Voice of the people: Roger Larsen




Officer involved shootings


Last Sunday's Dispatch carried a front-page article about the racial integration of the Columbus Police Dept. in the 1960s and early 1970s. The article included an interview with Thomas Lee, one of the first black officers hired, and Joe Johnson, a black who was hired about 10 years later and eventually became head of investigations and assistant chief.


Mr. Lee expressed concern about the state of policing today -- particularly the number of white officers shooting black civilians. He added, "You've got some bad cops everywhere ... I see all these shootings today. We had some tough times, but we never thought about [that], not unless I had to. We had been in some tough situations and never used deadly force."



The Dispatch article continued: "Johnson said he's not worried about CPD, thanks to [Chief Fred] Shelton and his focus on community policing ... but he thinks that nationwide, police officers aren't as well trained as they were when he was first hired. "They don't know how to disarm suspects or assess threats, he said, which is why there are so many police shootings."


The article then quoted Mr. Johnson: "The community and the police have gotten farther and farther apart. There's a push now to get them back together, but as long as we have these officers doing bad shootings, it's not going to happen. They're going to have to go back and train the officers to assess the threat. It's hard to say, 'Well I thought Joe was pulling out a gun,' and I come up with a cell phone and I'm dead. That doesn't help the community. Period."


Many Dispatch readers will not know or remember that about 12 years ago, when he was assistant chief, Mr. Johnson shot and killed an unarmed black male during an arrest gone awry. I'll just present the facts briefly as I remember them.


It happened on 15th Street North, across from Helen's Kitchen and just north of Seventh Avenue North. Justin Smith (no relation to Mayor Robert Smith) had not shown up for a court appearance and Smith Bail Bond Service was on the hook for his $10,000 bond.


I think that by that time Mayor Smith had divested himself of the bonding company (as required by law, to avoid obvious potential political/policing problems) and that it was being run by his longtime partner, Suzie Summerville. Some fliers had been put up offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of Justin Smith.


He was seen going into a vacant house on 15th Street North and officers responded, including Sgt. Rick Jones and Assistant Chief Johnson, who both entered the house. When Sgt. Jones attempted to handcuff Mr. Smith he tried to twist free and was shot by Mr. Johnson. I think that Mr. Johnson later claimed that he tripped and his weapon discharged. Sgt. Jones attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Mr. Smith but was unable to save him. The City of Columbus paid an undisclosed settlement to Justin Smith's family.


I was reliably informed by sources at the time that Mr. Johnson's firearms certification was not current. This in itself is probably not uncommon, but it is worth mentioning now, after Mr. Johnson's comments in the Dispatch about the necessity of proper police training.


I don't remember Mr. Johnson ever expressing any public regret over this shooting death.


I hope The Dispatch will look into the Justin Smith case in more detail.


Roger Larsen




Editor's note: Larsen is the former owner and editor of The Packet.




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