Church meeting brings officer and man he punched together to talk

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During a closed-door meeting in the basement of Family Missionary Baptist Church, Jonathan Robinson sat across the table from the Columbus police officer who punched him in the face five days before.

The officer, Anthony “AJ” Johnson, leaned across the table and spoke directly to Robinson.

Johnson acknowledged that he hit him. He even apologized for the punch.

And while Johnson did not go so far as to say he wished it never happened, the two men sat across the table and listened to one another, said the Rev. Frederick LaMarr, who invited the men to meet at his Oakwood Avenue church on the South Side.

Robinson sat next to his brothers during the meeting with Johnson. One of them, Derrick Sloane, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and obstruction charges last week after the same June 7 encounter where Johnson punched Robinson.

Robinson was also charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction for not following orders by Officer Carl Harmon and Johnson to back away from an investigation scene into shots fired. Johnson has a pre-trial hearing scheduled in July.

But no one who attended the meeting on Wednesday wanted to discuss the particulars of what happened on the 900 block of Heyl Avenue. LaMarr said that wasn’t the point of the meeting.

Cellphone video of the punch had already gone viral. The Columbus police later released more than 49 minutes of video footage that showed more context from multiple angles and included in-police cruiser video of Johnson and Robinson talking on the way to jail.

LaMarr said Johnson and Robinson had agreed to sit down and talk at the church about policing, community engagement and the gap between procedure and culture that has torn at the heart of the black community and the Columbus police for years now.

LaMarr said he thinks social media is a monster and was grateful that the Columbus police released their body camera and cruiser footage, but he wanted to send a different message online.

So LaMarr called up interim police Chief Tom Quinlan and asked if Johnson would be willing to come in. Then he gathered Robinson and his brothers and he sat them all down in his church’s basement.

“I said, ‘Look, let’s kill all of this negativity,'” LaMarr said. “Allowing people to talk makes them feel heard and I wanted AJ and Jonathan to have that chance to talk about police procedures and culture sensitivity.”

A spokeswoman for the Columbus police said that neither Johnson nor the division would comment for this story because Johnson and the incident are both under investigation.

Not everyone was satisfied by Wednesday’s meeting.

“I was disappointed,” said Cecil Ahad, a South Side advocate who works with LaMarr to lead Ministries4Movement, a group that seeks to build community and reduce violence. He was also at the meeting.

Ahad said he’s concerned with the way Columbus police entered the scene: shotguns drawn, accusatory, expecting Robinson and his brothers to stand back, leave their house and stay quiet.

Still, Ahad believes Johnson was genuine and is hopeful that meetings like this will continue to happen. “We know people are human,” he said.

He said he also was happy to see Quinlan and Safety Director Ned Pettus Jr. attend and agree to opening more channels of communication.

Ahad thinks the police were transparent this time, but he wants meetings like the one LaMarr organized to be regular and public.

LaMarr believes wholeheartedly in a different picture.

“I can look at that video and say, ‘I don’t have to see another child gone or talk to a mother who lost her son,'” he said. “So let’s get in front of it, let’s give people more chances to talk, shake hands and meet face-to-face.”

In a broader sense, Columbus police are doing their best to respect everyone’s right to record officers, but it’s especially difficult to navigate in high-intensity calls, especially a shots-fired call, said Keith Farrell, president of Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, which represents Columbus officers.

“It’s problematic when we’re trying to get control and we don’t know what’s going on and the public gets involved or too close to the scene,” Ferrell said.

Ferrel wouldn’t comment specifically on the incident between Johnson and Robinson while the investigation is ongoing, but emphasized that no one should rush to judgment based on short snippets of cellphone video.

“I really don’t care that people are filming,” he said. “We respect your rights, but just allow us to do it in a safe manner.”

South Side association area commissioner Curtis Davis believes that the cellphone video of the punch that went viral only tells a “one-sided story” and that when the police get a shots-fired call it’s higher stakes.

“There’s a reason they go in with bigger guns,” he said. “And it’s a scenario where they have to follow protocol rigidly.”

That protocol, specifically use-of-force rules, are outlined in directives issued by the police chief. Punches are one of several methods recommended in the directives “to control resistive or aggressive behavior.”

Using “hard empty-hand control (strike/punch/kick)” is listed as a Level 4 use of force on a scale of zero to eight, with zero being things like “verbal commands” and Level 8 being “deadly force.”

Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther created the 17-member Columbus Community Safety Advisory Commission in spring 2018 to make recommendations to improve policing strategies.

“They have been reviewing existing research of respected law enforcement and social justice experts covering subjects including use of force, as well as the hiring process and collective bargaining, internal affairs and crisis intervention training,” Robin Davis, Ginther’s spokeswoman, said in an email.

The commission’s report should be released by the end of this summer. When Ginther chooses a new police chief early next year, he or she will be expected to implement the changes in a timely way, she said.

Ferrell is focused on building relationships and educating the public about policing.

“No one’s going to agree on everything, but we want to reach a general understanding,” he said. “We have a job to do and it’s not always going to be peaceful, but we don’t want bad cops. We’re here to protect the public.”

Robinson is still facing criminal proceedings for the disorderly conduct and obstruction charges in Franklin County Municipal Court. His attorney, Bob Fitrakis, said that “if (the police and city officials) want things to improve, break hostility and change culture, they should drop Jonathan’s charges and provide reasonable compensation.”

Fitrakis is also representing Robinson’s brother, Sloane, who pleaded guilty. Fitrakis wants the city to reverse Sloane’s plea, drop the charges and also compensate him.

“You can’t disproportionately punish one section of our society,” Fitrakis said. “The mediation meeting with Pastor LaMarr was a small step forward, but we don’t want to revert back to the old ways by having these men prosecuted. We want this case to stand for something positive and we hope the resolution doesn’t become another conflict.”

Dispatch Reporter Bill Bush contributed to this story.

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