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Just 6% of Columbus Police Officers Account for Half of All Force Reports

Between 2001 and 2017, the department justified officers in 99 percent of use-of-force cases, according to data released through a public records request.

Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

Just 6% of Columbus Police Officers Account for Half of All Force Reports

Between 2001 and 2017, the department justified officers in 99 percent of use-of-force cases, according to data released through a public records request.

On the evening of Sept. 14, 2016, Columbus police officers picked up a robbery call. The victim said he was robbed by a group of teenagers, and that one of them had a pistol. “I’m not going to mess with it over $10,” he told the dispatcher. The cops who responded to the complaint spotted three teenagers. Two escaped on foot, but the officers cornered the third, Tyre King, a Black 13-year-old, in an alley. Cops claimed King then pulled out what they thought was a gun from his waistband. King’s friend claimed he was running away. Bryan C. Mason, a white officer, fired multiple times, killing the child. An autopsy, requested by King’s family, found that he was “more likely than not” running away when he was shot three times.

After the shooting, local media outlets pointed out that Mason, a nine-year veteran of the department, had either met or exceeded expectations in all departmental job review categories and received several letters of commendation and awards. But there were also clear warning signs.

In the seven years prior to the shooting, Mason had been the subject of 47 reports involving force, according to a database of internal affairs investigations obtained by The Appeal. Four of those reports stemmed from previous officer-involved shootings, two of which were fatal. According to Reuters, 25 of these force incidents resulted in civilians requiring medical attention. Weeks after the killing, Mason returned to the department, placed on desk duty. The next year a grand jury declined to indict Mason for his actions.

Mason’s force report numbers land him among a small core of officers who account for a disproportionate amount of the alleged violence reported to Columbus’s internal affairs bureau by officers and civilians.

Between 2001 and 2014, the years where Columbus police data is most complete, an Appeal analysis found that on average just 6.28 percent of sworn police personnel in Columbus have accounted for half of force cases annually. The dataset, which includes incidents self-reported by officers to internal affairs as well as civilian complaints, spanned 20,118 use-of-force investigations. More than 3,000 of those cases arose from civilian complaints. Of the more than 20,000 investigations just 152, 0.75 percent, were sustained or found in violation of policy, between 2001 and 2017. More than 97 percent of civilian-generated complaints were ruled “unfounded” or “exonerated,” meaning investigators concluded that the officer’s actions did not violate policy.

This high number of exonerated and unfounded complaints suggests “there’s something wrong,” said Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and a national expert on police misconduct. “That’s an organization that systematically tolerates abuse.”

Why the 6% remain in the ranks

The officers with large numbers of force incidents remain in place because “aggressive” behavior is valued more than their neighborhood reputation, four current Columbus police officers told The Appeal. The officers say that aggressive stop-and-search tactics accomplish short term goals for the department, such as felony arrests and gun or drug seizures, but inevitably lead to violent encounters, which erode civilians’ relationships with officers.

“A lot of officers actually think you’re only a good officer if you do generate complaints,” said one officer, who requested anonymity citing fears of professional reprisal. “If you have an officer who just likes talking calls for service, he’s considered lazy because he’s not getting tons of felony arrests. But if you’re known for getting lots of felony arrests, the force is fine, because you’re getting busy, you’re getting at it.”

The department declined to comment for this article.

Mason’s history in the department suggests that aggressive behavior doesn’t slow down officers’ careers. Just over a year after joining the department, he received departmental recognition for his participation in the division’s Summer Strike Force, an aggressive plainclothes squad which went after guns. Soon after, his force reports and shootings began.

In 2009, Mason was involved in his first shooting, in which two officers were wounded and the suspect was killed. Over the next three years, he was the involved in 25 force-related incidents, culminating in a second shooting in December 2012, when he shot and killed a man who had called 911 on an intruder, after the man failed to respond to commands to drop the gun he was pointing at the intruder. Less than a year later, Mason shot and injured a man during a traffic stop. Between 2009 and 2015, Mason racked up an average of more than six reports a year involving force.  

In all but one of his 47 force cases, Columbus police determined that the reports were “within policy” or “unfounded.”  (As of 2017, one case was listed as pending.) Just two other officers in the dataset, Howard Brenner and Harry Vanfossan, have been involved in more shootings than Mason, and only 39 current or former officers have been the subject of more force investigations.

Mason’s history of force

Graphic by Matt Henry

Yet even after the shooting of Tyre King, which sparked national media coverage, Mason was not punished with a low-level desk job, officers noted. Instead, he was placed on narcotics duty, which officers told The Appeal was a coveted position.

And in the rare cases where officers are disciplined for alleged misconduct, their careers often rebound quickly. Officer Zachary Rosen, who was fired in 2017 after a video emerged of him stomping on the head of a man who was being handcuffed by Rosen’s partner, was reinstated by an arbitrator in March and granted a position as an investigator in the Columbus police division’s Strategic Response Bureau.

‘It’s just not taken seriously.’

The department’s use-of-force policy stipulates that officers are allowed to use force to effect an arrest and defend themselves or others, but that they may not use “more force than is reasonable in a particular incident.” Deadly force is permitted only when there is probable cause to believe the suspect poses an immediate threat or when it’s an “objectively reasonable” response to prevent imminent harm.

Yet so few force incident investigations hold cops accountable because the department chooses not to take them seriously, argued several officers.

“We tend to dehumanize people who commit crimes or violations,” said one officer, explaining why so few complaints get through.

“There has to be bias as far as who’s investigating the complaint,” said another officer. “It’s just not taken seriously.”

Some department leaders have their own history of force reports, another officer pointed out. As a lieutenant, Thomas Quinlan, now one of the department’s three deputy chiefs, had 11 force reports, all involving mace or other chemical agents. Before being promoted to Columbus zone commanders Jennifer Knight and Rhonda Grizzell were involved in 13 and 14 force-related incidents, respectively. Knight’s reports included nine cases involving mace, and Grizzell’s included multiple mace incidents and injuries to civilians during and after arrests. In every incident, internal affairs investigators ruled that Knight and Grizzell had not violated department policies. Before her move to zone commander, Knight was commander of Columbus’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

“If these commanders weren’t held accountable when they were coming up as sergeants and officers, why would they hold others accountable?” said the officer.

Departmental structures meant to ensure accountability have also been watered down by the Columbus police union’s contract.

Though the department, like many agencies, has a program in house to identify troubling behavior, the union’s contract prevents complaints deemed to be unfounded from being factored into disciplinary decisions. The system thus “doesn’t have teeth because so many of the complaints aren’t sustained,” said one officer.

When complaints are sustained, the union contract ensures that they won’t remain on an officer’s record for long. Except in cases involving insubordination or criminal behavior, the contract requires “progressive action,” meaning that an officer must be found in violation of policy at least three times before they can be suspended. Additionally, first-time violations cannot be used “for any administrative purpose” after one year, as long as the officer is not found in violation of any other policies during that time. Only 13 officers in the internal affairs dataset have had more than one force-related complaint sustained against them.

Graphic by Matt Henry

Beyond Columbus

The small number of problem officers generating large numbers of force incidents is not an issue isolated to Columbus, says Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor whose scholarship focuses on policing.

In many departments, the issue is compounded by a pervasive lack of accountability for problem officers. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that more than 300 NYPD officers who had been found guilty of fireable offenses like lying under oath, drunk driving or excessive force were instead able to keep the jobs without even a suspension. In 2017, Reuters found that the majority of police union contracts it examined contained provisions requiring departments to remove past offenses from officers’ disciplinary records, in some cases after just six months. Twenty of the contracts reviewed by Reuters allowed officers to forfeit vacation or sick time in lieu of a suspension, allowing them to “serve their time” without missing a day of work.

In cities across the country, Vitale notes that specialized plainclothes units, like the one Mason was in, tend to have more violent encounters.

“Police will say that’s to be expected, that’s why we created those units,” said Vitale. “But is that really is the best way to get guns off the street? Through the widespread abuse of very specific populations, subjected to stop and frisks, constant interventions. This is a sad state of affairs if this how we systematically treat some communities and not others.”

Baltimore, for example, disbanded its plainclothes units in 2017 after years of allegations of excessive force, planting evidence, drug trafficking, and eventually, criminal charges involving robbery, extortion, and gun sales. In New York, plainclothes officers have been involved in many of the city’s most high-profile incidents of police violence, including the 2014 killing of Eric Garner and the 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. An analysis by The Intercept found that plainclothes officers account for nearly a third of all fatal NYPD shootings, despite comprising just 6 percent of the force.

Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, argued that police departments like Columbus often assume that citizen complaints are an inevitable part of their work. “One element of the system that I’m hearing described is the value system: performance evaluation based on a belief that cops who are doing their jobs are going to generate some heat. ‘Of course they’re going to get complaints because they’re doing police work,’” Stamper said. “I choose to see things very differently. I think most people, even those who are arrested, are able, once the adrenaline subsides, to make a reasoned judgment about the behavior of a police officer. If you have a police officer who generates complaint after complaint after complaint from citizens, you have a police officer who’s very much in need of discipline.”

The solution, Stamper said, starts with addressing the conflicts of interest that often plague internal affairs investigations. “Those kind of investigations, if they’re going to achieve the kind of public confidence and credibility that’s essential for basic fairness to all stakeholders, they’re just not going to happen until they’re independent and carried out by truly knowledgeable and skillful investigators, and that simply does not apply to most police departments today.”

The force incident numbers obtained by The Appeal most likely represent only a small fraction of alleged abuse incidents, Vitale warned. “There must be a low level of confidence in the system, which would inhibit people’s likelihood of filing complaints, which means the numbers aren’t an accurate reflection of what’s happening,” he said. “Obviously the Columbus police department is not learning from the data or taking these complaints seriously.”

Columbus police officers who spoke with The Appeal are skeptical that any serious institutional changes will be made to hold problem officers more accountable. “I don’t have any hope unless something major happens and they’re made to take a look at it,” said one officer.

A system that fails to take force incidents seriously could cause long-term distrust of police among residents in the long run, he said. “I’m not saying that sometimes citizens don’t make up things, but if we’re talking 6 percent then that’s a hundred officers who engage in that behavior,” said the officer. “The department’s failure to hold officers accountable for force incidents 99 percent of the time sends a message to the public. You’re saying, ‘This person doesn’t matter.’”

The Appeal Podcast Episode 14: The Prison-to-School Pipeline

With activist and scholar Danny Murillo.

Danny Murillo

The Appeal Podcast Episode 14: The Prison-to-School Pipeline

With activist and scholar Danny Murillo.

You’ve most likely heard of the school-to-prison pipeline. But what you probably haven’t heard about is the prison-to-school pipeline—efforts to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people receive a quality education. Our guest, activist and educator Danny Murillo, has been spearheading such initiatives for over five years. After spending 14 years in Pelican Bay State Prison—a supermax facility in California—he co-founded the Underground Scholars Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, which is dedicated to making education accessible to everyone regardless of their carceral status.

The Appeal is available on iTunesSoundcloud and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.


Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. The Appeal is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod and you can like the general Appeal Facebook page where we post the show there and always remember you can subscribe on iTunes if you haven’t already. By now you’ve probably heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, but what you likely haven’t heard is the prison-to-school pipeline. Efforts in recent years to help formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated persons into schools and universities throughout the country. Our guest, activist Danny Murillo, has been spearheading such efforts for over five years. After spending fourteen years in Pelican Bay Supermax Prison in California, he started the Underground Scholars Initiative while at the University of California Berkeley, which is dedicated to making education accessible to everyone regardless of their carceral status.

[Begin Clip]

Danny Murillo: My knowledge is just growing on a day to day basis and you know, using the system of higher education as a way to transform our lives, but also I see it as a political project. I see the more educated people are, the better understanding they have of the way these systems operate and can become actively involved in changing those systems.

[End Clip]

Adam: Danny, thank you so much for joining us.

Danny Murillo: Thank you for having me.

Adam: Ah, so we don’t normally jump into people’s bios on the show, but so much of your work is informed by your experiences as a formerly incarcerated person.  Can you give as a background of what your experiences have been and how they have informed your advocacy in educating incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons.

Danny Murillo: Right. For sure. When I first got arrested at a young age, at the age of 16, even at that time I was into education. I just wasn’t into school. And there’s two different things, right? School is a system and education can come in many different ways, shapes and forms. It comes through lived experience, through books, through lectures or whatever, you know, that’s, you know, ways of learning. And um, for me as a young person, I’ve always been interested in learning about history. History was always something that really caught my attention, but I never really knew how to interpret it. Right? Until I was incarcerated and started reading more critical literature about the history of the United States, you know, the history of colonization. And that really opened my mind up to this idea that I am who I am because a set of conditions exist in my community and not because, what I used to think, was that I am the way I am because that’s just the way that God chose me to be. And I used to have this very fatalistic mentality that was my fate, that my fate was to be a gang banger, my fate was to be a drug dealer, my fate was to be someone that was robbing drug dealers and I fully embraced that, you know, that’s just the way things work because that’s just the way things were in my community. But when I first get locked up, you know, I’m 16 years old, a friend of mine who is already in the federal corrections facilities sends me a book. It’s a small little, small little pamphlet called the Mochica Handbook, probably like no more than like fifty pages, but it’s a bunch of different little articles on colonization on, you know, on genocide, cultural genocide, talking about history then and how it’s still impacting us now. And that really opened my eyes to understand that, you know what? I have a history. I just never understood what the history was. And I’m always walking around with this lack of identity, right? And, and for me, understanding my culture, understanding the history prior to colonization opened my eyes to see the world from a different lens. But at the same time though, while I’m reading this book and reading, you know, whatever books I can get along the way, I’m still stuck in this mentality, you know, I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. Or at least I thought I would be there for the rest of my life. I had a 15 year sentence. So once I get to prison, even though I love reading, I love learning, I’m also living in the reality that yo, I’m in prison and not only am I in prison, but I’m in a California state prison, a maximum security prison where things are gonna happen. Right? And because of the identity that I have already, as you know, a member of a street gang in Los Angeles, I’m already affiliated within a prison structure within one of the geographic racial groups within prison. Because of my identity on the streets, that’s now my identity in prison. And I’m part of this group. Right? And even if you refuse not to be part of this group, you’re still lumped in there because that’s just the way CDC operates. And also because of my record, I already said like, ‘oh, he’s a part of a street gang in LA,’ so they automatically label you, ‘oh, you’re part of this.’ And um, I embraced that. I embraced it even though, you know, having these different thoughts in my mind, not in line through this way of thinking, right? The idea that I can, you know, attack or, or, you know, hurt somebody from a different geographic or racial group is something that, you know, I was still actively participating in. This is in general population. Right?

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: So you know, while I have, you know, I’m kind of struggling through these ideas like, you know, I know the shit I’m doing it wrong, but hey, this is the way we survive here. You know. And it wasn’t until I got placed in solitary confinement that I knew I was going to come home. You know, I knew that I wasn’t going to get in any trouble because there’s nobody that I can hurt other than myself. And I wasn’t going to do that, at least not physically. I think psychologically I hurt myself a lot, but physically like I wasn’t going to stab myself and so I’m in a cell by myself and I know now, yeah, I’m going to do nothing but clean time even though its in solitary confinement, I’m gonna spend the rest of my time here before I go home. And so, you know, people around me just kind of, you know, started to encourage me, like, ‘Danny, you’re a smart dude man. Like, you know, you should think about, you know, getting, getting enrolled into the community college program here. You know, you’ve got about five years left, you know, what are you going to do?’ I took advantage of that time, right? I took advantage of that  time in solitary confinement because I realized that solitary confinement was created to break the person that’s in that cell.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: Mentally, physically and psychologically. But in spite of that, in spite of what solitary confinement was created to do to a human body, we find ways to resist that. And for me, one of the ways was to engage in a learning process. Learning process, then also unlearning. Unlearning to look at people as my enemies and instead looking at them as my brothers.

Adam: Yeah.

Danny Murillo: And that was a very hard thing to do, right? Because I lost track of how many of my friends had been murdered. The last time I took stock it was nine friends that I grew up with, including my brother and two of my best friends. And so learning to accept that the people that did that are not my enemy, that was hard, you know? But it was a process. It was a process that had to take place and did. And um, so I’m in Pelican Bay SHU, you know, I’m doing the college courses, you know, I’m on my way home and at this point, by the time I’m coming home, I’m already in a place where like, you know what? I’m not going to go back to my committee and sell drugs. I’m not going to go back to my community and rob people. I’m not going to go back to my community and engage in gang banging activities, you know, that’s, I’m not about that no more. I want to create a different life for myself and in the process also try to figure out ways how to help other people. In particular, my family members, right? My brother and my nephew who were teenagers at the time I got out and were already getting involved in the same things that I was doing at that age, you know. And um, when I came home they expected me to tow the line with them, you know, and that kind of messed up our relationship because it really affected me that I was going to come home, you know, I’m coming home out of Pelican Bay SHU, which is the place, you know that in my community, we look at Pelican Bay SHU the way middle class suburban white kids look at Harvard. As a status symbol.

Adam: Oh right.

Danny Murillo: You know, I come out of Pelican Bay SHU and I’m getting the utmost respect.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: Which is kind of weird, right? Because that’s what I used to strive for. But then, you know, it felt uncomfortable that people were looking up to me like, ‘oh I heard you got out of Pelican Bay’ and kids that I never even met like, ‘oh, you know, I heard when you were out here you were the fool that you was doing work and doing this,’ and people are looking up to me for the wrong reasons and I have to figure out a way to do something else because I don’t want to be known for that for the rest of my life. I ended up going to community college right after I got out of prison and my intention was just to get my A.A. and just get a job, you know. But once I started school I ran into certain people that just kind of, you know, told me like Danny, you can take advantage of this community college stuff to go to Cal State, to go to a UC, you can get a masters, a bachelor’s, a Ph.D. and like, like what the hell’s a Ph.D.? (Chuckles) But you know, as soon as I started college I learned how to navigate the system the same way I learned how to navigate the system of prison the same way I learned how to navigate the system of the streets. I learned how to navigate that system because that’s all it is. It’s a system, right? And once to learn how to navigate, you’re going to survive. But I want to move beyond surviving. I don’t want to be honored with this survival mentality. What I want to do is learn how to thrive. And I was able to learn how to do that through higher education. For me, higher education has opened up so many doors that I didn’t think were possible.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: And so now I’m just trying to replicate that model for other people. You know? Um, a lot of times people come home from prison, they’re like, well I can’t go to college because they have this narrow view of what college is. And they think that only people that want to be teachers, lawyers and doctors go to college. And understanding like, you know, you can go and get an education and then you can open up different doors and it’s not necessarily the degree that open the doors it’s the people that you meet along the way. You know, and I try to tell people like, no, it’s not just about that piece of paper, right? Not about just, but it’s about building your social capital while you’re on campus, you know, connect with your academic counselors, connect with your professors, connect with people there that are going to take an interest in wanting to see you succeed and you can always use those resources to open up other doors. And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing, you know. Since I’ve been home, since I graduated from Berkeley, you know, I’ve been awarded over nearly $120,000 in scholarships and fellowships, you know, these fellowships have placed me in professional settings. Right? You know, at the Vera Institute of Justice at Rutgers University, at the Opportunity Institute, you know, these are places where just my skills and my knowledge is just growing on a, on a day to day basis and, and you know, using the system of higher education as the way to transform our lives. But also I see it as a political project. I see that the more educated people are, the better understanding they have of the ways these systems operate and can become actively involved in changing those systems. And what I’m doing, one of the things that I’m doing is trying to create a statewide network of formerly incarcerated students and alumni in California and we want to use our identity as formerly incarcerated people who have transitioned from incarceration into higher education, who have the experience of incarceration, but also the knowledge as academics, as scholars, as community organizers, to use this knowledge and that experience to advocate for policies that are going to impact our communities in a healthy way to advocate for policies that are going to make higher education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated accessible. To advocate for the elimination of licensing barriers that still keep many people from doing the careers that they want to be a part of. Right? You know, right now in California, we have over one hundred licensing institutions and they all have some type of barrier against formerly incarcerated people or people with convictions. So we’re trying to figure out a way, you know, what can we do to dismantle and remove those barriers so that formerly incarcerated people can become those clinical social worker or therapist or whatever, you know?

Adam: Yeah. You mentioned that your entry point into education was through the humanities sort of your, your kind of basic, um, you know, Les Miserables and The Grapes of Wrath, but even those, of course have a kind of left-wing bent, but it was through, your initial was kind of decolonization or, or a left-wing narrative. This is very common in a lot of prison and I think the most popular book at Attica, according to Heather Ann Thompson was, was Mao’s Little Red Book. That leftists are class based and decolonizing based politics can sort of be an entry point. I’m curious to get your thoughts on what you think, um, that the education system that you grew up with or you think a lot of people grow up with that centers white narratives, that centers colonialist narratives, to what extent that kind of serves as a way of keeping people away from history and keeping people away from education that makes it more difficult for certain communities to sort of get excited about learning about things like history and philosophy and literature?

Danny Murillo: Oh, definitely. You know, I think the most important thing for me was seeing myself in the literature, you know, not necessarily my specific story but people who have similar backgrounds as me. And we never got that growing up in public school. You know, um, like I said, it was this very white centered, Euro centered narrative, you know, Manifest Destiny and all these other things that we’re taught and uh, so we always think about, you know, for me school was just a white thing. From public, all the public school was just a the white thing. Right? And it doesn’t speak to me. And also, you know, even though at that young age in elementary school, I didn’t really knew how to read the texts. I knew how to read people and I knew how to read the attitudes of my teachers towards me. And it was an attitude that wasn’t welcoming. It was an attitude that wasn’t embracing and so when you get that in a place that’s  supposed to be nurturing, you know, a lot of kids are going to lose interest. And, and also keep in mind that I was going to school in the morning when the night before my dad was beating my mom. So when kids are growing up in these situations, there’s no space for thinking or for learning, you know, you’re just trying to figure out, you know, what’s going on? You know? And, and um, that was for me, you know, I lost interest in school at a really young age. The only thing that I cared about was recess because we’re going to go play baseball. And as a kid for me growing up, baseball, I played baseball for about three to four years, from like the age of nine to twelve. At thirteen I lost interest and I just hit the streets. But during that time it was a very tumultuous time at home. For me, the baseball field was always my sanctuary. Like, I would go to play baseball and I would never invite my mom, my dad, nobody, you know, and that was just my space to just, you know, remove myself from everything else.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: But when I went to high school I lost that because of the fact that I wasn’t a good student I couldn’t play on the baseball team. And so, you know, me and a bunch of my friends ended up getting caught up, you know, in the streets.

Adam: Right. So for our listeners’ edification, I caught a lecture you did in Chicago at In These Times where you introduced me to this whole world of, uh, I guess you could say prison related activism that I hadn’t spent a long time thinking about or hearing much about, which is generally called the prison-to-school pipeline. Can you give us a sense just to kind of set the table for the listeners of what the current status of education both inside and after prisons for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons, what the current status is now? What was it ten years ago? And what efforts that you’ve done and others have done in this space to try to expand our notions of incarcerated persons being integrated into the education system in general?

Danny Murillo: Ten years ago I was in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison and I was enrolled as a community college student in a correspondence program, you know, I do my work myself, I’ve put it in an envelope and send it to the school. And then they sent me back my grades and it was a very passive way of learning. Right? And that’s how a lot of the programs were being facilitated ten years ago. And even now they’re still programs in particular, you know, throughout the country where they’re doing correspondence course work and um, from my experience is very limiting because you don’t get to have the interaction between faculty and student. But where I was at, we made the best of it. Right? And, and try to figure out a way to take advantage of the education that we had. At that time though college education programs generally were not being funded or supported by government entities. Right? It was mostly facilitated through private money. You know, for instance, for instance you’ve got programs that are probably ran through private universities like the Bard Prison Initiative in New York. Programs that, you know, don’t necessarily depend on government funding to be able to facilitate these courses. Right? And the thing is that change has occurred, right? Within the last ten years, a lot of change, right? Now, where I work at, at the Opportunity Institute, we’re working on the Renewing Communities Initiative where we’re working with colleges and universities to introduce college credit courses with a degree track and also transferable credits that you can transfer to a Cal State or a UC upon release. Now for us, on the work that we do, it’s imperative that we focus on face to face learning. So we support colleges and the universities that go into California Department of Corrections facilities and facilitate face to face academic programs. And so that’s been a big shift from where we’re at, you know, ten years ago, right? I can really focus primarily on California because this is where I’m headquartered, but then I do know a little bit of things that are going on in places like New York and New Jersey because I worked out there for a bit at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. And they were both partnered on a project. I’m forgetting the name of it, but it was something like Postsecondary Education in Prison project or initiative, something like that. And um, we were working with Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina. And North Carolina and Michigan were new to the game. New Jersey, in particular at Rutgers University and a few other universities in New Jersey, were already doing some type of academic work. But the thing was that through this initiative, we brought all of these colleges together and we built the New Jersey Scholarship Transformation Education Program, which is NJ-STEP and it was a consortium of different universities and colleges coming together to then create an academic curriculum that would go into the New Jersey state prison system. And they were offering college credit courses and when folks were coming home, my role at Rutgers was working as the transition counselor or completion counselor and I was working with students that were coming home and weren’t ready to transition into Rutgers but had to go to community college and complete two or three or four classes or whatever to then be able to meet the requirements to transfer into Rutgers University. Right?

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: So those things, these are all fairly new, right?

Adam: Yeah.

Danny Murillo: It’s been a long time, you know, government state funded programs have been implemented. Right? But I think with the creation of the Second Chance pilot program that was initiated by President Obama, we also worked on that at the Vera Institute of Justice. We were the ones that we’re also looking at some of the applications from colleges that were applying to be part of the Second Chance pilot program. I believe like 79 colleges throughout the country ended up getting selected and with that Second Chance Pell program, it was designed to get colleges to go back into the prison systems throughout the country, right? Whether it’s state facilities or federal facilities. Now for my understanding, I heard that there’s a bipartisan bill that is being supported by Republicans and Democrats to continue and possibly even institutionalize the Pell, the Second Chance Pell program. So that for me is an indication that we’ve come, like we’ve kind of done like a 180 on this access to education for incarcerated people and um, I’m not sure where that bill’s that right now, but, um, it was recently introduced and you know, hopefully that it gains some traction and support from both sides of the aisle and um, can be fully implemented, you know, for everybody to be able to get access to higher education.

Adam: Let’s talk about the Underground Scholars Initiative. You cofounded that at the University of California Berkeley, talk to us about what that initially started off and what, what were some of the parallels institutions in the sixties and seventies that you guys trying to kind of model yourself after? I always think it’s super interesting to see how people, uh, what the pedigree is. Like, where people learn and took inspiration and what things you kind of developed on your own.

Danny Murillo: Right, Underground Scholars came into the conversation came into existence in 2012, the Fall of 2012 Spring of 2013. Um, I arrived to UC Berkeley the Fall 2012 as a transfer student from Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. And um, when I got to UC Berkeley I actually went to, I moved up here about two weeks before school started and I wanted to walk around campus to get a feel for the campus and visit the different spaces that existed there. I was basically looking for my community, right? And um, I remember going to the Chicano Ethnic Studies Department or the Ethnic Studies Department and um, at that time I was a Chicano Studies major and then I switched to Ethnic Studies and I remember going to talk to my advisor and I was asking her, hey, who here is doing work on school-to-prison pipeline or you know, mass incarceration? And I got introduced to two professors, Dr. Patricia Hilton and Dr. Victoria Robinson who were both engaged in, you know, prison studies or you know, doing work around prisons. And some of them, you know, Dr. Hilton used to even go to Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHU to visit people. So anyways, when I met them, they’re the ones that kind of brought the conversation that they were already having a conversation about wanting to create a space. And the space that they were trying to create, they just wanted to get like a table at the Transfer Re-entry Student Parent Center, which is a space for non traditional students. So you have, you know, you have your veterans there, you have your re-entry students, re-entry meaning students that are 25 and older. You have also the Undocumented Student Program there, you know, the Foster Youth Program, all these different programs under this space, but there was really no space for formerly incarcerated students even though I could identify with different communities. Like I can identify with the Re-entry Program, right? When I was 25 and older or if I was a parent, you know, there was a Student Parent Center, some of the formerly incarcerated are student parents, you know, some of them are foster youth, so you know, you can identify with somehow, someway, but it’s still within our, it didn’t encompass our true identity. Right? As, you know, people that transitioned through this system of incarceration. And so when they told me, you know, we’re thinking about, you know, talking to the director of the Transfer Re-entry Student Parent Center to give us a little table for formerly incarcerated people and the trick was with that, the thing is that we don’t know formerly incarcerated people here. And that’s kind of when I spoke up, I said look I’m formerly incarcerated. I spent 14 years in prison. I want to participate in this conversation. I got involved in the conversation and then I remember, like I said, I went to Berkeley two weeks before school started. The first day of school is when I met Steven Czifra who was also in Pelican Bay SHU. I had never met him, but the interesting was that we knew so many people in Pelican Bay SHU around the same time, it’s a very small facility, but because you’re in isolation, you’re still separated from people.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: Like you can be, a person could be on the next block which can only be like maybe like less than 25, 30 yards, but it could still be miles and miles and miles away because, you know, you have no communication with these folks. But anyway, we knew a bunch of the same people that were there. So I met him and I asked him if he wanted to be involved in this work that I was doing. His intention was to come to Berkeley and just fly under the radar until he got his Ph.D. and be like, ‘hey, I’m formerly incarcerated but I got a Ph.D.’ But that all changed when he met me. You know, and he got involved in the work and um, the more me and him spoke about our experience on campus and in the community, the more people would come out of the shadows and say, you know what, ‘I’m also formerly incarcerated’ or, you know, what? ‘My Dad is in prison,’ ‘my mom’s in prison,’ ‘my brother’s in prison,’ or people like, you know, ‘I was in juvenile hall but I never went to prison.’ But we were finding these different identities of people that were actually impacted by incarceration. People just started coming out of nowhere. And in the Spring of 2013, we created a class called the Critical Prison Studies Reading Group. And I remember the first day of class, there’s about fifteen people in there. And we went around everybody introducing themselves and almost everybody, except for my professors, everybody said like ‘well I’m here because of Danny.’ I’m here because of Danny,’ you know, ‘I met Danny yet here.’ ‘I met Denny there and he told me about this.’ That’s how really the conversation started about what can we do while we’re here? And first we said well let’s start a student organization. And we started a club, Underdog Scholars Initiative and um, when we initiated that project we got two people that were part of our organizing efforts and that was my friend Valerie Jameson and Wendy Pacheco and they were part of the Academic Student Senate. Valerie Jameson was internal vice president of Student Affairs. And Wendy Pacheco was the Senator for the Latinx Community. And what we discovered through them, they found that there was a grant available for student clubs and there was a grant up to $140,000 that could be used to create some kind of a recruitment and retention project or you know, something to create some kind of initiative for students, you know, whatever you want to create. So we applied for it. The proposal was, you know, look at the students that are currently here who are formerly incarcerated and track them, right? Like, you know, do the complete their bachelor’s degree, do they go into a job or into a grad school and all that. And um, so we used that $140 grand to, we hired a graduate student researcher, we were able to get office space and um, that $140 grand was really, you know, what kind of set us up to move from a student club into a student program. Both of those things still exist, right? Underground Scholars Initiative still exists and now we have the Berkeley Underground Scholars Student Support Service Program. It has a program director, you know, and we also use um, work studies. We hire formerly incarcerated students to occupy the space as work studies. So throughout the years, you know, since we got that last funding, we’ve been able to, you know, or not me, but the program has been able to get more funding through different connections and resources. Right? And, um, and right now it’s a program that does three things, recruitment, retention and policy advocacy. The recruitment is done through our outreach coordinators and also through our Underground Scholars Ambassadors Program. The Underground Scholars Ambassador Program brings together a group of formerly incarcerated students in the community college system and they give them a stipend of $1,500, $750 one semester, $750 the next semester and we get these students in community college to become advocates on their campus to start a student club on their campus to, um, recruit more formerly incarcerated students into higher education and kind of show them the ropes of like, you know, how to navigate the system. So that’s part of the recruitment strategy right? And then also the outreach coordinators they’ll go to different community colleges and do workshops or sometimes they even get invited into prisons and they’ll do workshops. The retention program at UC Berkeley, you know, we hire graduate students to work with the current students, um, and the, you know, work with them in terms of helping them with their papers and you know, helping them apply to scholarships and fellowships. And then there’s also the policy advocacy. The policy advocacy was instrumental in getting the UC Berkeley campus to drop the box on their job application regarding the hiring of faculty and staff. On their job application they still asked the question, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ Or whatever.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: And the argument was from the policy advocacy team with that, you allow us to come to UC Berkeley, you let us get into this enormous amount of debt and then you don’t allow us to get a job here to be able to pay that debt back.

Adam: Yeah.

Danny Murillo: And that was pretty much the argument and you know, they understood like, okay, you know what, that makes sense. And then they removed the box from the application, right? It doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t ask the question, they still ask the question, but it only gets asked or supposed to be asked at the end of the interview and not at the beginning.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: Because once you ask that question at the beginning, so many people are not even going to make an attempt to even apply and we want to make sure that people get judged based on who they are now and not what have you done, you know, whatever it was, whether it was a year ago, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years ago whatever. So the policy advocacy to get that box removed from the UC Berkeley application and then the following year they initiated a campaign to get it removed from all of the UCs.

Adam: Right. To what extent do you think, obviously there’s progress being made in states like California and New York, but you’re more kind of punitive right-wing states, now, there’s a hearts and minds effort here as well, right? You need to convince people over time that incarcerated persons are human beings and not just disposable. One of the ways is changing language, like even incarcerated persons or formerly incarcerated persons versus prisoner or felon or offender. Um, what are the ways in which, um, on a day to day basis and even in the messaging of the organization, is there an effort to try to shift people to care, to, to sort of bridge the empathy gap as it were, where people aren’t, just don’t view incarcerated persons as these kind of cartoon toxic things to just do away?

Danny Murillo: I think that that’s being done not just at UC Berkeley, but in many different institutions and different movements, right? That really try to center the language that people use to describe, you know, people that have been incarcerated, right? But uh, our experience at UC Berkeley, one of the ways that we did that was asking professors to allow us to come into their class and talk about our experience and the work that we’re doing right?

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: That’s one way that we’ve kind of pushback on the narrative, you know, or try to change the language and try to give people a different perspective of what it is to be a formerly incarcerated person. Right? And I think, um, in addition to that, the way we reconnect or, or see our struggles intersected with other struggles. We don’t want to be in the business of valuing ourselves by devaluing others.

Adam: Right.

Danny Murillo: That happens a lot where like, ‘you’re a formerly incarcerated yeah but, you know, but you went to Berkeley unlike that person who is not doing anything for themselves.’ Well. And like for us it’s like, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. We’re all human beings. Right? I’m not going to sit here and put myself on a pedestal for anybody else that didn’t go to UC Berkeley. For us is important to hold all people as human beings and regardless of what they’ve accomplished, it doesn’t diminish their worth.

Adam: Right. Well that’s great. I really appreciate you taking time out. This is all super interesting. If there anything you want to promote or let us know what we can find you’re working on now if you want to, we can plug it now.

Danny Murillo: The only thing I’m working on now, well it’s not really even a plug, but it’s more like the work that I’m doing now in a position where I’m creating a fellowship program, right? After participating in so many of them, which I kind of find interesting.

Adam: That’s awesome.

Danny Murillo: The National Conference for Higher Education in Prison and that will be taking place in Indianapolis, Indiana. Um, I believe November 9 to the 12. And one of the reasons, going back to this idea of changing the narrative, we were very strategic about where we hold our conferences. Last year we had it in Texas, right? And this year we’re having it in Indianapolis. One of the things that we don’t want to do, we don’t want to hold these conferences definitely not in California, and not in New York. These things are already happening there. For us, it was important to like, go, let’s take these conferences where these programs don’t exist. And let’s  invite people from different academic institutions in the state. Let’s invite, you know, um, legislators and have them come in and meet with formerly incarcerated people, see them facilitate workshops and you know, and get an understanding about the work that’s being done on a nationwide scale. And hopefully that’s one way to change people’s perceptions.

Adam: Okay, great. This was super informative. Very, very, very informative. Thank you so much.

Danny Murillo: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate the space to add value to the lives of formerly incarcerated people.

Adam: Thanks to our guest Danny Murillo. This has been The Appeal Podcast. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod and of course you can subscribe to us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. The executive producer is Sarah Leonard. And I am your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much for joining us this week. We’ll see you next week.

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Safe Injection Sites Are On the Way. But Will Prosecutions Follow?

As the federal government vows to pursue ‘swift and aggressive action’ against the sites, experts weigh in on what’s likely to happen next.

Safer Inside, a full-scale model of a safe injection site in San Francisco, presented by the Tenderloin Health Improvement Partnership.
Credit: Alain McLaughlin

Safe Injection Sites Are On the Way. But Will Prosecutions Follow?

As the federal government vows to pursue ‘swift and aggressive action’ against the sites, experts weigh in on what’s likely to happen next.

Christina Garcés and her team of volunteers spend every Sunday in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, the heart of the city’s opioid epidemic. Part of a local harm-reduction group called SOL Collective, they frequently run out of Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug, because the people they work with so often request it. “The reason why we’re out here is because we’re trying desperately to fill a gap in healthcare,” Garcés explained.

City leaders have proposed a safe injection site to lessen that gap. The idea behind it is simple, if controversial: Having a place where people struggling with addiction can shoot up under the supervision of medical professionals has been shown to prevent lethal overdoses.

Yet opponents, including the Department of Justice, view the concept as government-sanctioned illicit drug use—a stance Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made clear in an opinion article in the New York Times. “Advocates euphemistically call them ‘safe injection sites,’ but they are very dangerous and would only make the opioid crisis worse,” he wrote, promising to “meet the opening of any injection site with swift and aggressive action.”

That could pose a problem in a number of jurisdictions, both cities and states, that have reportedly started the process of establishing official safe injection sites. Still, in recent weeks, state and local lawmakers in California and Philadelphia have stepped up their public support for creating them in defiance of the federal government. A bill sitting on California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk would greenlight San Francisco to establish what could be the country’s first safe injection site pilot. On Sept. 4, local officials pressured him to do so at a press conference where San Francisco Mayor London Breed vowed to open a supervised injection site soon, whether or not the state bill is signed and despite federal opposition.

And on the other coast, a spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, James Garrow, has endorsed plans to open a site. “The evidence speaks for itself—overdose prevention sites can save lives and reduce neighborhood disorder,” he said in a statement. “The federal government should focus its enforcement on the pill mills and illegal drug traffickers who supply the poison that is killing our residents, not on preventing public health officials from acting to keep Philadelphians from dying.”

However, in both San Francisco and Philadelphia, the proposed sites would be run by nonprofits rather than the cities themselves. And, as of yet, no official has proposed a plan to protect any organization willing to host a safe injection site or their workers from federal prosecution. In an interview with NPR, Rosenstein reiterated that “[P]eople who engage in that activity remain vulnerable to civil and criminal enforcement.” He suggested that advocates who want to protect people who use or oversee the use of an illicit opioid should “persuade the U.S. Congress to legalize it”—an unlikely outcome under Republican rule.

A table of supplies at the model safe injection site in San Francisco.
Credit: Alain McLaughlin

When asked about the threats inherent in these sites, officials in both Philadelphia and San Francisco seemed to sidestep the question. “[A]ny such center would have proper security precautions in place,” Garrow said in a statement, declining to offer specifics. Mayor Breed also addressed the issue with a vague response. “There are some challenges with federal law,” she said. “We need to make sure that the people who are going to be working at these sites are protected.”

The Appeal contacted some likely nonprofit partners to discuss the legal risk, but none were prepared to say whether they would host a safe injection site if propositioned or to speculate on the consequences.

How controversy grew

While safe injection sites were controversial before President Trump was elected, the issue seemed to fly under the radar of the federal government then, said Corey Davis, an attorney with the National Health Law Program who has been researching and advocating safe injection sites for a decade.

“Up until AG [Jeff] Sessions, I thought it was very clear: You should try to get as much authorization as you can at the state and local level. Make sure your local police forces are on board; that was what you really had to worry about,” Davis said. This is not to say that the sites were popular in Washington, he explained, but that the battle would most likely be a local one. “I thought it would be really silly to worry that the DEA would take action,” he said.

But it wasn’t silly after all. And Rosenstein has the law behind him: Heroin is a Schedule 1 drug, which means the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as having no medical use and the highest potential for addiction. Under a law known as the “Crack House Statute,” it is a felony—punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and fines up to $500,000—to open, own, or run an establishment knowing that people come there to use drugs. The law, passed in 1986, was directed at private properties where people gathered to use and sell crack cocaine.

A model of individual booths that could be created in a safe injection site.
Credit: Alain McLaughlin

When Canada’s first safe injection site was opened in Vancouver in 2003, it did so in violation of federal law. There, a nonprofit covertly constructed a facility under the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” philosophy. When the building was ready to go, the group announced its intentions to local health authorities, who signed on—as health officials in Philadelphia, San Francisco and other jurisdictions have promised to do. However, the Canadian government was much more open to the idea overall. Canada’s health authorities agreed to give the site an exemption to federal drug laws to open as a scientific pilot and to be thoroughly evaluated, as long as the facility met government standards.

But, the Canadian government changed hands in 2006, and a conservative administration took over. Under threats of closure, the nonprofit that runs the site sued the federal government. The case eventually made it to the Canadian Supreme Court where, in 2011, justices ruled unanimously that it be allowed to continue operation, and that the federal law be changed to legalize safe injection sites.  

What comes next

Some legal experts say safe injection sites could face a similarly rocky-but-not-impossible path here in the United States, even in the Trump and Sessions era.

State laws condoning safe injection sites would not protect the sites’ workers from federal prosecution, but they could help in a court showdown, according to some legal observers.

Leo Beletsky, professor of law and public health at Northeastern University, said the law was written to sanction criminal operations, not a “legally authorized public health intervention,” as he and Davis wrote in a 2008 article published by the American Journal of Public Health.

If cities and states made that argument in court, they could potentially delay recriminations until there is a new administration, if not win at trial.  Beletsky sees it playing out like this: A jurisdiction that moves forward with plans to establish a safe injection facility would be given official notice that federal legal action is imminent. At that point, knowing litigation is on the horizon, the jurisdiction could request an injunction, allowing the site to operate while the case makes its way through the courts. During this time, he said, experts could study the efficacy of the site, and voters could elect a new president.

“This has never been litigated, and we’re in a public health crisis,” said Beletsky. Last year, about 50,000 people died from opioid overdose in the U.S., a number that has been rising steadily over the past decade and has jumped by about 7,000 since 2016. It’s numbers like these that have spurred elected officials, including President Trump, to declare the overdose epidemic a public health emergency. To enact an injunction, a judge would have to say that proponents of safe injection sites as a public health intervention would likely win in court.

Yet former federal prosecutor Brett Tolman told The Appeal he is skeptical that a judge would defy the Department of Justice. “Hoping for a judge to issue an injunction would be lightning in the bottle. You would have to have the right judge, a judge who would see that the problem is that people are dying,” he said. “If the DOJ is prosecuting, judges too often side with the government.”

He said that proponents’ best shot is to lobby Congress to enact a legislative fix.  “I think that you would certainly have issues with the Senator [Tom] Cottons [of Arkansas] and the like, who still think under-incarceration in the country is a problem,” he said. But, on other hand, “I do think that there are folks who … see the problem with prosecuting harm reduction. You would think that the number of people dying would make them want to take action.” Pushing possibly sympathetic legislators to support a bill legalizing supervised injection could offer a way to avoid the wrath of Sessions and Rosenstein.

Garcés, who often works with people struggling with addiction, agrees that the law should be changed. “It is a law that, in this situation, doesn’t protect people. In this situation, it prevents them from getting medical care,” she said. But she points out that the people she works with can’t wait for the lengthy process of legislative change, nor can their families. “This is someone’s daughter, this is someone’s son, this is someone’s dad,” she said. “We’re in a crisis.”  

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that an injunction would require a judge to rule that proponents of safe injection sites would likely win in court.

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