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Family of Donna Dalton, Who Was Shot By a Columbus Police Officer During Arrest, Demands Independent Inquiry

Advocates say the case hasn’t been handled fairly and there’s little hope for justice.

A supporter holding a sign at a vigil for Donna Dalton in early September.Katie Forbes

Last week, five months after Columbus police officer Andrew Mitchell killed 23-year-old Donna Dalton during what police say was an undercover prostitution sting, members of Dalton’s family arrived at the downtown police headquarters. In the cold rain, they carried images of her under their umbrellas.

Dalton’s mother, Michelle Dalton, and her sister Bobbi McCalla walked inside the station along with a group of supporters, looking for officers who could provide them with any information on the investigation into Dalton’s shooting. Before long, McCalla recounted, “I turned around and we were completely surrounded by police officers.” They were told to leave, and the station door was locked behind them with handcuffs.

It wasn’t the first time members of Dalton’s family felt barred from the inquiry into her shooting. They, along with members of Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbus and other advocates, have called for an independent investigation into her death.

“CPD [the Columbus Division of Police] has proven time and time again that they aren’t willing to thoroughly investigate their own,” said McCalla. “The way that they treat the public, the way that they treat my parents and have spoken to us, doesn’t really give us any faith that they’re willing to do their own investigation—a truthful, honest investigation.”

Donna Dalton was shot and killed on Aug. 23, 2018, after what police called “an altercation” in Officer Andrew Mitchell’s car. (Though police identified Dalton as Donna Castleberry, her married name, she went by Donna Dalton, McCalla told The Appeal.) Officer Mitchell was attempting to arrest Dalton for a prostitution offense when she was killed. It would have been his 81st prostitution arrest that year, according to a county court database.

Before he killed Dalton, Mitchell was already the subject of a separate internal affairs investigation. CPD public information officer Denise Alex-Bouzounis told The Appeal she could not release details of that inquiry because it is a criminal investigation. She said the department’s investigation into Dalton’s death was “ongoing” but did not provide further information.

There is a real concern when a member of this brotherhood is tasked with investigating another for misconduct.

Sean Walton attorney

Mitchell, a 30-year veteran of the Columbus police, came to vice in recent years, after working in homicide. The officers responsible for investigating his fatal shooting of Dalton—the Critical Incident Response Team—are from the homicide unit. That concerns some advocates, who say the team may not handle the case fairly.

“The fact that he was a homicide detective, and homicide detectives are investigating him—whether these officers worked with him or not—there’s a brotherhood amongst police officers,” said Sean Walton, a Columbus attorney who has represented several families of those killed by city police, including 13-year-old Tyre King and 23-year-old Henry Green.

“There is a real concern when a member of this brotherhood is tasked with investigating another for misconduct,” Walton said. “There’s just a lot of room for bias, even in how the investigation is pursued, and what steps are taken, what witnesses are followed up with.”

Indeed, when it comes to use of force, the Columbus police have a track record of not sanctioning their own. An investigation by The Appeal found that in such cases between 2001 and 2017, the department determined that officers’ actions were justified 99 percent of the time.

Philip Stinson, who runs the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University, has extensively studied fatal police shootings. “Best practices are that the primary investigation should not be conducted by the agency that employs the officer who shot and killed somebody,” Stinson said. “Many police chiefs and elected prosecutors will now tell you that as well.”

In 2016, an Ohio Supreme Court task force recommended that in lethal use-of-force cases, the Ohio attorney general’s office should have “exclusive authority to investigate and prosecute … through its Special Prosecutions Section and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.”

Some jurisdictions have followed through on that suggestion. In Cuyahoga County (where Cleveland is located), prosecutor Michael O’Malley has referred two such cases to the attorney general’s office since he took office in January 2017.

The Franklin County prosecutor’s office told The Appeal that it has asked the FBI and the state attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation to provide support in the Mitchell investigation. In a statement, the attorney general’s office said, “The Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) case involving Donna Dalton/Castleberry is open and we cannot comment further on an ongoing investigation.”

Dalton was the eighth person shot and killed by the Columbus police in 2018.

According to the Franklin County prosecutor’s office, it will present the case to a grand jury, which will decide whether Mitchell should be indicted. Ron O’Brien has served as Franklin County prosecutor since 1996. In that time, he has yet to prosecute an officer for a fatal on-duty shooting, and has pushed to keep grand jury transcripts on police shootings secret.

Dalton was the eighth person shot and killed by the Columbus police in 2018. Between 2013 and 2017, CPD officers fatally shot 29 people. Nine times out of 10, we’re presenting a case that otherwise wouldn’t be presented because we don’t think a crime was committed,” O’Brien told the Columbus Dispatch in 2015. “There are probably only a handful of these cases over the years where it was even close.”

O’Brien’s seeming reluctance to charge such cases makes Bobbi McCalla skeptical that anyone will face consequences for her sister’s death. “I feel like his record speaks for itself,” she said.

The problems in CPD’s vice unit go far beyond Mitchell. In September, the department paused the unit’s operations, pending an internal investigation. Weeks later, Chief Kim Jacobs asked the FBI public corruption task force to take over investigation of the vice unit

Apart from Dalton’s shooting, there were accusations that the unit had improperly arrested adult entertainer Stormy Daniels and two other women who worked at the strip club Sirens. In October, the two other women filed a civil rights lawsuit against Officer Steven Rosser and four other officers involved. Daniels also sued CPD this month, and this week, the city approved a six-figure settlement in the two other women’s suit. Mitchell, Rosser, and Whitney Lancaster, a third officer involved in the strip club arrests, remain removed from duty.

While the fate of Mitchell’s case will be decided by a grand jury, Walton said there’s little chance it will choose to indict; no Columbus grand jury has indicted a police officer in at least 20 years. And that’s not uncommon, said Stinson. He has studied fatal on-duty police shootings nationwide since 2005 and said that out of 900 to 1,000 shootings per year, fewer than eight, on average, result in indictments.

As Walton sees it, “the entire [grand jury] process is designed not to lead to an indictment of a police officer.” When a prosecutor presents a case to a grand jury in Ohio—nine registered voters, randomly selected and unscreened—the “grand jury hears only the version of events from the prosecutor and her witnesses,” as ACLU Ohio describes the process. There is no judge present. There is no attorney for the victim, and no cross-examination of witnesses, though the jurors may ask them questions.

The prosecutor’s office is not required to disclose Officer Mitchell’s history with the vice department: the possible criminal investigation, the FBI’s investigation, his suspension. (The Franklin County prosecutor’s office declined to say whether it would share this information with the grand jury.)

Whether or not the grand jury chooses to indict Mitchell, there will most likely be unanswered questions about what happened to Donna Dalton. Last week, when Dalton’s family went to police headquarters, her 5-year-old daughter was there, too. “Kids are resilient,” said McCalla. “But she thought Donna was in police headquarters … that’s what she said. ‘My mom’s in there?’”