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Three Columbus police officers charged in 2020 protest response

FILE - In this May 30, 2020, file photo, Congresswomen Joyce Beatty and Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin try to intervene as Columbus Police use pepper spray on demonstrators during a protest on the death of George Floyd on South High Street near the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Special prosecutor Kathleen Gerber and independent investigator Rick Wozniak announced Wednesday, June 9, 2021, they have charged three Columbus police officers for alleged misconduct in their handling of demonstrators during the protests last summer following the killing of George Floyd. (Kyle Robertson/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A special prosecutor charged three Columbus police officers Wednesday for alleged misconduct in their handling of demonstrators during the protests last summer following the killing of George Floyd.

Special prosecutor Kathleen Gerber and independent investigator Rick Wozniak announced the first charges against two officers and a sergeant with the Columbus Division of Police in an ongoing investigation into the division’s handling of days of intense protests that engulfed the city last May and June.

The misdemeanor charges follow a federal judge’s ruling in April that the division mishandled the protests and used force against protesters without provocation.

The special prosecutors were hired by the city to conduct the investigation.

“I was asked by the City of Columbus to independently evaluate the allegations of police misconduct from last summer’s protests so that both citizens and police officers are held to the same standard of accountability,” Garber said in a statement. “We appreciate the community’s patience over the past year while we have made continued attempts to interview witnessing officers and identify officers committing the alleged misconduct during the protests.”

Two of the officers were charged with assault, dereliction of duty and interfering with protesters’ civil rights. The sergeant was charged with falsifying information about a protester’s actions against another officer as well as dereliction of duty.

Columbus Public Safety Director Ned Pettus welcomed the investigation and its results, saying “this is important, necessary work.”

He added: “Answers and accountability are what the people of Columbus demand, and deserve.”

District Court Judge Algenon Marbley granted a preliminary injunction on April 30 against the city’s police force, barring officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, wooden bullets and other “nonlethal force,” against nonviolent protests.

Marbley said that most participants of last summer’s protests were peacefully protesting or observing when some officers used such nonlethal responses. There is “a mountain of evidence” that protesters were targeted while trying to follow police orders to leave the demonstrations, he wrote.

“This case is the sad tale of police officers, clothed with the awesome power of the state, run amok,” Marbley wrote in his decision.

The ruling was in favor of 26 protesters who filed a class-action lawsuit in July against the division, claiming they were brutalized by officers during the demonstrations last year.

The investigation by the special prosecutors into other allegations of Columbus police misconduct during the protests remains open.

The city attorney’s office said it has also prosecuted nearly 100 civilians for “violent, aggressive behavior” during the protests, including for threatening behavior toward police.

Also in April, a $250,000 review commissioned by the Columbus City Council found that the city was unprepared for the size and energy of the protests and that most police officers felt abandoned by city leadership during that time. The report found the city had no advance plan for handling such protests, and suffered from a lack of coordination and even regular communication among city leaders once the protests began.

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