder of the People’s Justice Project, said. Fournier-Alsaada, among 25 other protesters, chose to file a class action lawsuit against the police department for its range of attacks on protesters, including rubber bullets, teargas and assault.

“There is video evidence in this lawsuit of their abuse of power. When you allow someone to have that much power and no way to hold them accountable, then you have a rogue police force. That is clearly the case here in Columbus, Ohio,” she said.

The case, now on record as Alsaada v City of Columbus, raises questions about why and how police – unconstitutionally, says Fournier-Alsaada and others – used teargas and other “less-lethal” weapons against protesters.

“Police officers started using tactics that we’ve never seen in our life – jumping out of vans, snatching people up and pointing their guns at anyone without asking questions. Even after the protests, people started getting ghost warrants – 60 to 90 days after an action, warrants were issued and executed in private and when people tried to look for you, they couldn’t find where you’d been taken,” said Heather Johnson, an activist and protester. Ghost, or phantom warrants, which have haunted people across the country in recent years, are expired or erroneous arrest warrants that in most cases unknowingly remain on a person’s record.

And just weeks before she was killed, four Republican-backed bills that would increase the number of arrestable offenses at protests and enhance penalties for crimes committed during demonstrations were introduced and one has already advanced out of House committee. That bill, which aims to expand the definition of obstructing justice to include failure to follow a lawful order or diverting a law enforcement officer’s attention, is of particular concern as organizers believe it will allow for selective enforcement and disproportionately harm Black citizens.

“It’s dangerous for us to be in the streets because we now have legislation being presented that doesn’t protect us,” said Johnson.

A real disconnect

Since January 2020, eight people have died at the hands of Columbus police, effectively ranking the city’s Franklin county 18th among the 100 most populous counties nationally in its annual fatality rate. But local organizers and groups like People’s Justice Project, and Columbus Police Accountability Project, have found themselves discouraged by an overall lack of action from state lawmakers.

Following Ma’Khia’s shooting, the Ohio governor, Mike DeWine, promised a sweeping police reform package was on its way, telling citizens that “If this bill is passed, it’ll put Ohio at the forefront,” of reform. “We will be able to say, ‘Look, we have gotten serious about this,’” DeWine said.

Yet with state lawmakers now on summer break, no such bill has been introduced and will probably not be until legislators return in the fall. In 2021, police funding also remained the largest item of the city’s budget at nearly $337m – a slight decrease from $361m in 2020 – with $152m going toward police patrol alone.

Ohio State students gather to protest the police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus in April.
Ohio State students gather to protest the police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus in April. Photograph: Kyle Robertson/AP

The Columbus mayor, Andrew Ginther, has insisted spending categories like public health and technology also saw a boost to create a more “holistic approach to public safety”, and recently pushed the US Department of Justice to conduct a review of the Columbus division of police and propose methods of reform. But organizers aren’t convinced.

“There’s a real disconnect between what politicians are saying and the actions behind it,” said Jordyn Close, state coordinator at Urge: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, an intersectional reproductive justice organization. “I think organizers in the movement have gotten to a point where we’re offered these platitudes like community review boards and de-escalation training but you can’t reform white supremacy, which is what police and the industrial-prison complex uphold.”

In a time when many major cities are taking steps toward reform, from an increase in mental health services to a decrease in police budget, the organizers who have not “gone home” can’t help but see the lack of action and accountability not only as a missed opportunity in the wake of Ma’Khia’s death, but a gross injustice.

“We have to see this as a true public health crisis – that our children are literally dying in the streets and killed by members of public service,” said Martin. “Until then, that is why people are not still rallying. We have to really have a passion for changing the way that our world treats our children and how we respond to racial disparities in our country.”

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