In the late morning of Thursday, Aug. 23, Officer Andrew Mitchell of the Columbus Division of Police in Ohio was working undercover, looking for women selling sex on the city’s West Side. He tried to take Donna Dalton, a 23-year-old mother of two young girls and sex worker, into custody. After what police called “an altercation” in his car, Mitchell shot and killed her.
Mitchell and Dalton were brought to the same hospital; he had wounds where police said she stabbed him in the hand. Officer Mitchell underwent surgery. Dalton was pronounced dead. A media release from the police department, known as the CPD, later described her as “an armed suspect.”
In the days since the incident, more information has trickled out about Mitchell. According to police records in a county court database he has already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018, overwhelmingly of women. And the Columbus police confirmed to The Appeal that he is the subject of an internal affairs investigation, opened before the shooting, and multiple previous complaints.
Donna Dalton’s killing has outraged her family and their extended community in Columbus. Around 100 people gathered for a vigil in her honor two days after her death, calling for answers and an end to police killings in a city where no officer has been indicted for an on-duty lethal shooting in 20 years.
Dalton was part of a huge family, explained Bobbi McCalla, her older sister. (Though Donna was identified as Donna Castleberry, her married name, by police, she went by Donna Dalton, McCalla told The Appeal.) She “wasn’t just a nobody, that’s the bottom line,” said McCalla. “She was a friend, she was a family member, she was a mother, she was so many things to so many different people. The loss that we feel is deep and immediate.”
McCalla said she frequently drives by the spot where her sister was killed. There are still women out on the streets, she said, and police are also a constant presence. CPD spokesman Sgt. Rich Weiner acknowledged this on the day of the shooting: Sex work, he said, “is such a nuisance to the neighborhood—that’s why we work these types of incidents.”
The Columbus police department described Officer Mitchell as a 30-year veteran. It declined to discuss the dozens of arrests he made for prostitution-related offenses like “soliciting” and “loitering soliciting.” And it could not provide The Appeal with the overall number of such arrests this year, though it did offer a chart with 596 arrests categorized as “prostitution” so far in 2018.
Officer Mitchell faced at least eight complaints since 2006, according to data obtained by The Appeal, and in two he was found be “outside of policy.” CPD public information officer Denise Alex-Bouzounis would only acknowledge there had been some complaints and say the internal investigation of Mitchell was still open. She also confirmed that Columbus police have an audio recording of the incident with Dalton made by Mitchell as part of his undercover vice investigation. The Appeal requested the recording from the Columbus police but was told it would not be released at this time.
Donna Dalton’s death comes on the heels of a number of other fatal, on-duty shootings by the Columbus police. In 2018, there have been 17 incidents involving officers shooting people, CPD confirmed. Seven of those people died. Between 2013 and 2017, CPD officers fatally shot 28 people.
Columbus officers are also almost always cleared of wrongdoing. This year so far, at least seven CPD officers who fatally shot people were found to have been within department policy for use of force. In fact, since Franklin County prosecutor Ron O’Brien was elected in 1996, he has never indicted any officers for fatal on-duty shootings. “There are probably only a handful of these cases over the years where it was even close,” O’Brien told the Columbus Dispatch in 2015.
For McCalla, knowing this background puts her sister’s death in context. “When I first found out that my sister passed and it was all over the news, I refused to look at the news stories for a day or two,” she said. “And then I decided that I was ready, and I Googled, ‘officer-involved shooting on the West Side,’ and I was appalled at how many [there were] this year.”
On the Saturday after Donna Dalton’s death, her family and friends, along with several community organizations, gathered at an elementary school before dark for a vigil. They released balloons in pink and black, her favorite colors, while a helicopter hovered above. Donna’s mother, Michelle Dalton, spoke, as did Adrienne Hood, the mother of Henry Green, killed by CPD officers in June 2016. “It was heartbreaking,” McCalla said. But “it made me want to rise up and it gave me the strength to go ahead and start.”
Other groups, including Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus, have also organized against police violence in Columbus, and now against the targeting of sex workers in particular. “This is going on everywhere,” said Dkeama Alexis, a co-founder of the group, “police targeting sex workers who are just trying to earn their living, who are doing solid work.” Alexis also noted Columbus vice officers planned the recent sting operation against the adult entertainer Stormy Daniels. Whether it’s people of color, queer and trans people, sex workers, or people belonging to all of these categories, said Alexis, “a lot of different communities are under siege.”
Tynan Krakoff, lead organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbus, agreed. “She wouldn’t have been in a position to have to defend herself or be killed if sex work was not criminalized,” Krakoff said.
As Dalton’s family waits for information from the Columbus police, they’ve drawn support from the community around them. Another rally is planned for Thursday evening, beginning at an intersection where Donna was recently arrested. “I feel alone. But we’re not,” McCalla underscored. “This isn’t an isolated incident.”
Additional reporting by George Joseph.