COLUMBUS — Long stuck in the shadow of sister cities Cleveland and Cincinnati, Columbus is Ohio’s city on the rise. Cranes dot the skyline, rising above blocks of new downtown condos. The population has been booming for years, while the numbers in the state’s other major cities have fallen or remained steady.
But as it grows, Columbus also faces problems. Some neighborhoods struggle with poverty and crime. A quarter of the city’s youth live in poverty. And in poor areas there’s tension over the city’s policing, now heightened after a white officer fatally shot a 13-year-old black boy.
Police say Tyre King pulled a realistic-looking BB gun from his waistband after running from police who were investigating a reported robbery. An officer shot him multiple times; king died at a hospital.
In the wake of the shooting, Mayor Andrew Ginther assured residents that Columbus is the “safest big city in America.” Yet some residents of rougher neighborhoods disagree.
“We’re tired of Mayor Andrew Ginther lying about our city being safe when it’s not safe for all of us,” said Amber Evans, lead organizer with the People’s Justice Project. “It’s just not the case. It’s not the case for us — so we ask the question, ‘Safety for who? Safety for whom? Justice for who?”
Evans joined dozens of other mourners at a Thursday vigil for King, where some expressed frustration with police over what they said was an unnecessary killing.
King’s death was the 13th police shooting in Columbus this year, with five fatalities. Although Ginther offered no statistics on the city’s safety, its crime rates are mostly unremarkable.
Columbus ranks 21st in homicides among major U.S. cities, and 27th for violent crime, according to 2014 FBI data. The homicide rate in America’s 15th-largest city has hovered below 100 in recent years.
With an estimated 850,000 residents, Columbus is similar in population to Charlotte and Indianapolis, and its metropolitan area tops 2 million. While Cleveland’s population has dropped recently, Columbus’ continues to boom — it has grown 8 percent since the 2010 census and almost 20 percent since 2000.
Still, Columbus is sometimes discounted by outsiders as a sleepy Midwestern city or a glorified college town, home of Ohio State University. Among its nicknames: Cowtown. But city leaders have fought to shed that reputation, building up the city’s core and branding it as a vibrant hub for arts and cuisine.
By financial measures, the city has also fared well. In July, its unemployment rate was 4 percent, compared to 5.1 nationwide. The average personal income was $28,000 in 2011, ranking No. 3 among 15 similarly sized cities, according to a study by Community Research Partners, a nonprofit research group in Columbus.
But those figures can cloak deep disparities drawn along lines of geography and race, said Lynnette Cook, executive director of the nonprofit.
In Franklin County, of which Columbus is the seat, black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white infants. The city’s school district houses one of Ohio’s best public elementary schools in a wealthier corner of the city, but closer to where King was shot, it also houses one of the worst.
“It’s almost like folks in different neighborhoods are having completely different life experiences based on the ZIP code they live in,” Cook said.
In poor neighborhoods, often with higher concentrations of black residents, some say there’s also a difference in how they’re treated by police.
“In Columbus, with our police department, we don’t believe that the protection is extended as much in black and brown communities as much as it is elsewhere,” said Evans, the organizer who spoke at King’s vigil. “We don’t feel that safety is on the side of black and brown residents.”
The Rev. Vincent Golden Sr., whose Baptist church is on the city’s east side, said his community is tired of hearing that Columbus is safe.
“I’ll be honest, there are times when I walk out of my church, I am afraid,” Golden said, adding that there are more than 60 abandoned houses within a four-block radius of his church. “To me, that brings no pride to the community.”
Even before King’s death, tensions had been mounting over the city’s policing. In June, two plainclothes Columbus officers opened fire on 23-year-old Henry Green, who was black, after they said he ignored commands to drop his gun and fired on them. Green was shot seven times, with a chest wound causing his death.
Green’s family and a friend with him say police didn’t identify themselves. The officers say they did. The shooting has caused consternation in the community, but no violent protests.
In a poor neighborhood on the city’s west side, Lisa Boggs describes a friendlier rapport with police. Involved with the neighborhood block watch for nearly 20 years, she said police have helped curb crime and combat drugs in the area.
“Although no city is a safe city right now in these times we live in, I feel like our leaders and police officers are working to make it safer,” she said.
At King’s vigil, Marvin Johnson said it’s time for Columbus police to review their policies on when it’s appropriate to use force. But Johnson, who owns a company that transports cadavers, also encouraged parents to play a stronger role in their children’s lives.
“If you do not stand up and hold accountable our young people and the city, every single day, then I will continue to drive them — heartbroken — to the funeral home.”