‘Something has to change’: The police killing of Colin Jennings

In late February, Jennings’ boyfriend called 911 and told the dispatcher the 26-year-old was in mental health crisis. Less than 15 minutes later, Jennings was dead, shot and killed by Columbus police.
Colin Jennings
Colin JenningsCourtesy Chris Stone

The day before Columbus police shot and killed Colin Jennings, the 26-year-old spent the late afternoon at a thrift store shopping alongside his boyfriend, Chris Stone, the two searching for business clothes that Jennings could wear to a pending job interview.

“He’d be madder than a wet hen if he heard me say this, but he was going to become a suit,” Stone said in early March, recalling how he tried to teach Jennings to properly knot a tie but failed so dismally that the two had to cut it off with scissors. “He had an interview at 11:30 [a.m.] on Friday, because I posted all over Facebook about it. ... He was ecstatic.”

But the next morning, Thursday, Feb. 22, Jennings appeared lethargic, Stone said, intermittently dozing while Stone watched a YouTube video on how to prepare eggs benedict, which he hoped to cook the two for breakfast. “And I said, ‘Cole, if you’re that tired just go and lay down,’ and he looked me dead in the eye and said he that wasn’t sleeping,” Stone said. This back and forth continued for a few minutes until a frustrated Stone said he was going to step out and grab a couple of coffees and some Black & Milds at the Turkey Hill convenience store located near Jennings’s East Side home at Creekside Place Apartments, where the two lived together. “And I don’t know what went wrong, or if I didn’t clarify something enough. I don’t know. And I would love to know. Because he came over and started rifling through the drawer. … And when I turned around, he was sitting down, and he had a knife to his left wrist. … And I said, ‘Cole, what the hell are you doing? That’s not going to solve anything.’”

Stone said that Jennings had a history of mental illness, including depression and anxiety, which he regulated with medications – prescriptions that had recently lapsed and which the two had intended to refill. He also said that Jennings had attempted to self-harm in the past. Following one of these earlier incidents, Stone said he told Jennings the next time he turned a blade on himself he would pick up the phone and “302 your ass,” making reference to the non-voluntary commitment of a person in mental health crisis who is presenting as a danger to either themself or others.

“And at the time, I said, ‘It’s not because I want to. It’s because I love you. And it will be the best thing for you because this isn’t working,’” said Stone, who began to consider his options as the chaotic events unfolded that Thursday morning. “I don’t know if the blade was dull or he wasn’t pressing hard, but he just kept trying to drag the knife across his wrist. … And I said, ‘The hell with it. I’m going to follow through on my word.’ And I called 911 and put [the dispatcher] on speaker and told her everything.” 

During the call, which lasted nearly 10 minutes, Stone said he told the dispatcher on at least three occasions that Jennings was in the midst of a mental health crisis and asked her to send help. Less than 15 minutes later, Jennings was dead, shot and killed by Columbus police. “Given the fast-moving developments and the deteriorating situation where the [911] caller himself was put at risk, the concern became urgency,” Ken Coontz, support services administrator for the Department of Public Safety, told the Columbus Dispatch.

In body camera footage, Jennings can be seen moving toward officers outside of Creekside Place, a knife still in his hand. He can also be heard saying, “Shoot me” and “I want to die.” 

A short time later, Stone said “three or four” police officers came into the building and placed him in the back of a cruiser where he remained with no information and no answers for more than five hours, learning later from a property manager at Creekside that Jennings had been shot. (Stone died by suicide on March 12, less than three weeks after Jennings passed and 11 days after we spoke.)

“And now all I have are these what ifs. What if I’d just taken the damn knife?” Stone said. “Everybody has been telling me I can’t blame myself and the hell I can’t. I’m the one who made the call. … At the end of the day, I hold myself accountable.”

The shooting remains under review by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which is standard procedure any time a law enforcement officer fires their weapon. And the names of the officers involved have not been released, with CPD citing the protections of Marsy’s Law, legislation designed to protect the victims of violent crime that has increasingly been used by police departments nationwide to shield officers who shoot and kill people in the line of duty. “If officers’ names can be hidden related to a particular event, how then can they be held accountable?” Columbus attorney Fred Gittes said of Marsy’s Law in November.

But rather than focus on what happened in the final moments of Colin Jennings’ life, Steve David of the Columbus Safety Collective said it’s imperative to call attention to the long-developing systemic failures that have left the city scrambling to address an increasing demand for behavioral health crisis intervention. This moribund response has continued even as the stories of police killing people in mental health crisis have continued for years to make local headlines. These include Jaron Thomas, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and called for an ambulance after ingesting cocaine in 2017 only to die at Riverside Methodist Hospital after being beaten and restrained by the responding officers, and Zachary Bryson, a bipolar 27-year-old who Columbus police shot and killed after he charged at an officer with a shard of glass in August 2023.

“In addition to the tragedy of Colin Jennings being killed, one frustrating thing is that so many people have tried to point to those final moments of his life as the thing we should be looking at rather than the years of systemic failures,” said David, who sees three areas where city leadership has fallen short in addressing health crisis intervention, including: a failure in service, most notably that there’s currently no way to call 911 and get a non-police response team to your door; a failure of scale, in that those programs that are available tend to be grossly underfunded; and a failure of coordination, where the systems currently in place have no way to easily share information with one another. 

Jennings, for example, lived in Creekside Place, which is owned and operated by Community Housing Network (CHN), a nonprofit that develops and manages affordable supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, substance-use disorder and other trauma-related issues. 

Arlene Reiter, resource development and marketing director for CHN, said the residents at Creekside come via referrals from the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Board of Franklin County (ADAMH), which also funds all of the services at the property. Both Stone and Reiter said police are a regular presence at Creekside, with Reiter relaying that if a resident is having a mental health crisis at the property, they are frequently taken to RI International – Behavioral Health Crisis Care Center, a 10-bed, voluntary walk-in program in Franklinton.

And yet, in a late-February news conference, Columbus police said that the Creekside apartment complex was not flagged in the 911 dispatch system as a property that might benefit from one the city’s expanding number of alternative crisis response teams. There was also nothing in the system to note that a similar call related to Jennings had been made to 911 in the past from the same property.

“Ken Coontz, who’s in charge of the 911 dispatch center, I heard him speak at the press conference after Colin Jennings was killed, and he was the one who mentioned the previous call and the supportive housing, and to me that points to this need to have a better plan in place,” David said. “There’s no single person who is responsible for coordinating the city’s existing alternatives, nor for advancing a plan on how to build and scale them. … After years of doing this advocacy, and in specifically asking for a non-police emergency response program, we’ve seen no interest from the [Ginther] administration to actually dedicate the personnel and the funding to actually build this thing.”

Even when the city has set aside funding, David said, there’s been a lack of follow through. He noted that City Council President Shannon Hardin allocated $1.2 million in the 2023 operating budget to pilot a non-police emergency response – money that to this point has gone untouched. In response to a Matter News inquiry, a spokesperson said in late March that the City Council is working jointly with the Department of Public Safety “to finalize an RFP (request for proposal) regarding the funding set aside for alternative crisis response,” which the Council hopes to issue by the end of April.

“There’s no sense of urgency” said Chana Wiley, whose brother, Jaron Thomas, died after being beaten by police when he called for help in the midst of a mental breakdown. “And it’s frustrating, and it puts me in a state of worry because I also have an adult son with mental health issues, and something could happen to him. … Sometimes, when people are in a mental health crisis, they don’t care if they die. Or they might say things to the police that they don’t mean. Or the police might say something that triggers them. And it’s pretty scary, because when I got the news link about Colin, they hadn’t released his name yet, and my first thought was, ‘Oh, my God. Is this my son?’”

In December, Matter News contributor Edie Driskill surveyed the current landscape of the mental health crisis response system in Franklin County, painting it as an evolving if imperfect patchwork composed of multiple moving parts. 

Columbus currently has a Right Response Unit with social workers embedded in 911 calls to help de-escalate situations, as well as a Mobile Crisis Response Unit, which has a social worker riding with a police officer. There’s also a Netcare program, funded last year by ADAMH, in which a social worker and a trained peer supporter respond to crisis calls coming into a new 988 mental health crisis line, which to this point has struggled with low community awareness, particularly in light of how deeply ingrained in the public mind 911 remains for crisis response. (Sue Villilo, Vice President, Assistant System Chief Clinical Officer for ADAMH, said Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services is planning a statewide campaign for the spring or summer with a goal of raising the public awareness of 988.)

Villilo described the current status of non-police crisis response in Columbus as “developing,” pointing to the challenge of coordinating among the myriad systems that have taken root and include everything from mobile teams available through Nationwide Children’s Hospital for youths aged 17 and under to the Rapid Response Emergency Addiction and Crisis Team, which distributes Narcan and works to combat opioid overdoses.

“One thing we have been working on, and this is really with all of the mobile crisis teams I just mentioned, as well as with law enforcement and law enforcement teams with embedded clinicians, is that we have been meeting and really will continue to meet to strengthen collaboration,” Villilo said. “Everything is so new in this area, and people are doing good work, but we want to make sure that we are really working together … to create a system of response.”

In the weeks since Colin Jennings’ death, his mother, Yolanda Jennings, has carried an indescribable grief. “I don’t wish this on any mother,” she said. “To see the bodycam [footage] and watch your child being shot down like a criminal when they have never done anything to hurt anybody, never committed any type of crime. And then to watch [police] flip him over, when it was obvious he was down, and to handcuff him in his own blood. … You’ll never get that out your head. You’ll never get that out your head.”

At the same time, Yolanda has tried to remain strong for Colin, fielding multiple media interviews, pressing city officials on mental health crisis response, and trying to keep the focus where she believes it needs to be.

“We know that after the pandemic the mental health crisis has skyrocketed,” she said. “And that should be our number one priority. … The people [at Creekside Place] have mental health issues. That’s how my son got into that apartment building, because he was struggling with mental health. So [the police] had to know. And if they didn’t know, they had to know from that call, because it was the longest 911 call I’ve ever heard, and it was constantly, ‘He’s in crisis.’”

Yolanda said her son had a difficult childhood. He was born in Columbus, moving with her to Philadelphia not long after, and kids would often tease him for his mannerisms, which she traced to his autism and said could leave him feeling isolated. As a result, he often struggled to fit in, struggled to make friends, struggled with being different. “He wanted to be an adult, but he was very childlike at the same time,” said Yolanda, adding that her son collected dolls, loved Disney movies and developed a fondness for K-pop that expanded into a fascination with Korean culture, in general.

The feelings of loneliness Colin experienced intensified after he left school at Wordsworth Academy in Philadelphia, a private academy serving children with special needs. Yoland said he had a particularly hard time reestablishing a sense of footing in this stretch, having been cut off from “the people who got him.”

But Colin was also bright and giving, and he had an impossibly big heart. And in spite of his challenging path, he held to a sense of optimism that could carry him over life’s hurdles. Stone recalled how he and Jennings were never lost in their travels around the city. Rather, Stone said, there were simply times when the couple “just didn’t know exactly where we were at,” as Colin would explain it.

“All he wanted was to be loved,” Yolanda said. And so it pained her to watch Colin so often be met with heartache and rejection in his life, from a father who wanted an Ohio State football player for a son and abandoned his child when it became clear early on that would never come to pass, to a handful of later romantic partnerships that ended in hurt, with Stone sharing that Colin was on the receiving end of physical abuse in multiple relationships prior to the two meeting. “And I think he expected the same from me, and when it didn’t happen, I don’t think he knew what to do,” Stone said. (Yolanda expressed misgivings about the nature of her son’s relationship with Stone, accusing Stone of being “psychologically abusive”; Stone acknowledged that he and Yolanda had more recently exchanged tense words in the wake of Colin’s death but reiterated the love and devotion he continued to feel for her son, his boyfriend.)

But more than anything, Yolanda said she is fearful of the very real possibility that nothing will happen in the wake of her son’s killing. She is braced for the police officer who shot and killed her son to move forward with his life and career relatively unimpacted, while the department as a whole continues to meet mental health-related emergency calls with brute force as the default. But she also said this can’t be how her son’s story ends, expressing hope that her loss could serve as a turning point in how those experiencing a mental health crisis are treated by first responders.

“Every officer, every 911 operator needs to be better trained in how to deal with people having mental health issues, especially after the pandemic,” Yolanda said. “More needs to be done to help people with mental health issues, and not just shoot them down in the street. Something has to change.”

Anyone in need of help can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org to chat with someone online. Members of the LGBTQ+ community experiencing instances of partner abuse can call The Network/LA Red’s 24-hour support hotline at 1-800-832-1901. And if you or someone you know experiences a mental health crisis in Columbus, assistance is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by dialing 988.

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