When police cross the line to nearby towns, where's the oversight?

Here's how mutual aid agreements allow Columbus-area police officers from other cities to enforce the law in areas outside their normal jurisdiction
Worthington Ohio Police Cruiser
Worthington Ohio Police CruiserSource: City of Worthington

At 3 a.m., a tiny knock on my bedroom door was followed by a whisper, "Mom, you better come out here." I grabbed my robe and glasses and followed my 16-year-old daughter down the dark hallway. We passed her big brother watching reruns of Arrested Development in the family room, who reported, in between bites of chips and salsa, "I told them they couldn't come in."

Who couldn't come in?!

As my daughter led me into the backyard, my eyes were adjusting to the dark, and I began counting cops, all with different uniforms. "Who's here from Sharon Township?” I shouted, “and why are the rest of you here?"

A falsified noise complaint called in by a teenager who wasn't invited to the backyard campout summoned not one, not two, but three police departments to my backyard in the middle of the night — to catch six high school girls snoring in a tent.

Sharon Township, Perry Township, and the city of Worthington — the three who joined the campout in my yard — along with over three dozen other policing districts, have entered into a perpetual agreement with each other managed by Franklin County, known as a mutual aid agreement.

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What are mutual aid agreements, and how do they work?

The first local mutual aid agreement, called a compact back then, was managed by the Franklin County Prosecutor in 1976. The prosecutor invited each jurisdiction within the county to join the compact to provide “their citizens with more efficient police protections in all emergency situations.”

When David Robinson took his seat on the Worthington City Council in 2018, he remembers having a general awareness that police departments worked with each other, but wasn’t aware of mutual aid agreements.

“I had no idea [the agreements existed],” he said. “I learned of each one of the agreements only probably a couple weeks after the height of [last summer’s] protests and police misconduct in downtown Columbus, and when in the course of a conversation someone had mentioned that the Worthington police had assisted the Columbus police. And I was surprised to hear that."

Worthington Law Director Tom Lindsey said in an email that he did not know if either the chief or city council members reviewed the agreements prior to each renewal.

“My understanding is that the agreements themselves were largely written for legal and financial reasons. They were simply responding to an existing reality out there, that police forces were interacting and freely calling one another and intervening outside of their jurisdiction,” Robinson explained.

Still today, many police departments in Ohio enter into mutual aid agreements to help each other out in emergencies. These contracts generally state that each department has their own personnel, equipment and facilities that they can voluntarily offer for use by the other when it is not otherwise in use.

Although the city of Columbus opted out of the county agreement, it still works with other local departments. Columbus now has forty-three of these agreements that typically renew every three years, according to Glenn McEntyre, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety.

Many questions pertaining to city responsibility are answered in these agreements, such as who pays the officer, who is liable for the officer’s actions, who is liable if the officer is injured, who pays for equipment that is damaged and much more.

An officer’s expenses, equipment, and any liability they incur for their actions remain with their employer when they cross into another jurisdiction. No money changes hands between the jurisdictions in most agreements. No jurisdiction is required to respond to a request for service by a neighboring police department.

“It is thus imperative [that] officers from Columbus, and the other jurisdictions, be able to assist one another in emergencies without fear of being accused of acting without proper authority because they have crossed jurisdictional lines."
Glenn McEntyre, Department of Public Safety spokesperson

Recently retired Police Chief Donald Schwind of Sharon Township felt they benefited from the agreements. Even though the agreements allow jurisdictions to request help from each other, he said that his officers have backed up other departments without an official request.

In a large metropolitan area like central Ohio, it is often necessary for officers to drive through neighboring cities just to respond to a call within their city’s limits. Detectives might need to question a witness who lives in another town. And the scenes of a criminal thinking they can cross a county line and be safe from an officer in pursuit now only happen in old movies.

Franklin County added a new mutual aid agreement in 2013, expanding the inter-jurisdictional support from emergency needs to a more generic law enforcement label. Robinson said he believes that when mutual aid is provided by out-of-town officers for crowd control at free speech events outside their regular jurisdiction, it represents a significant expansion beyond the agreement’s core intent and has the effect of making civilian oversight more challenging — but also more necessary, he said.

One of the challenges surrounding mutual aid agreements is a lack of data.

Even though Worthington Police Chief Robert Ware has no complaint with the current agreement, he told Matter his department does not collect data on mutual aid requests.

“We do not have an accurate method for determining the number of actions that might be covered by the [Franklin County] agreement,” Ware said.

Neither Columbus nor Sharon Township collects data on mutual aid requests either, according to their spokespersons, making it difficult to identify how often and for what purpose Columbus police officers are calling on other departments for support, or what departments are assisting CPD.

Even though the agreements make things simpler for officers and attorneys, the lack of data and oversight is complicating some issues for residents and city leaders harmed and frustrated by the police response to last summer’s protests.

Some activists want divestment from mutual aid agreements, while some city leaders work to increase oversight

During the George Floyd protests during the summer of 2020, these agreements became part of the debate over curbing police brutality. Student leaders at the Ohio State University first brought up the issue in a letter to university leadership. As they witnessed police violence against students of color, they demanded that officers from the Columbus Division of Police not be invited to police their campus and surrounding neighborhoods. But this is a long-standing relationship, since OSU is within the Columbus city limits.

“Black and brown students have actually felt more at risk from the police this semester,” Jayson Velasquez, a former OSU student activist, said at the time, adding that the university had not taken action to remove CPD presence from the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The Lantern reported that CPD increased patrols in campus neighborhoods after a recent killing of a student, but delayed response to calls for service from students during ChittFest.

McEntyre explained that one of the mutual aid agreements Columbus has signed with a non-contiguous district is with the Athens Police Department to share mounted patrols during campus events.

Worthington PD and Columbus Division of Police both issued requests of each other during last summer’s protests. When Chief Ware of Worthington received a request for assistance, he said that his department “... only sent officers to the area outside of downtown near the freeway ramps to assist in traffic control operations and not for engagement in protest response operations.”

This interaction gets to the heart of the matter that concerns OSU students, Robinson, and others: What happens if a visiting officer violates a code of conduct or breaks the law in the jurisdiction they are visiting? How would that conduct be supervised and disciplined?

It is not completely clear.

Schwind explained, “Our personnel, when [providing] assistance, must conform with applicable laws and be consistent with the policies of the Sharon Township Police Department.”

He also clarified that “The officer in charge of the agency requesting assistance shall have the full charge and authority over any assisting personnel.”

Worthington City Councilor Robinson’s solution is to begin with increased oversight and then work on better data collection. He proposed Resolution 59--2020 that passed December 7, 2020, requiring immediate notification of the city manager when the police department is preparing for response to a community protest, in or out of Worthington.

Robinson is working with other council members on better data collection for a variety of police activities.

“Then, whether it’d be six months or a year after we'd get robust information about how often and what types of mutual support is provided, then a future council would be able to request for different types of oversight ability,” he said.

As cities review their policing policies around first amendment crowd control and use of force, several important questions remain. Whose rules will apply when officers cross city lines? How could officers possibly learn 44 different codes of conduct? Is it possible that small districts like Worthington could all create more oversight over their police departments but be powerless over Columbus officers’ actions as they cross the line into their cities?

Robinson hopes to continue to raise awareness of these questions among his colleagues and the public.

"I also will convey to some of my friends and allies in Columbus — whether it will be relevant or significant enough to them to ever talk about [mutual aid] oversight, I don't know — but for those that are trying to work on reimagining or reforming the CPD, I would think this small step by Worthington would be something that would be helpful to them as an indication of other municipalities [and] suburbs being indirectly, at least, critical of or wary of that type of engagement with CPD in the future."

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