It’s been three weeks since the Columbus Citizens Police Review Board met it is recommended to remove Gambit Aragonone of her new members.
Aragon has been an outspoken critic of the Columbus Police Department during his tenure, and his anger grew after the Proud Boys anti-drag rally on Dec. 3. That weekend, Sgt. Stephen Dyer was recorded high-fiving a member of an extremist hate group, and subsequent reports from The Nation suggested that members of the Proud Boys exist within the Columbus Police Department itself.
Aragon argued that an inspector general-led investigation into the actions of the Columbus Police Department is necessary.
Mayor Andrew Ginther posted on Facebook that Aragon should “resign from the Citizen Police Oversight Board” after Aragon’s Facebook posts were seen as anti-police. The board then voted to remove it.
Aragon spoke to Buckeye is a flame about his withdrawal, career in activism and what the future holds for him. (This interview has been edited for length.)
What was your experience of activism prior to joining the Civilian Police Oversight Committee and why did you feel it was important to sit on this board?
GA: “I have been an activist for some time. I am passionate about various causes for the promotion of basic human rights. I am passionate about LGBTQI rights, recovery, women’s rights and especially justice for BIPOC. I was one of the many citizens protesting during the 2020 Uprising or nationwide protests against police brutality. This experience informed me that I could do more in local government. I recently organized the Columbus Community Pride and volunteered on their communications team.”
“It was vital for me to join the board because I believe that representation is very important, especially when it comes to public scrutiny of the police. I am a Latin American immigrant, queer and non-binary person. I give visibility to a much larger, more colorful and beautiful community, [one that has] have historically and now suffered from police brutality and misconduct. As a civilian I wanted to see if the board was legit or just a dummy board. i [now] there are my answers.’
How would you describe your time on the board, and how does your perspective differ from your peers?
GA: “My time on the board of directors has been well spent. I have accumulated knowledge of the commitments that this board has failed to deliver. My relationship with my colleagues was typical. I had some who appreciated my perspective. At the same time, the other members of the council are probably sorry I wasn’t there.”
“I joined this board to be a voice for my community and an advocate for the families of people affected by police violence. I do not believe that any member should have joined the board to sympathize with the plight of the police department. CPD has representation and protection from FOP plus a collective agreement written in their favor.”
“As far as tension goes, I’ve always been tense in board meetings. It was my first time serving on any board and it wasn’t like we were trained in board rules and etiquette. Instead, we went through training after training about the police experience, keeping our biases in check and how to properly cross-check investigative reports.’
You argued that the board should file a complaint and that the Office of the Inspector General open an investigation into the conduct of the Columbus Police Department on December 3rd. How and why did you come to this conclusion?
GA: “People’s trust depends on their representatives speaking up and speaking out when domestic terrorist groups try to take over our city and terrorize our people. We need to make sure that the people who live here, especially those who are most likely to be targeted by these hate groups, feel safe. My words were aimed at exactly that.”
“Many people at the meeting seemed to support my proposal with such advocacy and conviction. They also ended up being the same board members who voted for me and questioned my objectivity the next time I saw them.”
“The actions of city management and CPD on December 3rd are our reality, not our expectation. I knew the proud boys wouldn’t get arrested, but I didn’t expect high fives and bromance either. Historically, marginalized communities are the first to be targeted by hate groups and white supremacists. The events of that day further show that the CPD has a deep-seated problem with racism. These issues are not new to Columbus. The Justice Department said CPD and the city “have tolerated a pattern or practice of excessive force, false arrests, and illegal searches and seizures by the police department.” There is reason in our city to be skeptical of the motivations of our leadership and their continued defense of CPD misconduct. “.
The supervisory board voted to fire you on December 19, saying you had a conflict of interest and could not serve objectively. Mayor Andrew Ginther publicly called for your resignation, citing social media posts in which you criticized Columbus police. Can you tell us about it?
GA: “No one on the board ever talked to me about anything. The chairman did try to meet the week before, but refused my request to do a zoom meeting on the record. I like to always be transparent.”
“On the day of the council meeting, I was informed that an email containing my messages had been sent to all council members. I was never asked to come forward with the allegations because they were never communicated to me. I did not break any social media policies as I was speaking on my Facebook account and not as a board member in any capacity. In terms of rules and conduct policies, the board has not been able to set any rules and technically we don’t have any. That is why one board member decided to vote against my dismissal. Personally, I believe the mayor and CPD want to shift the narrative toward my objectivity because they didn’t like the spotlight being placed on my very public comments at a board meeting about their inaction.”
“I believe my removal is purely an attempt to support the status quo. Like the protesters in 2020, I was an irritant on this board and in town. No, I do not regret anything I posted. That was never an option to stay on the council if it meant sacrificing my integrity by not speaking out. Several community members and leaders were concerned about how the police were trying to create a community with the Proud Boys and other hate groups. My words were intended to reflect that sentiment: the feeling is so communal and collective that the mayor and the police chief spoke about it. I think people should use their platforms to expose injustice.”
The Citizen Police Review Board was created to look into past cases of police misconduct at the CPD, including three officers who were charged with misconduct for their actions during the 2020 George Floyd protests. The board’s main goal is to hold this department accountable. Can it be said that the audit board has achieved this goal?
GA: “I have been on the council for 18 months and I have not seen any progress in holding the corrupt elements of the CPD to account. I believed this advice when I signed up. I still believe that, if reformed, it can be of great benefit in bringing CPD policy and regulations into this century.”
“As I said before, this council should be elected by the community, not by the city government. It’s a conflict of interest when the board is elected by people who have invested in making the city and the police department look good. This new board will work the same way the FOP does. He will represent the citizens of Columbus, as will the union. In this case, the creation of a new collective agreement will be honest and fair. The authority to fire individuals who repeatedly violate the same policy or conduct themselves in a manner unbecoming of a city employee is also critical. The pace and timing of investigations is also a problem. I would bring back the subpoena power and give council members permission to view body camera footage. Frankly, City Hall and CPD should answer to the civic board, not the other way around.”
Several people objected to the Columbus Police Department’s behavior on December 3rd. My own reports indicate that some members of a hate group may exist within the department itself, however there have been no internal investigations and CPD leadership rejects all criticism. What can or should be done to counter the Columbus police deadlock and make the city’s police force more transparent?
GA: “I have no doubt that your investigations have revealed elements of white supremacy in the CPD. I honestly believe that racist elements have found their way into all levels of government. This advice could help identify people with these dangerous beliefs and motivations. why there will be no investigations. CPD will continue to dismiss criticism as baseless accusations because it fits their narrative. It just speaks to the inability of the police to police themselves.”
“The Citizens’ Control Board would work if it were not diluted and undermined internally by board members who believe the police need additional protection and mouthpieces. I was hoping that better leadership could help break down the barriers of systemic racism, but who are we kidding? The Department of Justice called CPD “corrupt”. We need to work outside these systems to get CPD accountability and transparency. I’m working on initiatives that will allow you to see in real time the worst cops in the city. I am working with the community to create services that will truly save Black lives and provide life-saving resources to the trans, non-binary, and genderqueer communities of color at the click of a button.”
This story was originally published Buckeye is a flame and republished here with permission.