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Columbus residents are divided over Black History Month-themed police cruiser

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Columbus, Ohio's Division of Police decided to celebrate Black History Month by rolling out a specially decorated police cruiser. It's called History 1 and was announced with a video online. A backlash soon followed. Leticia Wiggins reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

LETICIA WIGGINS, BYLINE: The video post opens with the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King and a community mural with the words freedom and equality. The frame cuts to the flashing lights of a police cruiser. Black History Month is emblazoned on the hood and a quote on the side that scholars say is wrongly attributed to Dr. King - be the peace you wish to see in the world. Artist and community member Lance Johnson was stunned when he saw the post.

LANCE JOHNSON: I was just confused. In my mind, I'm like, who would sign off on this?

WIGGINS: Johnson painted the mural featured in the video announcement, but was confused by the selective use of the art, which did not include the portraits of people killed.

JOHNSON: It's a mural that is, one, celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, but also recognizing people who were killed by police brutality.

WIGGINS: According to policescorecard.org, Columbus police have killed 48 people from 2013 to 2021. Of the people killed, 73% were Black. Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries is a professor of history at the Ohio State University. He says in light of police violence in Columbus, the reveal was tone deaf.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: Black people are less interested in a thematic car celebrating African American history or Black History Month and more interested in police reform.

WIGGINS: A police spokesman told the Columbus Dispatch the cruiser was a collective idea. In a written statement, the police share that the cruiser as a decommissioned car used for community engagement. It commemorates holidays and events like Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Veteran's Day. Taisha Radford Schwartz (ph) is a resident of Columbus' Bronzeville community. She says the police should keep this month off its list of commemorations.

TAISHA RADFORD SCHWARTZ: I don't know that the police should be celebrating Black History Month. I don't know that the police as an institution is there.

WIGGINS: The announcement came less than a week after the release of footage showing the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, and the same day a lawsuit was filed against Columbus city and public safety officials within the division. The Miami Police Department unveiled a similar cruiser last week, also met with criticism. Dr. Melissa Crum is a diversity and equity practitioner. She says if police departments across the country want to celebrate the month...

MELISSA CRUM: The first thing they have to do is come to grips with their industry and specific business's history that is connected to oppression.

WIGGINS: A police representative wrote that some community members have responded positively and asked for History 1 to participate in several Black History Month events. When asked for details, the police said things are still being finalized. Tiffany Tims-Inskeep is the regional vice president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement. She sees the cruiser as a genuine effort to connect with the community.

TIFFANY TIMS-INSKEEP: This is a way they're trying to reach the community and bridge the gap.

WIGGINS: Dion Mensah is the leader of grassroots organization Black Queer and Intersectional Collective. She says the gesture is ultimately fatiguing for the community.

DION MENSAH: It's a slap in the face when you think about all of the lives that have been lost at the hands of police violence here in Columbus.

WIGGINS: This month, Columbus Division of Police also announced plans for a new specialized unit targeting gang violence, similar to Memphis's SCORPION unit. It is another decision met with confusion and outrage by some in the community.

For NPR News, I'm Leticia Wiggins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leticia Wiggins